Trial by Fire – The Challenge of Being A Leader in the Public Arena And 5 Ways To Deal With It

I wasn’t born a leader…

Photo by Rebrand Cities on

And yet, it happened. I became one. Along the way though, I pushed back against “the call to arms” many times. Just because I dealt with injustice, resolved matters of inequality and helped the down trodden, didn’t mean I was a leader. However, others thought I was a leader because of how I addressed such issues.

Then one day, the penny dropped. I realised I needed to be somewhere, to do something constructive, from a position of authority.

I am fortunate to live in a country where, I can be who I want to be. That’s not to say we are not constrained the same as others the world over, because we are. It’s just that, when you make your mind up to do something (and hopefully for the better), you can, and with the blessing of others. However, there are still those out there that insist on tearing you down. We used to call this in Australia “the tall poppy syndrome,” but it has gone way beyond that now.

What we have now, and it would seem universally so, is the advent of wildfire…

Trial by fire is very real when leadership is put on the table

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To understand what happens around you, and for what reason, is key to being a leader. To this end, I have always been a student of history and politics. These two subjects are interconnected and the connectivity has allowed me to understand many things regarding World kind and how to react in certain situations including reaching veritable solutions (I feel like I am starting sound like the Monkey King from Journey to the West 😂).

I have also had two great driving forces at my core. The first is my fascination with how an organisation functions. The second: what it means to be egalitarian. Hence, my interest and involvement in a range of significantly varying matters over the years including what to do as a leader when chaos comes knocking at the door.

As any leader knows, there are days when you feel as if you are in the middle of the Colosseum. The audience (customers, community members, stakeholders) is baying for blood. What was once trial by fire, where managers and above spent all their time putting out “fires” within the organisation until they learnt the art of the strategic mindset (see my post The Leader’s Prayer), are now encountering “contests” with those external to the organsation who, through their disgruntled sense of entitlement, turn their issue into a full on battle or, in some cases, an all out war.

To illustrate my point, I was contacted by a local government CEO several months ago, a person who has over 20 years experience running the same organisation. They are one of the icons in the industry here. As our conversation progressed, they sounded, well, not like them at all. This person was despondent. They asked me if I could pick up a project to provide a solution to what has not only blown their community apart, but the local government as well. As they set the scene and explained what had happened, I responded I would look at what I could do and design a system or methodology (process) that they can put in place going forward. However, I know that, sadly, what was once an internal management issue, due to its public exposure, will now have further significant impacts.

Not long after this despondent phone call, I was then contacted by a colleague regarding a different issue, but at its heart was subversive behaviour in the community (which is now quite common). This contrasted with another colleague as a local government CEO who went through a similar event where their family was subjected to a “smear campaign” from certain parts of the community. Make no bones about it, this is totally and utterly deplorable – there is no excuse for anyone on the planet to undertake this sort of behaviour towards another. I can also add, as a former local government CEO, I have also been subjected to the most vile behaviour. The lies that are told would break most people. But, I always dealt with it – along with the huge cost that comes with it – including the impact on my family.

With the above running through my head, I sat down and pulled some thoughts together regarding what is actually going on. I tallied up the issue regarding public sector CEOs being subjected to ongoing campaigns of hate. In short, this is not too dissimilar to what we see regarding other prominent persons on social media. There is trolling behaviour, unfounded comments, lies and vitriol. Often, this behaviour seems to be accompanied by biased or uninformed media reporting.

Inevitably, therefore, I reached an uncomfortable conclusion. Some people believe the behaviour they exhibit virtually on social media can now be enacted in the real world. They are not interested in the reasonable systems in place within the public arena to address an issue. They tend to be expert at exploiting and twisting systems designed to ensure equality and fairness. If this wasn’t concern enough, we now have the vexatious litigant who carries on in exactly the same way. A vexatious litigant is someone who throws up any minor complaint or issue on an ongoing basis and turns it into a major production that even Cecil B De Mille would be proud of.

The reality is this: both hate campaigns and vexatious behaviour are extremely difficult to deal with. People that exhibit such behaviour have become “weaponised.” In short, it’s like dealing with “wildfire.” As we know, wildfire is just that: it is wild at heart and totally uncontrollable unless it burns itself out or some level of containment can be put in place, but not before a great deal of damage is done.

