A reader was inspired to write and submit this piece after reflecting on our last post “We Are The Problem.”
This is called leading by example.
Thank you Nicole Oke.
By Nicole Oke
I try, but I can’t. I want to, but it’s just too hard. How can I? How can I look into those eyes knowing what I know? After all I have seen, after all I have heard, after all I have done or allowed to happen, how, how can I? When those eyes stare back at me I know what they will see, the truth, the shame, the guilt.
Duty, respect, integrity. Words to live by. Words to live up to. I thought I lived by these words, but if I look into those eyes I will have to acknowledge that I fell short, that I have failed, that I have let down those who needed me most.
It is my duty to be a leader. It is my duty to make sound and timely decisions. It is my duty to develop others for the future. I claim to be a leader. Others look to me for guidance and support. But if I look into those eyes I know the questions I will have to answer.
What kind of leader allows others to be harassed on their watch? What kind of leader knows harassment is happening and makes a conscious decision to ignore it, or worse yet, makes a conscious decision to allow it to be ok? What kind of a leader develops others for the future in a work environment where those who follow them don’t feel safe?
It is my job to look out for those I work with and for their well-being. It is my job to know others’ capabilities. It is my job to build a team. This is how we define respect, it is my job to respect those I work for, those who work for me, and those I work with. This is my job. But if I look into those eyes I know I will have to address why I choose to respect some and disrespect others.
How can I look out for someone’s well-being if I refuse to acknowledge the things that are happening around me that are damaging all of our well-being? How can I look at others capabilities when it comes to doing a job, and yet be blind to their capability for hurting others? How can I build a team if harassment is present? How can I expect others to work with team members who have disrespected them, who have mentally, emotionally, or physically violated them in some way? How can I build a team when my team members can’t trust me to protect them and support them when they are going through one of the hardest things imaginable?
I struggle with integrity the most. Know yourself and seek improvement. Seek responsibility and accept responsibility for my actions. Set the example. To know myself requires examining every part of who I am and what I stand for.
Who am I? The more important questions is, do I want to know who I am? I support others, until I don’t. I believe in zero tolerance, until it happens. I speak up for those who can’t, until I won’t. I do what’s right, until doing what’s right is too hard. I talk the talk, until those I am talking to are in a position of authority. I care, until it stops impacting me.
Being honest, being real, about who I am is hard, and those eyes, they know I need to take responsibility for my actions and for the consequences of my inactions. If I call myself a leader then I am one by name, but if I want to be a leader then I need to lead. I set the example for others. I can choose to allow, disregard, or deny the existence of inappropriate comments, dirty jokes, intimidation, innuendos, threats, and harassment. I can choose to ignore the realities of our gender biased culture and dismiss incidents of sexual abuse and rape as unique cases, not created by the beliefs and values of our firefighting community, or I can choose to lead a direct attack against it.
I can choose to have the integrity to speak up and let it be known I do not tolerate any form of harassment. I can choose to find ways to educate those around me about the experiences of others, and build understanding and empathy among my colleagues. I can choose to have the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that I have been avoiding all of my life. I can choose to talk about topics that are considered taboo. I can choose to create a welcoming and safe work environment where everyone feels able to discuss ideas and issues without fear of disapproval or reprimand. Maybe then I would able to look into those eyes and not feel like such a fake.
I look into the eyes of those who have faced sexual harassment and refused to accept it. I can see the pain, the humiliation, the disappointment that goes along with being harassed. I can also see something more, a determination, a drive, and a passion for a job they love. I think to myself how much strength it must take to admit to the world that something this horrific happened to you. How brave it is to talk about such a personal experience and to share that experience in hopes of helping others. I think about how much courage it takes to set aside all the reasons not to speak out. I think about how afraid they must be for themselves, their families, their careers.
I look into the eyes of those I love, the eyes of mothers, sisters, and wives. I hope that they will be one of the lucky ones. I pray that they will never have to endure the kind of harassment that is so prevalent among us. I dream of seeing a shift of our practices and policies so that one day I don’t have to hope and pray anymore.
I look into the eyes of my daughter, so young and innocent. My eyes water, my hands shake, and I get sick at the idea of her ever working in a place where she could be harassed, abused, or even raped while being surrounded by individuals, leaders, whose values are duty, respect, and integrity.
I finally find the ability to look into the eyes I have been avoiding, the eyes in the mirror. How do I look myself in the eye knowing what I know? After all I have seen, after all I have heard, after all I have done or allowed to happen, how, how can I? When those eyes stare back at me I know what they will see, the truth, the shame, the guilt.
The time for change is now, I stand with you and choose to live by the values of duty, respect, and integrity.