LESSONS LEARNED FROM SHOOTING A CHAIR
When an officer is involved in a shooting, there is an emotional rollercoaster that typically follows. There is a dump of adrenaline, tunnel vision sets in, maybe some involuntary muscle twitching, and for most officers there is difficulty in recalling how many shots were fired. When I shot a chair in my office I went through none of these emotions.
First, I must share some background so you can get the greatest amount of insight from the story that follows. I was a Commander in the Operations Division of a large urban department. I commanded about 70 officers and sergeants in the 2nd District and was about 13 years into my 26-year career.
In a few short days, I was taking my family on our annual vacation and decided I would bring along my small 9mm Glock. I did not carry this smaller version of the gun on or off duty. I opted to always have my full-size city-issue gun with me. But for vacation on the beach, I felt the smaller gun would be less cumbersome.
Now I had a fairly large office. I had a desk, 2 visitor chairs, credenza, several cabinets and a 10- person long conference table that fit rather comfortably in the office. I also had a locked closet where I kept my off-duty weapon on the top shelf. The shelf was higher than my moderate height of 5’9”, so I could not see the gun in order to retrieve it.
As I was probably day dreaming about the sun and surf of Hilton Head awaiting us the following week, I was on auto-pilot. I reached up on the shelf, retrieved the gun and spare magazine lying next to it. I groped around trying to find the ejected shell from the chamber that should have been right next to the spare magazine. To my astonishment, I could not find it.
I shook my head in disbelief that I had left a round in the chamber. I was on auto pilot as I racked the round out of the chamber. With the magazine and ejected round in my left hand, I pointed the gun down (at the seat of one of my very nice mahogany visitor chairs) and pulled the trigger. What followed can only be described with three letters, WTF!
There were a variety of responses my body went through as soon as I pulled the trigger. First: son of a biscuit that was fricking loud. Naturally, I assume you can replace the words I actually used, but I can’t print them here. My ears were ringing for a good 3 days.
Second: Damn, I just blew a big butt whole in a really nice chair. Again, insert real words as you see fit.
Third: The F in WTF. You know the rest. Now I had to call the Rat Squad to investigate an accidental discharge. Who knew Internal Affairs could respond so fast? They were better than Domino’s; they made it in much less than 30 minutes.
Guess who put the gun in his closet with a round in the chamber AND a fully loaded magazine? Yep, me. The magazine I picked up off the shelf? It was the extra one I was issued with the gun. I resigned myself to take my lumps and knew I had to just move on. But, I did have some worries about the whole ordeal.
What would my sergeants and officers think of me? Had a boneheaded move on my part destroyed my credibility as a leader? Would I still have the respect, confidence and loyalty from my folks that I had tried so hard to develop and nurture?
Well, I got my answers the next morning. I was one to always arrive early and leave late. My people knew this, and obviously wasted no time in planning and executing their moves.
Posted on my office door was this very pointed warning: “If the LT. invites you into his office and asks you to have a seat, politely decline and remain standing.” I had a good chuckle and even left the warning in place. But what I found IN my office made me burst out laughing.
There were 13 chairs in my office. Taped to EVERY chair was a bulls-eye target. Sitting on my desk was a clear miniature coffin filled with ashes and this note: “Here lie the cremated remains of Lt. Welsh’s chair.”
Next to the coffin was an orange plastic dart gun with this note: “Maybe this will be a little safer for you to take on vacation.” I kept the coffin and dart gun on my desk for several years.
Throughout the day, various officers and sergeants would poke their heads into my office and mile and give me a little wave. Even my secretary had some fun with me over the “new look” of my office. In hindsight, I learned a few valuable lessons in leadership that day.
First, you reap what you sow. I had sown faith, trust and support of my folks over the previous 14 months. My officers and sergeants knew what I thought of them, their abilities and their personalities. They knew my sense of humor and that I would not look down on them if they made the occasional mistake on the job. They also knew a little humor would take the sting out of the inevitable discipline I would get for executing a poor defenseless office chair. I reaped the fruit of the seeds I had sown and nurtured.
Second, I learned the value of failure. Failing is not the end and does not make you a “failure.” As a friend of mine has always said, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” You only lose if you don’t learn from your failings. I certainly learned a gun safety lesson. But I also learned other lessons.
I learned a lesson in respect. Despite pulling a really boneheaded move by shooting a chair, as the days and months rolled along, I noticed I had not lost the respect and loyalty of my folks. I also had not lost the respect and confidence of my Chief. Several months after this event I was called to the Chief’s office by his secretary. This is not a good thing in most departments. The Chief was jumping the chain of command of a Deputy Chief and Major to speak to me directly. We were nearly a 500 man department. Being called directly to see the Chief was cause for concern.
What I learned when I arrived was both surprising and a lesson in leadership. The results our officers and sergeants had achieved in the almost two years I had been their Commander was being noticed. Their dedication, hard work and loyalty to the mission and vision of the department had resulted in greater community trust in the department, reduced crime in the district and improved morale. The Chief called me to his office to tell me I was being transferred to another district. He told me to do there what I had done in my current assignment. The mutual respect my folks and I had towards each other produced results. These results could be replicated within the department as a whole.
Now I am not recommending you go out and shoot an office chair. I still had discipline on my record for two years. What I hope you see is the value of learning from failures. That is one of the greatest lessons in leadership I have learned. By the way, I went on to command not only a new District, but eventually I led the Narcotics and Investigations Bureaus. Later I was promoted to Major of West Patrol Operations Division, where I retired in 2012. I sincerely credit some of my success to the lessons I learned the day I shot a chair.
Hopefully you have never done something as outrageous as shooting an office chair. But have you had some “failures” at home, at work or in your community or church life? What lessons did you learn? Looking for lessons in our failures is not always an easy thing to do. But, it is a
necessary thing to do if you want to grow from the experience.