Sheriff Sean Smith on admitting when you’re wrong and the long road to dream jobs

The La Plata County lawman discusses the importance of admitting when you’re wrong and the long road to dream jobs
Decisions (and how to make better ones): A series

Previous installments of DGO’s decisions and success series included:

Part I: Co-founder and owner of Ska Brewing Co. Dave Thibodeau talked about the active planning and long road to success that took him from high school party kid to craft brewing legend.

Part II: Ellen Roberts, lawyer and former Colorado state representative and senator, on taking risks and controlling fear.

Ep 180209670
Jerry McBride/BCI Media file

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith waves to the crowd as he walks down Main Avenue during the 2017 Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering Parade.
Ep 180209670
Jerry McBride/BCI Media file

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith waves to the crowd as he walks down Main Avenue during the 2017 Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering Parade.
Ep 180209670
Jerry McBride/BCI Media file

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith answers questions during a 2017 press conference at the La Plata County Administration Building on the arrest of Mark Redwine.
Ep 180209670
Jerry McBride/BCI Media file

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith answers questions during a 2017 press conference at the La Plata County Administration Building on the arrest of Mark Redwine.

OK. So. You think you made a muck of your life. You’ve had a foot in six different career paths and they were all interesting but none stuck. Quit beating yourself up. You aren’t the only one who’s had to wade through a swamp of random wants for a few years before you saw the bridge over them all.

DGO’s “Decisions (and how to make better ones)” series has focused on getting you past self-doubt and forcing movement into a stagnant life. Part I featured Ska Brewing co-owner Dave Thibodeau on framing your day for success. In Part II, lawyer and former Colorado state representative and senator Ellen Roberts talked about taking risks and controlling fear. In this third and final installment, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith discusses having an internal compass and a trusted group to help make decisions, admitting when you’re wrong, and how a long path to success usually means an interesting life and a resume worth the job you really want.

When a choice goes badVery first thing, just like in a 12-step program, admit when you’re wrong, not just to yourself, but to others. One of the very first decisions I made as sheriff, it was wrong ... I got handed a thing; I made a decision. Ultimately, it’s kind of worked out with the intent that we put behind it, but that quick reaction of, “I’m going to fix this,” had three other pieces, and, down here, this one still feels broken. You have to admit when you are wrong.

Admitting, “Hey, we didn’t do that quite right,” is the first step to then asking, “How can we do this better?” A lot of great people have said that the best way to learn is making mistakes. If you think you’re right all the time, you’re wrong. (Laughs)

Teamwork and internal compassesAt the sheriff’s office, we like to have a team concept. I may be the elected sheriff and I have an under-sheriff, but there’s actually 14 people that represent all aspects of this agency that are in my leadership team. We sit in this room on Tuesdays and vet things. I love to get the feedback.

We have done the pro/con lists, all sorts of exercises in our organizational development. The charts and voting with stickers, all of those different schools of thought. I think that well-informed decisions, when you have the opportunity, are the best way to go. And sometimes, you need to seek input outside your team to make a well-informed decision. We use county attorneys – all kinds of folks – to give us different perspective.

Quite often, in the emergency management realm, you don’t have time for a democratic point of view, if you will. You have to know what your guiding compass is and go. It is important to have those guidelines up front: This is our vision statement, this is our mission statement, this is who we are, this is why we try to do the things we do. Knowing that and letting it guide you.

For an average person, that can mean, what are you all about? What do you want to get from the world? What do you want the world to see of you? Try to define that ... Figure out who you are and who you want to be and what you’re shooting for. What do you want the world to see about you and then let that guide your decisions.

The start of your day mattersI recently added a new piece (the start of my day) this year. I read a book by Admiral McRaven called “Make Your Bed.” ... Basically he says, start your day with this one thing you can control. Make making your bed your first success of the day and build on it. If your day turns to crap, you’re going to come home to a made bed. A bed you made. It will feel good.

Dream jobs aren’t necessarily a linear pathIf anybody took a weird path, it was me ... I joined the military after a semester of college because I knew I wasn’t ready for college. That’s where I met my wife. We just had our 25th wedding anniversary. We got married young, before we finished school, and we struggled.

I picked up the deceased for the county coroner down in Arizona for a while. I’ve been a drill sergeant in prison for drug offenders. I’ve been a welfare case manager. Lots of different things.

I would start back in school and then we would get pregnant, and I’d drop out to get another job. Life, circumstance, all that. What got me to where I am, through this interesting path of exploratory education and finding what worked to support a family, was perseverance. I made it a priority to finish my degree and keep my education going.

At one point, I left (La Plata County) even though I knew my heart was here because circumstances led me to work for the U.S. Department of Justice. I knew almost immediately it was not the right choice for my life, but I made a choice and had to pursue it for a while.

(La Plata County) was where my heart was, my passion, and this community was who I wanted to serve, but the time away helped build a resume that qualified me for this position.

It wasn’t necessarily a straight path or ladder. There’s always a door or two and you pick which one you want to walk through. If you stay strong to who you are, persevere, and you continue to work on yourself, the path comes to you.

Happiness isn’t moneyIf you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, there’s basic needs, psychological needs, and those things have to be met. But how do you get to that self-actualization level? Success is finding a deeper purpose. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like I am supposed to be here, doing this job. I love my job.

My undersheriff is a Broncos fan. He could tell you everything you need to know about anybody who ever worked for the Broncos. Meanwhile, I can rattle off a serial number for a light bar in a police car. (Laughs)

If you make the choice to go down a path just because of money, I don’t think you will find success and happiness. Money doesn’t buy love. Money doesn’t buy satisfaction. Money doesn’t buy the feeling of you’ve done what you can. You have to figure out what makes you tick.

I have become almost obsessive about this place and my involvement, almost to the detriment of my personal life, at times. You have to be cautious to find that balance in your life. It’s not just about this one thing. If I didn’t have my wife who loves me and my three children who support me, would I be doing as well here? Probably not. This great network has enabled me to pursue this passion. What is success? It’s a lot of different things. It’s definitely not about the size of your paycheck. It is about figuring out how all this [motions wide with hands] comes together to form a good life.

Looking to other leadersFDR. What did that guy go through? Between The Depression and World War II, the various dilemmas he saw make my world pale in comparison. Eleanor (Roosevelt) was a strong force in his life and the White House. I think they found a way to triumph together. I would love to gain some perspective from FDR and Eleanor.

In modern life, I like to talk to everybody ... I love to listen to other leaders and business owners and hear what they’re doing ... I like to ask people, “Hey, here is what I’m struggling with, what do you think?” Especially when I’m with other leaders, to gain perspective. If you’re always worried about proving that you’re the biggest guy in the room, you’re falling short.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Patty Templeton

Ep 180209670

Jerry McBride/BCI Media file

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith waves to the crowd as he walks down Main Avenue during the 2017 Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering Parade.

Ep 180209670

Jerry McBride/BCI Media file

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith answers questions during a 2017 press conference at the La Plata County Administration Building on the arrest of Mark Redwine.

Decisions (and how to make better ones): A series

Previous installments of DGO’s decisions and success series included:

Part I: Co-founder and owner of Ska Brewing Co. Dave Thibodeau talked about the active planning and long road to success that took him from high school party kid to craft brewing legend.

Part II: Ellen Roberts, lawyer and former Colorado state representative and senator, on taking risks and controlling fear.