Friday, June 6, 2014

Paul's Secret Sauce

Secret sauce
(Photo credit:
"’s more than rebounding; it’s about taking those lessons, makings the adjustments and changes to ensure success for the future.” ~ Peter referring to "resilience"
Paul's Secret Sauce
by Jay Stalnacker
I remember going to my grandparents house every Sunday afternoon. We would all load into the family car drive across town to meet my cousins, uncle and grandparents for a Sunday late afternoon dinner.

My Hungarian grandmother would spend all morning making fresh homemade bread and preparing one of her classic Hungarian dishes. Before the dinner was served, my cousins and I would spend the day playing street football, my grandfather, father and uncle would watch football, shouting at the tv as they watched their weekly salary disappear as the bets they made earlier that morning never made the bookies point spread. My grandmother, mother and sisters would all sit and talk in the kitchen as the aroma of the meal filled the house. Eventually we would all sit down and enjoy the food, laugh and share our weekly stories.

Later as Kim and I became closer, she would join us for this ritual. Eventually we would witness my grandmother aging rapidly right in front of our eyes, soon the meals began to lose some of that special flavor and the work preparing would seem overwhelming for her. At some point Kim decided to ask for some recipes, hoping to capture the family secrets. My grandmother was elusive, and Kim would stand nearby as she prepared the meals watching her every move. Any time she asked about measurements or recipes, my grandmother would only smile and share ” it’s about this much,” pinching some unknown amount of ingredient into her palm. Kim would constantly ask questions and watch her every detail; and eventually over time, she was able to piece together a few of the best meals. Now, just about every holiday Kim will cook us one of these special meals; and every time, my mind races with memories of family, friends and great food.

Leadership is a lot like my grandmother's cooking. Over the years I’ve tried to answer the question, “what makes a great leader?” In other words, what are the key ingredients in this recipe? Some say leaders are born not made. I’m not sure if I agree with this or not; but I can say, great leadership does require certain ingredients. As with my grandmother's cooking, the secret recipes of leadership and the unmeasurable ingredients are typically held close until it’s much too late to share.

It’s an unfortunate truth: we in public safety continually watch as our great mentors and leaders age right in front of our eyes and never pass the recipe to the next generation. As I now approach a point in my career where I may have some recipes to share, I find myself also holding these secrets close. Maybe it’s because I’m just not sure of the exact measurements and scared that the meal may not taste just right if someone else makes it. The reality is there is no right answer and just like different chefs can prepare the same exact dish, there will still be great variations in the final taste. With this in mind, I wanted to take a stab at sharing one of my recipes, ingredient by ingredient. Unfortunately, I have no measurements just “pinches in the palm of my hand.”

To begin with, you will need a good size bowl on a countertop placed solidly somewhere to mix all of this up before you put it in the oven. It’s called a foundation; this is a combination of having a solid family life, dependable and accountable friends along with a deep spiritual connection.You will need somewhere and someone to come home to after the shift is over and the fire is out. Someone that you can talk with and that will unconditionally love you no matter if the call went good or bad. Ideally, a spouse, significant other or close family member can be that person. You also need a friend to hold you accountable and someone that you can depend on to keep you straight and focused when the challenges begin to overwhelm and the demons begin to win. Lastly, you need a spiritual connection to help you understand there is meaning and purpose to your work. I'm talking about that moral compass most great leaders have that many lesser men fail to find.

Now, you can begin to add some ingredients: a splash of self awareness, a pinch of humbleness, a quart of learning and bunch of passion. Being aware of your weaknesses and strengths is critical to successful leadership. No one said a leader needs to be perfect, but what we should expect is a conscious effort to see within oneself and understand that your outward actions, words and choices influence your followers both good and bad. Having an introspection of yourself is almost the only ingredient needed as it’s one of the most difficult things to conquer and the greatest thing you can do to improve.

While smokejumping, they constantly talked about leadership and confidence. But they also sprinkled this with humility. Through many tests in training and on real incidents you were always pushed to the edge of physical endurance or mental fatigue. We were always asked to do more, give more and provide more. But they also always made sure you humbly lead both downwards, but even more importantly, upwards by example and with respect.

No recipe of leadership should be without Paul Gleason’s secret sauce, “become a student of fire." You can replace “fire” with just about anything…father, son, husband, wife, friend, banker, lawyer…the point remains the same: you must continue to learn, grow, expand and have resilience.

One of the greatest examples of resilience is watching Paul both early in his career and later in life. I was fortunate enough to briefly know him towards the end and after the Cerro Grande Fire. He had so much to share and all of it was his lifetime of lessons learned. But more importantly the changes, adjustments and growth from those lessons. Recently, I interviewed a group of young men and women for a new permanent position in our program. One question I asked was, “what does a resilient team mean to you? Peter, a senior guy applying just about brought the table of interviewers to their knees as he shared, “it’s more than rebounding; it’s about taking those lessons, makings the adjustments and changes to ensure success for the future.” I was proud of Peter that day; and hopefully, Paul is looking down on me with some appreciation of where I’ve come as a leader through his example.

Lastly, you add as much passion as the bowl will allow. Passion drives you and provides the fuel and taste for success. It attracts and like fresh brownies out of the oven draws everyone to the kitchen. You must love what you do. It’s just that simple. I didn’t say let it overwhelm you. Adding too much of any one of these ingredients will ruin the taste and ultimately cause the meal to burn in the oven. Too much passion can burn you out and will smoke out the kitchen, chasing your guest far away. The idea of a leader's ability to provide an end state and intent to the mission is true passion. As his or her followers will then feel empowered and believe in the common cause. Passion is motivation and brings meaning and purpose.

After the Boulder County flood disaster of 2013, I met with LTC Mitch Utterback. I told him the greatest example of leaders intent I ever witnessed were his words "go do dangerous shit and come home alive.” This incident briefing ending comment became the motivation and vision that the end was possible for many tired and overwhelmed rescuers and pulled many of us out of our misery and towards a focus to finish the mission. Classic passionate leadership is all I can say.

Once it’s all mixed well and the oven is pre-heated you pour this all into a pan and place it in the heat. That heat is the incident, the business problem or the cancer. It’s a place where most will crash and burn; but for great leaders, it’s where we finish the preparation. As with a great chef sliding his masterpiece into that oven, with the right temperature and timing, the meal will come out just like grandma's and hopefully you can enjoy a dinner where family, friends and others will come to talk, share and solve problems or an incident where your followers lead upwards without fear, solve problems with creativity and ultimately come home safely.

Who would have ever known Grandma had the secret the whole time.

Reprinted with permission by Jay Stalnacker, FMO Boulder County Sheriff's Office, from his blog "The North Star Foundation." All expressions are those of the author.

1 comment:

Justin Vernon said...

Fantastic article. Thank you so much for sharing! Hits on a LOT of things I've been wrangling with lately.