Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Long Road

By Mark vonAppen

Most all of us enter into our career in the fire service blind with ideology; thinking that we can master the learning curve and become difference makers.  We seek to augment growth, foster development, and provide support to our brothers and sisters.

We set about changing the world in our own way, one knot, one hose evolution, or one emergency reponse at a time.  For a while, we are buoyed almost exclusively by the novelty of the road, and the pride of displaying the badge of a time-honored profession.

Needing more, we pack our bags and strike out on our own to see for ourselves that the world, widely rumored to be flat, is indeed round, and does not drop off at the corners of our respective jurisdictions.  We journey through Non Plus Ultra to Ad Adventurum.  Live the adventure; whatever will be, will be.  We discover the world to be a big, beautiful, humbling, mind-expanding place.  We want to share what we learn out there, and show our love of the craft to anyone who will listen.  The problem is, we feel like nobody's listening.

We seek to expand our circle of knowledge, attempting to bring back what we learn on the path to the entire organization - our world - in a single person human wave assault.  We sponsor training, and try our hand at policy reform as we take on the every perceived illness that afflicts the organization.  We want to fix it all, and we want to fix it now.

In doing so, we become rogues, outcasts in our own land.  Warnings are issued about people like us as we travel between firehouses.  We are not-so-subtly reminded that firefighters don't make policy, chiefs do.

Look out for these guys.  They're rogues...

(Gasp!)

Then it's on to the next skirmish.  In our wake, plumes of smoke issue forth from bridges ablaze from the negative energy of hubris and ego.  Driven by naive, youthful exuberance, and an indomitable spirit, heads down, we push on.  Time passes, and we recognize that there are a disproportionately high number of hurdles and roadblocks that we must negotiate in order to move forward. 

At first, it appears simply to be the inherent friction in the system that slows innovation and stunts growth.  As time goes on, we reach a dark and foul-tasting epiphany.  The organization does not value innovation, and it does not want forward momentum.  Worse yet, we discover that as much as we love the organization, our love is unrequited.  There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.

As rogues, we far too often encounter a resistance to change or proposed growth, combined with hostility, which act as major distractions to the intended mission of the fire service.  The mission is to serve the needs and protect the safety of the community.  An on-going preoccupation with what cannot be done, rather than what can be done, renders a degree of dysfunction to operations and negatively impacts team building.  Our passion is relegated to an angry smolder.  It becomes personal.  We retreat deeper into training and feel isolated and scorned.
There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.
It may take a few years for us to recognize that the political topography of municipalities and in turn, individual fire departments, often make it virtually impossible to actualize many of our objectives.  A blend of parochialism and the cumbersome inbred bureaucracy that litters landscape of city government makes the situation untenable for some.  Daily distractions become the norm.  Friction within the organization can steal passion; it can take away love for the game, and it can break our spirit.  If we let it, the fire will go out and we grow cold and bitter inside.  We struggle with the universal conundrum, do we lead, do we follow, or do we simply stop trying? 

Some of us retreat into shells and shrink our sphere of influence - self, crew, station - in an attempt at self-preservation.  Others wage a misunderstood war, redefining insanity by continually launching headlong into a cement wall, in a vain effort to resuscitate a moribund fight. 

We try to bring others on board in the struggle, all the while the friction of the establishment has us in its undertow.  What we desire most of all to preserve our way of hard work and dedication to the craft.  Our career can stall into a period marked by a lack of progress and little or no advancement because it is easier to roll over on our back and expose our belly in an act of total submission. 

But that's not who we are.  Quit is not in our vocabulary, fight and adaptation are.  History shows us that wars are won by those who are students of battle stories and learn from the past.  Full frontal assaults are suicidal.  There is a better way. It might take much longer, but it will be less costly in terms of broken spirits, and career casualties.  

The road is more circuitous than we'd like, but we cannot concede tomorrow's battles for a lack of immediate and overwhelming victory today.  We will not allow what we cannot control interfere with what we can accomplish.  Those who don't lose their way are able to cup the ember in their hands and carry what remains of the fire and lay in wait until the time is right to move.  They move through anger to acceptance, and when it is safe to do so, they open their hands and issue the ember a breath of air.  

