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The Battle in the Trenches

The daily grind of being a leader can leave one mentally and physically exhausted. Over my career, I have been blessed with amazing mentors that have prepared me for this challenge. When times are tough, my self-reflection guides me to the leadership lessons learned by playing sports. The firsthand challenges I faced playing offensive lineman in the college football theater prepared me for the fast-paced management world without me ever knowing it.

All leaders will face adversity. We all adjust and handle these challenges based on our preparation and experiences. Hopefully, sharing my top 5 lessons will provide a little insight and preparation you can apply in your leadership battles.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to take that first step.

The line of scrimmage is won and lost based on your first step. Taking a step in the wrong direction or not taking a first step at all will immediately humble you on why that was a bad decision. The immediate feedback will teach you the importance of preparation and understanding where your first step needs to be, which contributes to strengthening your leader confidence and judgment in decision-making.

Failure is a part of the learning curve and an important part of success. Leaders need to program failure into their strategy and anticipate their team failing; that’s called risk. Leaders must intelligently assume risk in a deliberate manner while seeking to mitigate the residual risks. Providing confidence to the team to commit to what they believe represents the wisest course of action, despite incomplete and often conflicting information.

Lesson #2: Win the first level.

In simplest terms, this is ensuring the first defender(s) on the line of scrimmage are blocked before releasing to the second level (i.e., Linebacker). Too many people are worried about things beyond their first line of engagement, causing your TEAM to fail. Successful leaders understand the value of building coalitions and leading people through difficult times. They don’t focus on their individual value or fame, only on the value of the team. Your direct efforts and colleague coordination will ensure the first level is taken care of and provide a tactical level release to engage the second level.

Lesson # 3: Don’t pay for ground twice.

Negative plays kill drives and lose games. Especially when they stem from penalties or blown assignments. As a team, we always want to be moving forward, in and out of the huddle, on to the next play, until we reach the endzone. Good leaders strive to be results-driven while eliminating redundant management processes. They understand the value of problem-solving and critical thinking in tough environments. Efficiently developing and implementing organizational strategies without having to have repeat conversations or meetings that result in backward team movement.

Lesson #4: Read your environment & react quickly.

Rarely do plans go exactly according to the script. Things change pre-snap and even after the ball has been put into play. Your ability to lead through change is the true value of becoming a didactic leader. Allowing your external awareness and flexibility to take over and adjust strategy on the fly.

Narrow-minded leaders only worry about their own silo. As part of your preparation, studying and understanding how your environment could change allows your vision to identify hazards and adjust fire as needed. Stay resilient and listen to your teammates. These outside-in feedback systems will validate the situation and aid in making a better call.

Lesson #5: Take pride in the dirty work.

Just like it sounds, nothing is easy about the work in the trenches. The life of a leader is brutal and pure selfless service to your team. Distractors like ego and emotion need to be removed from your decision-making and let your courage and integrity lead you through the battle. Understanding the wins and losses will continually reshape your leadership character, embrace the change, and grow from it.

The bottom line? - Valued leaders do not need glory to produce results. They understand the customer is the only end-state value. The trenches are dark and dirty but keep fighting the good fight!

Wes Hill, Deputy Fire Chief

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