"Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on." - Bob Newhart
This time of year usually finds the Ghost of Christmas Past haunting me, forcing me to look back on events in my life that might otherwise have been embarrassing had they not been so humorous. On a number of these occasions I was in a position of leadership. Since leadership means being out front where everyone can see you, if you're in such a position you should get used to the idea that things are going to go wrong. You might as well learn to laugh at yourself.
I started out my police career as a reserve officer in Vermont. I worked quite a bit for several different agencies while in college. An aspiring military officer, I fancied myself as a peer leader to other reserve officers and I worked so much that I usually had the most experience among other part-time officers.
One of my jobs was as a boat patrol officer on Lake Champlain. During a particularly violent rainstorm the boat's driver couldn't see due to the rain and mist, so I volunteered to stand outside the cabin and help guide him. The swells were high and the next thing I knew I pitched right into the water! Luckily the driver looked back and saw me flying through the air. The man-overboard drill was executed very well. Only my ego was damaged.
Being a cop had gotten into my blood, so I worked about 20 hours a week during my senior year in college. I was one of the few reserve officers that the full-time officers would let drive the patrol car. While involved in a high-speed pursuit, our car started acting up and wasn't getting any power. My partner yelled at me to shift into a lower gear. What he didn't know was that I wasn't used to automatic shift. When my foot mistook the brake for a clutch, his head bounced off the windshield, leaving an egg-sized knot in the middle of his forehead for days. I worked the foot beat a lot after that.
My first command was a platoon of Marine military policemen and women. Most of them were veterans of the first Gulf War, so they were pretty salty. I made sure I set the tone with exhausting physical fitness runs for the first month. I was standing in front of the platoon one day when one of my senior, salty corporals ran up behind me and "pants-ed" me. It is hard to look like a dignified leader with your PT shorts around your ankles. Luckily, I hadn't gone commando that day.
The one thing I will say about my gunnery sergeant is that he made sure that, while not all my Marines were smart, the dumber ones were strong. The corporal in question became very strong. Raking rocks in the hot sun will do that.
As a leader, you will often be called upon to speak in public. I have a fair speaking voice, so occasionally I get called upon to read or narrate various programs or events. I don't remember the occasion, but I had to read for one such event. I thought I had done pretty well, so I wasn't sure why there were titters of laughter in the audience. Apparently, I mispronounced a word in the phrase, "throughout the annals of history..." I must have been thinking of my last body cavity search. Do you think any cops let me off the hook?
On Christmas Eve 1993, my crusty, old gunnery sergeant and I had a cup of coffee on the back of my sailboat and talked about the platoon we had been leading together for the last year. It was a great unit. We talked about leadership and his 20 years in the Corps. I gave him a new gas cap for his Harley and he gave me a new perspective on life, love, and leadership that I will never forget.
The radio crackled and we cut our coffee break short to respond to a call. As we were leaving he said, "Hey, Lieutenant, remember when Corporal So-and-So pants-ed you? Damn! That was so funny; it was hard not to laugh!"
He hadn't laughed at the time it happened, but we both did right then. In our business, laughter is a good thing. Make the most of it.