The flame of passion flickers back to life.  

We take the fight from the open fields where we are easy targets to the streets and engage in a house to house, street to street fight aimed at cultural renaissance.  We take the fight underground.  We will not allow personal limits to be placed on us.  

Eventually we find our way.  Like a coach or a teacher who bridges the learning gap between themselves and their pupil until it disappears, we try to bring equality to our crew, station, and battalion, thus enabling greater relationships to blossom. 

How do you bring the rogues home and promote positive change?
  • Solicit input
  • Take accountability for your shortfalls and pass credit for success to your people
  • Be disciplined in your approach to the craft
  • Create structure - people want to know what to expect
  • Don't keep knowledge to yourself, share what you know
  • Be a positive role model and encourage others who share a passion for the craft to become mentors too
  • Communicate your passion
  • Show humility
  • Have fun

Rogues can no more explain passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind.  Passion is energy, it is palpable.  We must never lose it.

A large part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey; not in a sophomorish revolt against the establishment simply for the sake of conflict, but because we feel that there is a better way to be found through independent thought, communication, innovation, and teamwork.

The passage is narrow and the walls are sheer.  The rogue's road is strewn with the burned-out, still smoking hulks of what were the dreams and aspirations of those who preceded us.  Real leadership is bringing those disenfranchised individuals back into the fold, helping them reclaim their dreams from those who took them away.  We must augment people's dreams, not disparage them.  Too often, the opposite happens. 

Courage and character are developed by celebrating initiative and independence.  Our time in service, and in this world are limited, we cannot afford live our lives in a rigid adherence to dogma, living exclusively by someone else's rules.  

Sometimes you have to wage the war of positive change on a small scale; one person, one drill, one company at a time.  It requires perseverance - total buy-in - and long term commitment.  Stay in the fight, it's a war of attrition, not a shock and awe campaign.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

We Don't Need To Whisper

By Mark vonAppen

Let's be real.  After all, that's what this whole Fully Involved idea is predicated on - honesty and trust. Without it, we have nothing. 

Put it out there where we can't take it back. Stop whispering in the shadows about our way of doing things and get things out in the open.  Shine the light on the shit that works and slam the door - once and for all - on what doesn't. 

What we have fought hard to create has taken root and is reviving moribund cultures all over the country (and the world) by forging an atmosphere of accountability through belief in each other. We've accomplished this with a dogged adherence to our standard.
  
We must focus on what we can control.  Our standard of performance (The BIG4) is reflected in our homes, in the firehouse, the drill grounds, and on the emergency scene.  How we perform day in, day out, and minute to minute is a reflection of this attitude.
At some point, we have to stop worrying about what people are going to think, do, or say.  When we're doing something significant, detractors don't matter.
We live our lives urgently.  We show up early, listen and learn aggressively, stay late, and we sweat the details.

We display toughness and resilience.  We are always progressing, knowing that there will be stumbles along the way and that we will fall.  The climb up has been slow, and the fall can occur meteorically if we let it.  If we fall, we must always fall forward.  

At some point, we have to stop worrying about what people are going to think, do, or say.  When we're doing something significant, detractors don't matter.  We keep going.

Expect success.  Never be surprised by the way things turn out.  We are either preparing to win, or we are preparing to lose.  Either way, we know what the result will be.  

Invest in yourself and in your future.  We can't learn unless we make a lot of mistakes.  The key is to minimize mistakes in order to maximize performance.  It's okay to make mistakes, but it's not okay to dwell on them and allow them to define us.  Glean the knowledge, lick your wounds, and move on.  Improve every time.

We don't talk shit.  We speak our truth. Honest self-evaluation and pride in performance are emblematic of our way. We are more than willing to pay the price it takes to maintain our self-respect. 

We have the chance to do what many people think is impossible and have a great time doing it.  We must do our jobs, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.  We have tapped into something that works and we have to stop whispering about it. 

Why should we raise our voices when we speak of our passions?  Because we who invest have the most on the line.  





Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Coaching Them Right

By Mark vonAppen

Running threads throughout many of the posts I have had in this blog involve trust. Faith in the leader, the team, the person next to you, and ultimately in yourself are what I feel are keystones of successful operations.  The words we choose and the style of teaching we employ can make or break learning sessions.

Getting people to trust themselves involves building them up, and teaching in a positive manner in order to get the most out of them.  Most learners, no matter their age, do not respond to negative reinforcement.


In my opinion, a bullying style never works for very long.   Short-term results may be realized but the long-term yield will be a disenfranchised student base.  The way that we treat people in training can build unity in the team or it can drive the group away - far away.  Once they are driven away, good luck capturing their attention again.  Even when all other means have failed I'm not a fan of belittling firefighters - ever.
Standing over a trainee with your arms folded, shaking your head disapprovingly as they struggle to grasp a concept or skill, only proves that you hunger for others to fail so you can assert your knowledge and authority.  This in no uncertain terms is bullying, which leads to resentment and flies in the face of creating a positive learning environment.  If you want to lose your audience immediately, act like a pretentious-know-it-all on the drill ground.
"Getting people to trust themselves involves building them up."
Students must be allowed to make mistakes in training. Doers make mistakes.  If a trainee fails to perform an evolution correctly at the first attempt, train them on the desired behavior.  Allow for the opportunity to perform the skill correctly as many times as is necessary.  In doing so, you open their eyes to a flaw in their game and by giving them the opportunity to correct it, they will be stronger performers.

The classroom and the drill grounds serve essentially the same purpose - they are for explanation, demonstration, correction, and repetition.  The training ground is the place for failure, and it is the place where we must conquer the fear of failure in order to succeed.
We cannot coach at people in the same way we do not talk at people.  To reach them we must coach to them, just as our efforts in teaching should speak to the pupil.  A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.  Cultivating trust in the training environment is a must have if we seek an elite level of performance.  Leadership is about owning your responsibility to the future. Coach your people up and give them the tools to survive even after you have moved on.
Trust in the instructor and faith in the training mission allows for trainees to stretch themselves- to go to places outside their established comfort zones.  The results are trainees who seek greater depths of knowledge because they feel comfortable trying new things.
Build trust by caring for the person as an individual - shower them with genuine interest.  Place people in positions where they have the best chance of success.  The student must feel that the mentor will not quit on them - even when they fail.  The deal breaker is when the trainee does not put forth effort, they have to want it too.  The obligation of the student is to make every effort to absorb the coaching and try to improve.  Each person must feel that the leader is speaking to them personally even as the leader is addressing the group. 

How do you develop trust?
  • Communication
  • Establish plans together - students must be honest self-evaluators
  • Execute the plan
  • Mutual exchange - have expectations for the student and allow for the students to have expectations of you (See: What to expect from one another - One Team, One Fight)
  • Be patient
  • Work overtime: Hold some coaching in reserve - speak to people individually about specific areas of improvement after training sessions - this shows interest by spending time outside of the classroom or drill ground
  • Don't single out individuals in the group setting - people know how they performed
  • Don't set people up for failure
  • Allow for failure - use setbacks as a learning tool
  • Celebrate success
  • Have a sense of humor

The instructors who made the biggest impression on my life are the ones who displayed the greatest amount of patience and empathy for me as I struggled to comprehend what they were trying to drive home.
I have never gotten good at anything by not doing it - a lot.  I’m the type of person who has to practice a skill over and over again to get it right.  Once I do get it, I still have to practice tirelessly to make sure I stay sharp.  It’s exhausting, I am extremely envious (and rather skeptical) of anyone that can observe a skill once and believe they have mastered it.  I want to know their secret.  It might just be that they were coached the right way from the very beginning.



Thursday, March 19, 2015

"The Ghost"


"Get outGet out of my office!"  Raucous shouts bounce off the concrete walls of the  Sierra College field house.  A hulking football player shuffles through the door with his head down and starts for the showers.  The disembodied voice booms again, "Who's next?"