Beyond “Wildfire”: Five Strategies to Mitigate or Put The Fire Out!!!

Photo by David Schultz on Unsplash

There are a number of strategies that a leader, whether in the public arena or the private sector, based on my personal experience, can utilise to address “wildfire:”

  • Get to the bottom of the issue, meet with the aggrieved party and explore what is driving their behaviour. This takes real presence of mind and the biting of one’s tongue. The objective: reasonable behaviour means you are listening and will commit to a course of action that will alleviate the onslaught including outlining why things are the way they are. It’s about being firm but fair, even if they are not. Make no mistake though with what I am about to say next. If your are at fault, admit it and start the journey of how to address the error of your ways. Rebuilding trust is vital;
  • Use existing tools at your disposal. By this approach, I mean accessing existing policies your organisation has to address such behaviour, or engaging people internally or externally who can support you through the situation, or tap into your peer network (your peers in this situation are like gold and will know exactly how to help you find peace of mind and provide solutions). It’s surprising the number of people that work for you who don’t do this;
  • Restraining orders. This may seem extreme, but using the legal system to address such behaviour is legitimate, and works. The concept here is that legal means provide comfort not only to you, but your staff as well. Your team are all too aware of what is going on. Don’t ever think for one moment they are not. They know that trouble is at your door, and is trouble for them too. Such action by you gives them peace of mind;
  • Switch off. If you seriously believe you have done everything in your power to address the issue, then switch off. I know this is hard to do. However, it is time to stop feeding the beast. Trolls can be blocked (yes, I know some of them are clever and will find other avenues or others to do their bidding), take time out and even have that holiday which is long overdue – let someone else deal with the heat. Often you will come back to a calm space that will allow you to work up ways to deal with negative campaigns more effectively;
  • Walk away and do something completely different. Self preservation is very important and a smart thing to do. Your family will thank you for it, as well as your friends. Your mental health and peace of mind must come first. I know so many former CEOs who are now either consultants, middle managers somewhere else or sitting under a tree contemplating their navel and are so much more happier as a result.

As fellow humanitarian and blogger KK says: “what goes on inside the brain is very powerful .” Finding a method that works for you to put your brain at ease so that you can be who you need to be and lead a good life and show others how to do this too, can never be underestimated 😊

15 Comments on “Trial by Fire – The Challenge of Being A Leader in the Public Arena And 5 Ways To Deal With It”

  1. Well Sean – you most definitely deserve a sound round of applause for this post. There are an onslaught of vexatious litigants here as well (in fact, a veritable multitude).

    Sometimes I sit and ponder how so many people have, in effect, lost the good sense that God gave them. While reading this I remembered well your timely post on Social Media and its effects. I have read of many potential causes, from the use of cell phones (it does something to the brain), to the ‘selfies’, to Facebook and to the rising planetary vibrations. Whatever the cause, I feel for those, like you, who have to deal with these folks directly. All I can say is God Bless you brother.

    P.S.I love the fire photo. Very effective here. 👏👏

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Rita. Something is certainly in the water these days and we often look at the phases of the moon (those rising planetary vibrations) as well when certain behaviours start to emerge (yes, it is a very real phenomena). Legislation is going to be passed here soon so that vexatious litigants can be dealt with legally in future. I am sure there will be an outcry re such a move, but it has got to this point. The vexatious litigant will have the right of review and appeal should they be designated as such.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad that you got something out of this post. Walking away as an option is so important to preserve one’s peace of mind, but difficult when one has a professional and/or caring disposition.


  2. This is a very nicely articulated piece, Sean. I came across interesting concept of tall poppy syndrome. This along with smear campaigns and vexatious behaviour is everywhere, I think. The last two mitigating strategies given by you are practical and useful at times. Thank you for sharing the same, and also for referring to my article. So nice of you 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a beautiful picture in the middle. The ancient ruin has such an effect on human mind. “is baying for blood.” So true. I was a manager of several people once and it was an awful experience. I didn’t know how to motivate everyone and felt that I had to do everything. Yes, fire all over the place and I didn’t know how to put out the fire.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ultimately, it all starts with us, as individuals. Be the leader, the example, you want to see in this world. Regardless if that is in the role of a parent, teacher, politician, CEO, etc. Your previous post describes great ways how to be(come) one.
    Great writing and insights, Sean.

    Liked by 2 people

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