How to Lead When Lives Depend on You

I was a paramedic in Illinois for five years in my early 20’s before a compelling career opportunity presented itself. It involved a move to Las Vegas. I was young and there was nothing holding me back, so I uprooted and started a new career in the casino industry working in security.

With a lot of hard work and long hours, I was able to grow in my career, eventually ending up in a number of top security positions at various internationally-known casinos. Security at these types of Vegas casinos was like running your own precinct. My teams were in charge of tens of thousands of lives, both guests and employees.

I could write a book about all of the craziness. You know the statement: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Well I’ve experienced those things first hand. Let your imagination go wild for a little bit and that’ll give you an idea of the type of challenges I faced.

While you may be imagining adventure, we were never called for fun times. We were notified when something went wrong or safety was compromised. Fighting, cheating, stealing, drunkenness, sex in the hallways, family abuse, trafficking, prostitution, drugs…you name it.

No amount of preparation or leadership training could truly prepare me for the challenges I faced both as an paramedic and in security. But I have learned golden lessons, and these valuable points are what I continue to teach now as a consultant and coach.

Lesson One:  Make people smile.  One hello at a time….one smile at a time. As a leader in a position of authority, employees and guests come to you for safety and security, so make sure they feel it. If you can make them smile, this means you've accomplished this feeling and earned their trust.

This principle may seem too simple, but you just never know what people are actually going through. The Vegas reality is that many people visit the city because they are depressed or they are planning on suicide. I have experienced far too many suicide attempts and deaths in Vegas hotels. As far as your employees, they could also be going through hard times.

My direction is, “If we can save a life with one smile at a time to show we care and they matter, we are doing our job.” It doesn’t matter how short our interactions are, we must genuinely care for each other’s wellbeing and be a positive force in people’s lives.

Lesson Two: Meet everyone at their level. This means not judging others and adjusting your communication style to meet them on an emotional level. By doing this, you focus on what matters - a genuine connection. People feel more comfortable opening up and being honest.

While I share this lesson often, it is best taught through role modeling. I recall two domestic violence incidents that illustrate this principle best. One episode involved a seven year old child who witnessed physical abuse between his parents. I sat on the carpet of the hotel hallway next to him as we chatted. I wanted him to feel comfortable while I asked him questions to quickly assess the situation.

The next time we had another volatile domestic violence incident involving a child, I saw my toughest and seemingly unemotional officer mirror my example. From a distance, it took me by surprise when I observed this burly, hard-core officer sitting in the hallway, drawing pictures and gently talking with a distraught child. I had never seen that kind of tenderness from that officer, but I was glad to see his compassion and how effective he was at emotionally connecting with another human being.

Lesson Three: Remain calm. No matter how crazy the situation, you’ve got to control your own emotions and lead with authority and dependability.

I am reminded of the most challenging encounter of my career. I was in a holding room with an arrested individual who had stolen a purse from a lady, when I heard over the radio ear, “Shots fired.” I looked over at one of the police officers in disbelief, realizing they were on a different radio frequency. There was raucous outside the room. Again, “Shots fired!” came across the radio headset.

I jumped out of the holding room and in a flash saw hundreds of people screaming hysterically and rushing out of the hotel. The dealers were frightened and bent over their money drawers and guests were hiding behind black jack tables trying to take cover.

“Where are the shots coming from?!” I radioed to the surveillance team.  It was total chaos. “I need more info!” I heard another shot and walked towards the sound. While people were wailing and running away, I was walking into the madness. I was petrified. Needless to say, it was a gut check at that very moment knowing the safety and security of my guests and employees were in my hands.

We had casualties that day. I was scared and traumatized while leading my employees who were also shaken, but I had to control my emotions and calmly lead with confidence, giving everyone a sense of safety and security. On two occasions, I knew I had to step away because I didn't feel well. I stepped into the stairwell and vomited twice. After working the crime scene with my team, the metro police, the medical staff, the casino executives, our PR team, and all major news outlets, I got home and was numb.

Lesson Four: Be honest and manage your emotions. People may think that avoiding them will make you a stronger person; however, I've found that accepting and acknowledging them will help you be a more effective leader.

It took me a long time before I began to process the emotions I experienced that day. The next day and many days to follow, I had to lead my team and persevere through additional challenges that were inherent in my job. My coping mechanism was to compartmentalize my emotions. A year later, after some soul searching, I began to process that night's events, and I discovered how much that day psychologically impacted me.

I still experience triggers from that day, such as the sound of a scream at a certain decibel. I found that I really did a disservice to my team by avoiding my emotions, because in the end, I wasn’t taking care of my own mental health and I wasn’t emotionally available to them. Later on, when I finally opened up about that day, my team was surprised. They thought it hadn't emotionally affected me. When I informed them that I sought help from a life coach, they realized they could also benefit from seeking help as well.

When something traumatic happens, or there is any significant event, take the time to acknowledge your emotions and foster an environment that allows people to talk openly about their feelings. Share what you’re experiencing. People deal with stress, trauma and conflict differently and it’s important to check in with one another. This is what keeps a team strong. And in highly stressful fields of work, this is what keeps a team sane.

Now, after more than 20 years, I am on a new journey as a consultant and coach. My goal is to teach leaders and organizations the principles of calm leadership. One of my focuses will be to assist those who are in stressful fields of work in understanding the ideas of posttraumatic growth, which is when one allows great adversity and extraordinary challenges to raise them to a higher level of appreciation and functioning.

I believe it’s important we teach people the skills to understand how to take what could be a traumatizing event and turn it for good. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, if you allow yourself the opportunity to learn and grow from life experiences.

As a coach, I look forward to assisting people in this type of evolution. One hello at a time…one smile at a time.

Leslie Ann - Las Vegas, NV

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