Even Those on the Mountaintop Need Support and Encouragement, Too.
By: Samantha Hawkins
Can I be honest with you? I’ve been an emergency communications officer for nearly 7 years now. I work on the “frontlines” of 9-1-1, have taken some really traumatic calls, and have heard some truly disturbing, emotionally jarring things, but there is one thing about my profession that really scares me to my core: leadership. Formal leadership. The kind that comes with a title, a position of authority, and a zany-looking stack of hats of all sizes and colors to wear on your head (like they’re straight out of a hardback Dr. Seuss book). I’m talking “hats” in a metaphorical sense, of course. I mean the many different roles that the best leaders have to fill in order to manage their employees fairly, keep them emotionally fulfilled and their morale high, and help them to meet their individual career goals. Not to mention, keep a 9-1-1 center running effectively and smoothly through the steep hills and even steeper valleys of a post-pandemic world. Some of the greatest leaders I have had the privilege of knowing or meeting are champion multitaskers; they wear the multiple hats with exemplary ease and composure, and they excel in the face of whatever new challenges are heaved their way.
Leadership is amazing. Leadership done right is like that exhilarating feeling you get when a cool wad of whipped cream folds just perfectly into the curve of your tongue. But leadership is also beyond terrifying to me. Maybe, it’s the “not knowing from day to day what new issue might arise,” or maybe it’s knowing how much responsibility I attribute to the supervision and management at my own agency, and how I hold them accountable for the yearly commitments or goals they set. Maybe though, it’s my fear that if I ultimately do step into a formal leadership role, my Imposter Syndrome will kick into full overdrive, and will show me how greatly I pale in comparison to the leaders I respect most in my circle. The truth is that I see these leaders and I recognize the big and small sacrifices they make to keep our center turning effectively on its axis, and keep all of us frontline workers satisfied despite the growing call volumes and steadily dropping manpower. I see it only in part from my worm's-eye view, but I get that they aren’t exactly having themselves a grand ol’ time all the way at the top. It gets lonely being on top of the mountain all the time, and the view from way up there isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. As I said, leadership is amazing. Yet, leadership can be hard too.
I think about some of the unique challenges that I, or coworkers of mine, have posed to our management; from scheduling issues or child care concerns to attendance problems or difficult behaviors at work. Supervisors have to play referee, field complaints, manage waves of discontent, mediate cease-fires between employees and bureau management, and help to coordinate shift pizza parties. Bureau management has to field the complaints that still make it to the top (especially those concerning new policies or those ever-so-wonderful CAD upgrades), answer for the failures and shortcomings of any policies or procedures, be the “bad guy” when they are needed to sign off on disciplinary action, and pay for those shift pizza parties. I think about something I once told my mother regarding my lack of enthusiasm over bringing kids into the world someday. I told her that I was perfectly okay with enjoying my nieces and nephews, rather than having my own kids, because I could just imagine the worst-case scenario being that I have a child who acts like I did in my adolescence. Curious to a fault, intent on questioning everything, strong-willed, and prone to do exactly what I was told not to do just five minutes ago. It's the same with leadership to me. I imagine that one of these days I will transition into a supervisory role and I will inherit a shift full of people just like me: with high expectations for what leadership should be doing and strong thoughts on how fast they should get it done.
Sometimes, those of us on the floor forget that the people all the way at the top belong exactly where they are at for a reason. We might have all sorts of opinions about how they should handle this situation or that employee, and maybe we’re keeping a running list of all that “we would do if we had their job.” We don’t actually see the whole picture and we can’t always know all of the details that influences our leadership to make the decisions they make, but that doesn’t prevent us from developing our judgements of them or quickly declaring bias whenever they do something that doesn’t suit us personally. We should realize that maybe a particular employee might require different treatment or may need to be given “special consideration” in how their individual situation is handled. As my own 9-1-1 director has pointed out before, treating every employee fairly doesn’t automatically equate to treating everyone equally. It would help to try trusting your leadership or command staff every once in a while. Trust that they know what they’re doing and that they really are looking out for all of us. I get it. It never feels fair to be left in the dark. I too have found myself “raging against the machine” at times in the past because I didn’t feel that my agency’s leadership was communicating quick enough or effectively enough on an issue. The truth is though that a part of leadership is knowing when to filter information down the chain, gauging what needs to be shared, and determining who needs to know what.
Sometimes, we forget that morale doesn’t only just affect us, our moods, our day, or our general attitude about life; it affects our supervisors, our operations managers, and our directors too. When we rise; they rise. When we succeed and have good days, they have good days right along with us. When we experience high turnover and the slowed productivity that comes with an understaffed 911 center, they also feel the weight of the resulting negative atmosphere. Their view from the mountaintop might not look like ours but this doesn’t mean they are necessarily disconnected from the issues we are experiencing on the floor. In fact, the view from way up there can mean seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly all at once. From their bird’s-eye view, they get the full scope of the problems that lie ahead and so they have to worry about the here and now as well as the later down the line...” The top can be especially lonely too when your leadership role or position of authority naturally isolates you from those who work under you. To us, our director or deputy director is not really one of us, or they can’t possibly grasp what we feel because they wear the fancy schmancy pants suit and we don’t. Or because we erroneously interpret their cozy little office as a magically reinforced glass bubble that deflects all the bad stuff happening within in our center. We forget they take the hits too; if not more so on occasion. It is a delicate, and crucial balancing act for them: wearing just enough emotion on their sleeve to not seem totally unaffected by the job, but keeping a cool head and a resolute face through the chaos of it all. Leaders don’t have the luxury of whining or complaining when the going gets a bit tougher; they don’t get to pass the buck or point the finger at someone else, because way up there at the top there is no one else to point the finger at.
Leadership is scary, but it is also so inspiring. I have seen firsthand what changes can be accomplished in an organization’s culture through the guiding reinforcement and influence of effective leaders. The leaders that I follow and aspire to be like are movers and shakers, architects and engineers, dreamers and creators, thinkers and doers. It’s far more than just managing people for them; it’s about building people’s character and leading them to greatness. And truly, what can be greater for any leader than watching their philosophies, work lessons, and servant-leadership attitude resonate with those around them, and seeing their employees rise to the occasion and do big things too? One day, I can only hope to be the type of leader that my coworkers deserve. I hope that I live up to my expectations for those at the top. Until then, I’ll try to keep in my mind that there’s a lot of sacrificing, striving, and strategizing going on that I often don’t see. So next time I get the urge to complain about what my administration is or isn’t doing, maybe instead I’ll consider the possibility that they’re doing the best that they can, all things considered.
About the Author: With over six years of experience as an Emergency Communications Officer II with Cobb County E-911, Samantha's passion is training and emphasizing humanity and compassion in public safety. She is a regular contributor to the Journal of Emergency Dispatch, and has taught at various state and regional workshops. As a Training Officer, her goal is to teach
9-1-1 professionals on combating bias in the workplace, putting your caller first, and the importance of empathy and kindness as it relates to 9-1-1 call taking.
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