The next challenger steps into the ring.  The grayish-blue haze of cigarette smoke was the first thing to greet those who dared challenge "The Ghost" in a round of bones, next came mocking shouts of good-natured ridicule.  "The Ghost" was king of the broom closet, he let everyone know it and would not be dethroned by anybody.  Freddie Solomon would unceremoniously dispatch those foolish enough to enter his office - the janitors closet - and test him in a match of bones (dominoes).  He sat atop a metal stool at the workbench, mops and brooms the members of his court, smoking a cigarette, clad only in his grass-stained football pants and his cut-off 49ers undershirt - his rule absolute, his authority unquestioned.

The previous invader vanquished, he sought another victim.  I would cower as I walked past the door carrying an arm load of soiled jerseys to the laundry room.  I knew anyone who walked by the open door with the smoke wafting from it would be subject to the king's ire.  "Hey, little vonAppen!  You want some too?"  I didn't want to challenge the king in his court so I would smile, wave, and go about the business of cleaning up the dirty laundry.  I offered deference in the presence of royalty.

"That's what I thought!"

As a youth I spent 6 weeks with my father in the blistering heat of Rocklin, California at Sierra Community College as a ball boy at 49ers training camp.  My father and I shared a tiny dorm room on the campus during the summer starting when I was in the 6th grade and continuing through high school.  I made $100 cash per week - huge money for a kid at the time.  My father was an assistant coach for the 49ers from 1983 - 1989 and I had the privilege of being a part of something that most kids can only dream of.

The days at training camp were long for everybody, most of all for the players and coaches.  Luckily, I possessed the boundless energy of adolescence and was up by 6 am and off to breakfast at the cafeteria, then to the field house to get ready for the morning practice - the long days didn't phase me much.  I reported to the field house and helped distribute the clean laundry from the night before, hanging the players freshly washed and often still warm jerseys on their lockers before practice.  I then set off on foot (or sometimes on a "borrowed" golf cart) to the 3 practice fields beyond the locker room and placed cones in neat rows every 5 yards along the boundaries of the fields.  Next, I headed to the baseball dugout to grab tackling dummies and horsed them to strategic locations across the various fields in preparation for the morning drills.  By now, my feet were completely soaked from the heavy dew on the grass and I sloshed in my shoes back to the field house to pack a bag of footballs for the players who were now about to hit the field.

When I was 12, I was awkward, ungainly, and I couldn't catch a football - at all. My job as a ball boy involved a lot of catching and throwing.  It was painfully embarrassing for me when a player, like let's say, Joe Montana would throw me a ball and I would bat it around as if he had just tossed me a hand grenade with the pin pulled.
Freddie loved to teach, even if it was the simple act of catching a football.
Number 88, "The Ghost," was always out on the field before everyone else.  Freddie was a wide receiver for the team back then and he took an interest in me.  He could sense my panic and consternation as a ball zipped in my direction bounced off my hands as I awkwardly tried to grab it.

"Hey, little vonAppen. Come over here. We have some work to do."

I trotted over and off to the side of the field we'd play catch.  Or more to the point, he would throw me the ball and I would try not to bludgeon it to death with the baseball bats I called hands.  Fast Freddie played soft-toss with me to build up my confidence.  He worked with me before practice in the wet grass, after practice in the gathering heat of late morning, and stayed late after practice again in the withering incandescence of the afternoon sun to help me learn how to catch the ball.  Freddie loved to teach, and he especially loved helping kids in any way he could even if it was as simple as teaching them how to catch a football.

"Little vonAppen, listen up, turn your hands this way when the ball comes at you like this," he would patiently demonstrate the correct method for plucking the ball from the air.  "Thumbs together - like this.  Pinkies together - like that."

Frustrated, I dropped the ball time and again and he'd say, "That's alright.  Stick with it.  We'll get there.  Don't quit."

I didn't always want to stay after practice but Freddie wouldn't let me quit.  I had to get better or else he wouldn't let me off the field.  It wasn't about playing catch.  It was an exercise in kindness, interest, and patience.

