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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Life in the Schoolhouse

(Excerpt from Swallow Your Ego)

I lived in a school house for the last three years of my time as a fed. Well, it felt like I lived there. I always saw the sun come up, and I generally saw the sun go down. I doubled my Spanish vocabulary at the local taqueria, bought a hand-held vacuum to clean the crumbs off my keyboard, and met some of the best people in the world.

Not that it was a bad place to live. Imagine a really nice campus in the middle of West Virginia coal country mountains, half an hour outside of Washington, DC. and with state of the art gym, shooting range, 0.4 mile running track. Glass windows, fancy cubes, classrooms with smart chalkboards, everything you'd expect in the nicest of modern college campuses. And pretty much everyone who became a supervisor in the agency was required to come through one of our classes.

There were maybe forty instructors who taught leadership for all 60,000 plus Agents, Officers, and the civilian staff. Many of them were Agents and Officers themselves, people who came to the schoolhouse to help build the next generation of leaders and learn a few new ideas before going back out into the field. These folks had great intentions, passion for the classroom, and loved learning new ideas, theories, and approaches. It was a wonderful group of people, particularly for a young guy like me who thought this leadership stuff made a difference.

Plus, there was a certain amount of camaraderie that developed among those who suffered.

For what it’s worth, if I was to do one thing to fix the agency, I’d require that every single person who wanted to be a senior leader spend at least six months teaching. It would make competition for the instructor positions even more competitive, and it would force folks to think about what it means to be a leader on their way to the top. After all, they say the best way to learn something is to teach it.
But nobody asked me. And I think the results speak for themselves. Which is probably why nobody asked me.
Back to my story.

We hired many consulting firms or even universities to teach our people leadership. Big money, big names, lots of ego. These people were the self-proclaimed experts, and they approached the world with attitudes to match.

Of course, every instructor wanted to be one of these guys. Our lowly Border Patrol Agents and CBP Officer instructors were in awe, and maybe I was a little bit as well. I’d only admit that after having a few drinks. It’s hard not to think something of guys who teach MBA-level classes, write books on the NYT best seller list, and make six-figure salaries working four hours a day. Maybe I even wanted to be one of them one day, to have my own consulting firm and teach people all of the great things I knew. Call it a small dream of mine.

We also pulled lots of senior leaders for things like graduation speeches, fireside chats, and formal events. This included delegations from foreign governments, border protection officials from other countries, and generally representing the biggest, best law enforcement organization in the world. Nothing more funny than getting told to park your car in the far lot because the Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioner, and some Middle Eastern government representatives didn’t want to walk two-hundred yards in the Washington, DC cold winter.

The school house was a fun place to be. Until they started give me that ugly thing that happens to people who are at least decent at their jobs — more responsibility.

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