Friday, September 28, 2007

When the doors swing open

Wednesday, Deena Winter, the local government reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star emailed me. She was on an assignment to seek out people who need to have a thick skin, due to the jobs, for an article being written about Nebraska Football Coach Bill Callahan. I responded to her on Thursday, when I got back to my desk. Her article is running on Saturday, but my long-winded reply is just too lengthy for her use. She offered to link to it online, and I offered to post it on my blog so she could do just that. So, here's the full text of my email, in this interesting collaboration between reporter and police chief:

"In a community like Lincoln, there are a handful of people, who, due to the nature of their job, are constantly in the public eye and deal with newsworthy events on almost a daily basis. Because of this, they are subjected to high levels of scrutiny and critique virtually every week. This would include the mayor, governor, superintendent of schools, chief of police, and the head football coach.

Their actual or perceived missteps, or those of their enterprise, are much more likely to come to the attention of the public than, say, the performance of a CEO at a private business, a general contractor, a physician, or a law firm. When you're actions are in the bright lights, there are plenty of people who will avail themselves of the luxury of second-guessing, devising strategies through hind-sight, or simply taking potshots while failing to understand the complexity and uncertainty of the work.

I was hardly prepared for it. Life is a little rosier when you're a level or two down, and the buck passes you. But when it lands right on your lap, it's quite different. I suspect there are a lot of assistant head coaches and assistant chiefs who learn that the same way I did: suddenly.

Today, more than ever, the criticism can be particularly vitriolic. The anonymity and ease of such things as blogs, radio call-ins, and online comments has changed the tenor and tone quite a bit in the past few years. As much as people in these positions may tell you that they 'don't pay any attention to it,' or 'don't even read it,' I suspect that like me, they do--at least a little bit. It sometimes hurts, often is unfair or ill-informed, and the cumulative effect can be mighty disheartening. Here's what you do to avoid these impacts:

You take the criticism for what it's worth. Sometimes it's nothing more than an ignorant insult and just needs to be ignored as best you can. Sometimes there is a kernel of truth that can be incorporated into your decision-making in the future. Sometimes the critic is spot-on, and you make your apology and try to do better.

In some circumstances, you try to talk with the critic. If the opportunity presents itself, you'd be surprised how often their attitude changes when you talk to them personally and let them know why you did what you did, what your motive was, what things you had to consider. I think people are pretty tolerant of things they don't necessarily agree with when they realize you're trying hard to do the right thing and the best you can.

I don't think it's so much a matter of having thick skin as having a positive and forward-looking focus. You don't dwell upon the criticism. I may fire up quickly, but I cool off fast, too. It's done and forgotten with remarkable speed, and I am on to other issues, problems and concerns--of which there is an unending supply. When you keep your focus on positive things, both small and large, you avoid wallowing in self-doubt or self-pity.

I suspect Bill Callahan probably had this modeled for him pretty well by his dad, who was a career Chicago Police Officer, and certainly must have dealt with his share of unhappy campers on a daily basis for over 30 years. I get the sense that he and I probably have a common outlook on this, and how to handle the criticism that comes with the territory.

When I see the good police work done by our officers every day, I am proud. I feel like in some small way what I do supports that, contributes to that, and helps make it possible for our employees to achieve a cleared case, a good arrest, a nice special project, a reduction in crime, a saved life, and so forth. When I see things that don't go so well, I want to figure out how we can improve, and not be consumed by the replay tape.

I would hope that Coach Callahan pauses every now and then as the doors swing open and thinks: 'There are 85,000 people here to watch a bunch of college kids play a game.' That thought could offset a lot of anonymous trash talk on a sports blog."


Anonymous said...

If a person never makes any enemies, then they probably getting anything done. Rest assured that if I ever want to rant at you about the way you do your job, I'll put it on paper with my name, address, and phone number, and put it in the mail. I haven't found need to do that with you yet, but it's the best way to complain to a public official, far better than a semi-literate outburst on a comment thread.

There are those like Mr. Gum, in whose eyes you can do nothing right. If you do A, they rag at you for not doing B instead, but if you'd done B, they'd have ragged about you neglecting A. If you'd done both A and B, they'd take issue with you for not caring about C. As soon as you accept that they will always see anything you do as being done wrong, they become effectively insignificant, and your life gets happier.

If you donated one of your kidneys to save the life of someone that they held dear, they'd still find a way to see the donation as completely wrong and totally self-serving. For that type of person, it's best to still protect and serve their well-being and property as your job requires, but to otherwise ignore them and dismiss their harping as you might the cawing of crows or the buzzing of flies.

Anonymous said...

give or take.