Freddie took time when he was hot and tired and spent it with me so I wouldn't look like a fool when I was on the field with the team.  In his way, he left his mark on me forever.  For the years he was with the 49ers and throughout my football playing days I always thought of him as I caught the ball, looked it all the way in to the crook of my arm, and tucked it tightly to my body to ensure I wouldn't fumble.  Freddie didn't just teach me how to catch a ball, he taught me about patience - not just in teaching, but how to find patience in myself.  I learned that this little big man always had time for kids and gave of it freely even amidst the stresses of an NFL training camp.
"Your soul is nourished when you are kind."
Since his retirement from the NFL Freddie has been serving as a mentor for at-risk youth in the Tampa, Florida area which he has called home since he hung up his helmet for the last time.  He has been a community coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department since 1991 and the department recently dedicated the sheriffs annex in his name.

The inscription on the plaque with a life-size image of Freddie Solomon with children in football uniforms says:

FREDDIE SOLOMON

"COACH"

"AS I KNEELED BEFORE THE THRONE OF SOLOMON, THE KING OF KINGS SAID UNTO ME, 'THERE IS MORE WORK TO BE DONE.'"

-Freddie Solomon

Freddie was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his liver last year.  He has been battling the disease and enduring brutal bouts of chemotherapy.  His spirits remain high.  In his address to the public at the dedication of the annex that now bears his name and likeness he said, "It takes a family.  It takes a team to make it work.  I'm only as good as the people around me."

In a small way I was witness to Freddie Solomon's charity and for a fleeting moment in time I was touched by his kindness.  He has built a life of making things better for other people.  Only now, as he battles cancer am I aware of the impact the small token of teaching had on me.  The night I found out that Freddie Solomon had cancer I lay awake and stared at the ceiling pondering how small gestures from big personalities leave lasting imprints on lives.  I thought of what a fierce competitor Freddie is and how kind he was to me as a kid.  When we're young, we think those people, be they loved ones or sports heroes, will always be there - forever.  In our fallible memory, they're suspended in time, always the way they were years ago.  Sometimes, these treasured memories are our favorite places to visit.

I am thankful to have crossed paths with such a great human being.  For me, there is more work to be done, much more.  Freddie has taught many people, young and old, that we must pay forward the virtues instilled in us by those we call dear.  He taught those whose lives he has touched that teaching is about humility, patience, and unearthing the best in others.

King Solomon said, "Your own soul is nourished when you are kind."

Thank you King Freddie.  Your soul most certainly is well nourished.

God Bless.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Disappear


By: Mark vonAppen

A well-intentioned co-worker took me aside as I prepared for a promotional exam, placed his hand on my shoulder and asked, “What’s your deal?”

In return I offered a puzzled look as the conversation stumbled awkwardly down a familiar path.

He continued,  “You need to tone it down. People are saying you're a bit over the top.  If you want to get promoted, you need to disappear."

Disappear?

I stiffened inside as I listened to his words.  What was wrong with me that doing things my way went against what was socially graceful, safe, or right?  It was the part of myself that I despised, but I had always seemed unable, or unwilling, to change it. What had made me such a misfit, living my life with my head lowered, so dead-set on testing limits, permanently at odds with the world around me?  Why was I forever pushing upwind, uphill, and upstream?

Disappear?

I began to consider what I was being asked to do.  Was I wrong?  Was it me?  I realized then that I was being asked to compromise what I felt was right, to realign my true north, and my heels dug in once again as they had from the moment I was born.  I was being asked to do what was easy as opposed to what I knew was right.  It wasn't me, quit had never been in my vocabulary, but fight and adaptation were always part of my life.  History has proven that wars are won by those who are students of battle stories, those who press on despite the best efforts of those who try to hold them back.  

A wide, satisfied grin spread across my face.  

Oh, sorry.  

Wait a minute, I'm not sorry.

I will not disappear.  I won't be put in a box.

A big part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey. The path of most resistance is where the biggest change occurs.

I not so subtly rolled my eyes and my inner monologue went something like this, "Here we go again..."

I had heard it all of my life, so I took a deep breath, counted to five and let the words permeate.
  

