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  • Josh Hartsell

Freight Trains and Fireworks

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Want to hear a story about a time I ugly cried in my boss’ office? A number of months into my first professional position in a non-profit organization I found myself on a downward spiral that culminated in a self-bemoaning (and very teary) bitch-fest.

The twin pillars of comparison and competition had wreaked their havoc on me even as I had been hired to lead and develop middle students toward maturity. Instead? I was jealous. Insanely jealous of a co-worker who I found myself competing for what I thought was a limited amount of respect and admiration from students (literal children!). An embarrassing, but true admission.

This admission to my boss was met with dignity. She simply said...well, I don’t remember exactly what she said. But I remember how I changed. The problem was that I’d consistently bought into the false mindset that a co-worker’s success would be my failure. My scarcity mindset was creating a personal panic; I genuinely believed that if people admired him, they couldn’t admire me. If they connected with him, they couldn’t connect with me. That meeting was where I learned about fireworks and freight trains for the first time.

The impact of this inception-style moment has had a long arc: I’ve embraced my own leadership style, ditched the comparison game, and enjoyed the privilege of mentoring hundreds of future students. To be clear, this wasn’t a quick jump. On occasion, learning happens by way of a fast, explosive, transformative moment. This lesson was more like a slow burn.

Over the next weeks and months and years I observed many leaders and thought deeply about that initial conversation with my first boss. She didn’t ever actually say firework or freight train. She said different. My co-worker and I were different. These specific terms came to exist in my own mind as an embodiment of two very distinct leadership avenues.

Fireworks are awe-inspiring. Their brilliance is noticeable quickly and with much fanfare. They connect quickly with people and are beloved out the gate. They often have broad influence with a wide swath of people. Their energy is infectious and pointed. They seem fearless. They set trends. They light the way.

Freight trains have an innate power often missed upon first interaction. They are steady and build momentum as they go. They connect slowly and methodically over meaningful and repeated interactions. Their influence tends to be deeper than it is broad. Their commitment builds trust and their influence grows over time.

An important note: categorizing leaders as freight trains or fireworks doesn’t dictate (or predict) a leader’s effectiveness. One is not bad and the other good. I've seen fireworks radiate long after their pop and I've watched freight trains struggle to build steam. The categories represent diversity, not quality.

If identifying the categories was step one, step two was certainly working to believe that I am not threatened by this baseline diversity. Leading up to my (minor) office meltdown, comparison, competition, and jealousy were effectively running the show. They were entirely blocking me from tapping into my own brilliance. (Read: my co-worker was not blocking my brilliance! I was blocking my brilliance!)

Fireworks are exceptional. Freight Trains are exceptional. Imagine the pleasure of watching them work together. I have committed myself to cheering for my co-workers (firework and freight trains alike). I have committed myself to serving rather than angling for validation in what (or how) I do things. Another person’s success does not mean my failure. Another person’s brilliance does not make me less brilliant. Stop the comparison. Let go of the competition.

The story about the time I ugly cried in my boss’ office? The ending is pretty good.

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