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Leadership and the Jellyfish
By Bryan Avila, TDCJ Correctional Training Instructor - Sergeant of Correctional Officers
Published: 03/18/2013

Engineroomtelegraph I once read a book called “The Leadership Challenge” by Kouzes & Posner which I found very profound when I started an introspective look at myself. Not just as a leader but from the perspective of a follower as well.

I wanted to know where I stood as well as where others stood that were supposed to be “leading” me. Early on I realized one very important thing: I was not being led. I didn’t have a leader and what I really had was a manager. Talk about a slap in the face. Even though I already knew that my “leader” had no backbone and was a walking jellyfish (I had to find out later on how in the world “he” could perform such magic), everything that a leader was supposed to be is exactly what “he” was not. “He” was the complete and total opposite. Not even close.

Imagine the frustration that we all felt. Decisions could not be made and when decisions were made, it was just a matter of time (very short time in most cases) before “he” changed his mind. “He” had no inner voice. All information that was given was regurgitation from someone else. There was no direction to be followed except going in circles and this was not the way that we wanted to go.

Out of all of us that were being “led”, or shall I say managed (and “he” wasn’t even good at that), 90% of us wanted to leave our job and find something else, ANYTHING else. I didn’t care if I went to work at McDonald’s. I just wanted out.

If this jellyfish could not do what “he” was supposed to do, someone had to. Someone had to get the ball rolling and that was something that “John” was willing to do.

We all have our own values and belief system and of course there will be some differences. The differences are always welcome since it allows us to see things from a different perspective. Some of us are willing to take a stand for what we believe in while others won’t. They will roll over and play nice. Those that know ”John” know that he will tell you that your head is up your rear end if that is what you need to hear.

I have learned that there are two types of people in this world: Those that will tell you what you want to hear and those that will tell you what you NEED to hear. There are enough people out there to tell you what you want to hear. “John” will give it to you with both barrels if that is what is needed. Some will call him every name in the book except the one his mother gave him for being that way and he is OK with that. He will even tell you that. He is strong-willed in his beliefs and a true knucklehead if he thinks that you are full of it. Don’t sugar coat things with him, just tell him straight out. And if you have no integrity, get out of his face.

“John” is what I consider to be a true leader. He may not be in the position of leadership but that does not negate the fact that he has more leadership skills than most people that I have met and worked either with or for. What qualities does he possess that make him a leader? How did we recognize it? For us it was easy. John would take the time to help other people out when needed. He would take the time to talk to us and give advice when needed but never try to shove his beliefs down someone’s throat. He would not ask anyone to do anything that he would not do himself. People would go to him when there was doubt about the direction that we needed to go in and seek his opinion. When the mundane tasks needed to be done he would volunteer to do them or if someone was in the process of doing it, he would help out if he had nothing else going on. His actions and words were synergistic.

“John” recognized that someone had to take the bull by the horns and take charge of the crap that was going on around us. It was out of control. We looked at him, inadvertently, to lead us.

The first thing that he did was find out where we stood as a group. The result was that we were dysfunctional, demoralized and lost.

The second thing that he did was find out where we wanted to go as a group. After our knee jerk reaction of “get the hell away from jellyfish!” we realized that although we really loved our job and did not really want to go somewhere else, we needed to find a way to work with jellyfish in an efficient manner that did not involve a sentence of 25-life. We wanted cohesion, teamwork and a sense of value to what we do. We wanted to know where we stood in our “leadership’s” ability to back us when decisions were made and not try to blame us for their failure to do what they were supposed to do.

The third thing that “John” did was have all of us, as a group, figure out how we were going to get there. This is where it was going to get interesting. Since we had not really been a group as a “whole” but more like mini work groups joining together every now and again, it was going to pose some unique challenges.

As with any group, we had gone through some of the stages of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. I can honestly tell you that as a whole we never reached the performing stage. Some of the mini groups had reached this stage, but as a whole, we had not. The closest we ever got was to the norming stage. For the most part, we remained at the storming stage. Now why did we stay at the storming stage? We remained at this stage mostly because of 2 people. One individual did not want to be part of any team and the other thought that he knew it all and that we were all idiots. The second individual would try to make himself look intelligent in front of the jellyfish but only made himself look like an even bigger idiot in front of everyone else. These two challenges are what we had to overcome in order to get to where we wanted and perform at the level that we knew was possible.

First things first. We had to get rid of our preconceived notions about both these individuals. No matter how ignorant you believe someone to be they still have something to bring to the table. The positive qualities that they possessed are where we focused our energy. Had we continued to focus on the negative aspects that they possessed (and believe me when I tell you that there were many), we would have been doomed from the start. We were not about to let this happen and John made it very clear from the onset that this would not be something that could be allowed if we were to achieve success.

At the beginning we all sat down and figured out, as a group, where it was that we wanted to go. We all had our opinions and they were all written down. We looked to see which ones we had in common therefore giving us our “buy-in.” We set short-term goals that we wanted to achieve, both individual and as a group, and included a timeframe in which to complete it. We also set our long term goals and the steps that it would take us to achieve it.

Since we had accepted that jellyfish had never been, and would never be a real leader, one of our goals was to lead from the bottom up and incorporate him into the plan. It’s not that we really wanted to (at least not at first) but we realized that he was the skipper of this doomed ship that was going to go down in one quick hurry.

In a nutshell, this is what we did: We overrode the ships controls from the bridge and took control from the engine compartment. Since he thought that he was in charge, we continued to let him think that he was including turning that wheel in his hand that lead to nothing. If it sounds like a mutiny, well it really wasn’t. We needed to get the ship back on course before it was completely doomed. Jellyfish had ZERO confidence in any of us although he said he did but alas, his actions spoke volumes.

Slowly but surely we started to bring him along without him realizing that it was happening. Morale started to improve slightly and the momentum continued in a positive direction. This process did not happen overnight. It took months to correct it and every now and again he still needed to be steered back on course. He still continued to be a jellyfish but then again, we know that it would not change.

I am not suggesting in any way that you stage a mutiny in order to get things done and if that is what you took out of this then start reading again. What you need to get out of this is the following:
  1. No matter how dim-witted some people may be, they still have something positive to bring to a team.
  2. Work together as a team in order to achieve what you think is impossible. Nothing is impossible. Some things are just harder to do and will take longer to achieve.
  3. Leaders do not have to be in a “leadership” position in order to lead.
  4. If you get stung by a jellyfish, pee on the sting site. The ammonia in the pee will help the stinging.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author Bryan Avila started working as a Police Officer in 1994 while attending Norwich University in Northfield, VT. In 1999 he began working for the Vermont Dept of Corrections while still working as a Part-Time Police Officer. In 2007 he left public service until 2009 when he began working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He is currently a Correctional Training Instructor- Sergeant of Correctional Officers, at the TDCJ Region I Training Academy located in Huntsville, TX.

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