I offered an even, biting retort.  "Good.  That's the point.  I'm fired up.  I love this job and I'm not sorry about it.  No apologies, no excuses.  Not then, not now, not ever.  Excuses are useless to me, my friends don't need them, and nobody else will believe them.  I will strive to be at my best everyday.  For me, it’s not about appeasing the masses.  It's about improved performance.  My job is to make my crew as safe and effective as we can possibly be.  It's not about checking boxes.  I'll let my crew's performance do the talking.  What's your deal?"

If you have no ideas then you can't be a nuisance.  A big part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey, not in a sophomorish revolt against the establishment for the sake of conflict, but because you feel that there is a better way to be found through independent thought, innovation, communication, and teamwork. 

The path of most resistance is where the biggest change occurs.  Are you going to do what's easy or what's right?

Disappear?  


No, thanks.  I'm not going out quietly.

Don't like it?  Tough.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Prepare To Win

By Mark vonAppen

There is a way of doing things that spoils the ending for us every time.  It's about having a standard of performance that is communicated and understood from the bottom of the organization to the top. 

It's called preparing to win. 

We can't just show up and say, "Hey, I think we're going to win today."

That's not how it works. 

When we are preparing to win, we practice hard and set goals for each training session.  We don't go out and simply go through the motions.  We don't phone it in.  

We set our minds on winning, even on the drill ground.  Practice is where we develop good habits. We must train proactively for any situation.  We have to know how we will react given any circumstance—we can’t guess.  We must practice for every possible scenario so we don’t get surprised.  We train to the point where we can anticipate what is going to happen next.
If we are doing our jobs, we are preparing to win every day.
Photo by author
When we are preparing to win, we perform the basics until muscle memory kicks in, then we add a sense of urgency and turn up the degree of difficulty.  We have to fight fatigue.  When fatigue sets in, we become clumsy and inattentive.  Mastery of the basics means our minds are available to deal with each threat as it presents itself.  That is what reduces injuries.

If we are doing our jobs, we are preparing to win every day.  

When we are preparing to win, we are writing our own ending.  When it's over we can honestly say, "That turned out exactly how we expected it to."

We should never be surprised by the way things turn out.  We are either preparing to win, or we are preparing to lose.  Either way, we know what the result will be.  










Saturday, November 8, 2014

Books, Smarts

Craig Rose photo
By Mark vonAppen

Increased value is being placed on education in the fire service these days. Without question, education is important, but it is the ability to blend academics with the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of our craft that enables us to be effective.  Time and again we see it, books don't translate directly to smarts.

I know plenty of people with a trail of paper behind them a mile long that can't process information in a rapid fire fashion, which leads to poor decision making under pressure.  When you get them out of the classroom, they fall flat on their face.  I also know plenty of people who have an equally long paper trail who think extremely well on their feet.

We all know them. 

On the flip side, I know people who barely made it out of high school who are some of the smartest, and most functionally intelligent people I know.  It is the ability to have both street smarts and a solid base of education in applicable subject matter that makes the great ones great. 
It's the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.   
In terms of education, we have to stay abreast of the latest scientific studies.  Perhaps equally important, we must know, in no uncertain terms, what we are personally capable of in all situations. Without the ability to apply it to the correct situation it is just as well left in the book it was found in.  We must continually function at a high level in an area where discretionary time does not exist.  It's a tremendous challenge.  

The answer is relentless training and contingency planning that involve stressful situations which are germane to those we will face outside of the cool, calm, confines of the classroom or simulator (I call it the "pretendulator").  The great ones "what if" things to death, and never stop preparing.

It takes a lot of work.

Do I want smart people on my crew?  Of course, but they have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time while crossing the street during rush hour traffic.  We don't operate in black and white.  We operate almost entirely in the grey.  Those who look only to books or procedure for all of  their answers are rigid, inflexible, and at times, dangerous.

Complacency is the enemy, and success never comes easily.  Education by itself doesn't mean a whole lot to me.  Books can't be judged by their covers.  We must judge people by the size of their hearts and on their ability to perform.  

It's the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.