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Character and competence: An interview with a county sheriff

What is it like to be a leader? Elliot Begoun interviews a California county sheriff in an attempt to find out.

8 min read


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iStockPhoto/Illustration by James daSilva

This is the first in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?” As he writes in his introduction to this series, “There has been some incredible wisdom and teaching shared on topics such as; the definition of leadership, how to lead, and what it takes to develop leaders. But, I have found little on what it is actually like once you get there.”

It was Memorial Day weekend at the lake. The weather was hot and the glistening water offered a tantalizing invitation for refreshment. Two 15-year-old boys leapt into the water and, sadly, never resurfaced.

The Sheriff’s Dive Team, using its new side-scanning sonar for the first time, was searching the lake for their bodies in a desperate attempt to offer the boys’ families the hollow comfort of closure. Sheriff Adam Christianson had been out of town. But, as soon as he arrived home, he suited up and made his way to the lake. He felt compelled to be there to support his team as they continued their tragic mission. He wanted to provide whatever comfort he could to the families, and he was interested in witnessing the first deployment of the side-scanning sonar he fought so hard to get.

Not wanting to become a distraction, after a few hours he asked to be brought ashore. As the jet boat made its way to the shallow water, and as he had done dozens of times before, he jumped off the bow. This time, however, he was greeted by an audible popping noise accompanied by a excruciating pain. Hours later, he found himself in the recovery room after surgery to repair the ruptured tendons in both knees.

I was supposed to interview him the next day. I sent him my well-wishes for his recovery and figured it would be months before we rescheduled. One week later, he invited me into his home. He sat with his legs wrapped in bandages, encased in steel braces locked at full extension, and hooked to suction machines that helped manage the drainage and swelling. He was eager to talk about what it was like to lead.

But, before we even started the interview, he wanted to make it clear that leadership came down to two simple things, character and competence, a theme that was pervasive in his answers to my many questions.

What keeps you up at night?

When I asked him this question he closed his eyes, took in a breath, and then said, “The safety of my staff, the safety of my deputies.” He went on to say that “We live in a dangerous world. A world where lawlessness has become the norm. A world where there is no respect for authority, and people are willing to murder police officers.”

I said that that must be a heavy burden to carry. As if he were commenting on something as banal as the weather, or the color of the couch I was sitting on, he said. “Yep, it can be.”

With whom and how much do you share, your fears, worries, and insecurities?

He chuckled and said, “Boy that’s a tough question.” He went on to explain that he shared some things, but not everything, with his wife. He shares a fair amount with his executive team because they are his closest advisors. I prodded him a little further and asked him about when he experienced doubt.

He was quick to respond. “I don’t doubt. Usually, I have a plan, then a backup plan, and then a backup plan.” “There is no doubt,” he added. He offered a wry smile, “I don’t have a self-confidence issue.” He went on to explain that, “At times this has been a struggle, because people have mistaken that confidence for arrogance.”

How do you care for yourself and make room for the other important things in your life?

He laughed as I asked the question, and jokingly looked around in exaggerated motions to see if his wife, who was in the other room, was listening in. “She’s on me about what I eat, and my health.”

He thought a minute more, and then said, “I do fun stuff, but being sheriff is by far and away the greatest job on the planet.” When I asked about making room for the other important things in his life, I watched as self-realization washed over him. “I probably should do more,” he said. “I am immersed in work, probably more than I should be. Work is a fascination, it is hobby, it is fun.”

What are the surprising burdens of leadership?

When I asked this question, he went silent. I could see him go inward. He remained quiet for what seemed like a very long time. He came back to the present, asked his wife for more water and settled in. I could tell he was fighting back his emotions.

This is a proud man, one who has likely witnessed and dealt with more than we would care to know. As he looked at me, I could see the pain in his eyes. “Back-to-back in-the-line-of-duty deaths and tearing the place apart.” was his response. The Great Recession had devastating effects on the budget and required huge cuts and reductions in force. We talked about how the rational mind could make sense that it was a reaction to an external set of circumstances but, as a leader, it still felt like failing.

I could almost see the weight both of the loss of life and dismantling of his department sitting on his shoulders. We forget sometimes, as we attempt to climb in our careers, of the heaviness that awaits our arrival.

What have you learned about connecting with your people?

Our conversation here surprised me as I admittedly entered it with some preconceived notions. This was a paramilitary environment that followed a strict chain of command. But his response, in a nutshell, was get to know your people. “You sit down with them, find out what they are interested in, what they like and want to do.”

He went on to say, “What’s important at the end of a conversation is how they feel about you and about themselves. You have to demonstrate that you’re interested, that you care, and that they can trust you.” It turns out that the sheriff is a big believer in the importance of servant leadership.

When you hear negative things said about you, does it hurt?

“Not any more,” was his quick answer. “It used to,” he went on. He was “addicted” to reading what others wrote about him and wanted to “fight back,” I asked him, “You don’t feel the need to manage perception anymore?”. His response was quick and barbed. “I don’t have to. I am a third-term sheriff with 68% of the vote.”

I think it still bugs him, but he seems resigned to the fact that he hasn’t any power to change what others say or write, so he just works to let it go.

What do you wish your current self could tell your former self?

Again, the question was returned with a chuckle. “Be a lawyer, go to nursing school instead of into law enforcement.” He continued, “I don’t have any regrets. Things happen for a reason.”

He then thought more about the question, saying that he would tell himself, “Make sure you have a strong number two. Someone you can trust, unequivocally, without exception, no doubts, to give you a different perspective.” .

“I surround myself with people who are much smarter than I am, who will walk down the hall and say, boss, this is a bad idea,” he added.

At the end of the interview, we sat and just chatted for a bit longer. When it came time to leave, he asked his wife, Yvonne, to please come help him up to his walker. This proud man wanted to stand and shake my hand. I wished him well and offered the same to Yvonne, as I doubt the sheriff has the makings of a very good patient.


Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief and Linked2Leadership. He serves as a thinking partner, providing clients with the clarity, focus, and tools needed to make good people and product decisions. He helps clients build lasting relationships with their customers, develop leaders who make others feel heard, cared for, valued and respected, and most importantly grow. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Begoun also offers the Integrative Leader’s Book Club. Each month, the group picks a thought-provoking book to read and discuss.

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