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Storytelling

April 01, 2005  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author

"Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it." - Hannah Arendt

Cops are by definition storytellers. We deal with a situation, then go back to the station or to our vehicles, gather our thoughts, and tell the story in the form of a report. If you sit in a car with a partner for eight to 12 hours a day, some stories are bound to be told. Some may not even be exaggerated. Most cops can be in the middle of a story, stop to deal with a radio call, and then as soon as they are back in the car start from where they left off without skipping a beat. My wife hates that I do that to her.

So there I was...that is the way all good cop stories start. I was 23 years old and a military police watch commander on a large Marine Corps base. It had rained for eleven days straight and my platoon had the night watch. I had a crusty old gunnery sergeant and 30 or so Marines under my command. The base already had been hit with several mudslides and several sections of road were washed out, but the worst was yet to come. A flash flood hit at about 2300 hours. It was a wall of water four feet high that swept away vehicles, helicopters, and people. I was caught away from the station and cut off from most of my Marines, so I stayed out in the field and we started doing what we could to rescue people. My gunnery sergeant was near the MP headquarters, so he went there and started to coordinate outside resources and set up an emergency command post. Over the next four hours the Marines in our unit distinguished themselves in many heroic ways. Eleven medals for valor were eventually awarded to Marines in the platoon.

Here is the stink. My crusty old gunnery sergeant, whom I admire and respect greatly to this day, did not receive any commendations for his actions and efforts that night. The prevailing thought of my chain of command after the incident was that only those Marines who had taken direct action in the flood zone would receive awards. It was the wrong way to think. The gunnery sergeant and all the support staff acted above and beyond the call by answering phones, staying on the radios, briefing colonels and generals, coordinating with dozens of other agencies, and probably doing much more than I will probably ever know about. I was caught up in writing dozens of reports over the next several weeks and I deferred to my senior officers that only awards for heroic actions would be submitted.

After I looked back on it years later, I realized it was a mistake and that those other individuals had not been properly recognized. It still bothers me. I could use youth and inexperience as an excuse, but I knew deep down that I should have fought for recognizing those Marines. The work that was done in the field could not have been done without their superior support. The gunnery sergeant especially had performed in an exemplary manner, far exceeding his rank.

What kills me is that I should have known better, but I had forgotten a similar story that my grandfather had told me. He had been a high school sports coach. When my father was going through high school, he (my father) played on many of the teams that my grandfather coached. In one of the sports, my grandfather had allowed another young man to "letter," but refused to give my father the same letter under similar circumstances. Because my father was the coach's son, my grandfather did not want it to look like favoritism. My grandfather said that he knew my father deserved the recognition, but failed to give it to him, and has since regretted it.

Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way, instead of from my grandfather's story. I do not intend to ever let another deserving person within my chain of command go unrecognized again in the future.

I am not subtle, so here is the point. Stories, more than anything else in our culture, are how people have always learned lessons from their mistakes. Whether it has been the Bible or fables, we are culturally programmed to learn from stories. If you want to be a better leader, listen and learn from the stories of others, as well as your own.

As a leader, you have the ability to use stories to communicate your message to those you lead. Stories can be powerful symbols. A leader can set the tone, the expectations, and the vision of his or her command through shared stories with individuals and groups. The culture of any unit, team, or organization is created and maintained, good or bad, by the stories we pass down to new generations. Cops love them, so use them.

Tags: Leadership, Command Staff


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