Wednesday, May 15, 2013


By: Mark vonAppen

During my travels in March 2013, first to Chicago for FSW Fundamentals, then to Jacksonville, NC, to deliver FULLY INVOLVED Leadership to some 200 fire service brothers and sisters, I learned a few things about finishing the job. 

When I arrived in Jacksonville, I had little idea of the types of firefighters I would be addressing in my fledgling class on leadership.  I was eager to have an impact on the group by sharing my somewhat unique perspective on the subject, but I had no idea of the fingerprint the group would leave on me.  I left North Carolina humbled once again by my interactions with those quality individuals who never stop teaching, those who work overtime to ensure people get it right. 

I quickly came to understand that Jacksonville is home to Camp Lejeune, an enormous Marine base, the biggest in the world I am told.  Jacksonville Public Safety's Headquarters is on Marine Boulevard, so it makes sense that a few Marines might find their way to the local fire department for employment after they leave active duty.  I have read a lot about the Marines, and military history in general, so the gears in my head began to squeak into motion.

Gulp...I'm going to be addressing a group of former Marines about leadership?

Holy crap...

My first day in the Carolinas was an adventure, figuring out where I was, figuring out what to eat (I discovered sweet tea, hush puppies, and that everything is better when fried), adjusting to the time change, rehearsing the timing of the presentation, and riding with the training chief to a working fire (pictured, top and right).  What struck me most during my trip was that though I had traveled 3,000 miles to croak in front of the group about leadership, I was once again humbled by the small act of an individual who knows about leadership and about finish. 

When Chief Susanna Williams picked me up at my hotel to begin Day 2, she beamed as she handed me a book while I piled my gear in the Suburban.  "I was at station 1 and Captain Whitmore asked me to give this to you.  He said you might like it."  The book was one I consider to be one of THE leadership books to read in order to be successful as a new leader, "Small Unit Leadership."
"Real leaders never stop teaching for they realize that passing life experiences and tools for success down the line is their greatest gift to the future."  
I met Captain Whitmore the day prior, first at the fire (he is pictured at top in the red helmet leading his crew in the firefight) as I switched out his SCBA cylinder, then as he sat dead center in the auditorium, with a tight lipped-skeptical expression etched on his face, his hair high and tight, and his arms folded across his chest.  His face and body language communicated in no uncertain terms he wasn't much interested in hearing what the "tree hugging" captain from California had to tell him about leadership.  

He asked some pointed questions of me and I could tell he was probing for a response.  He leaned forward as he posed question after question.  With each exchange I could see his posture at first stiffen, and then slowly relax.  I asked one of his department mates about him at a break. "What's that captain's deal?  I feel like he thinks I'm a candy-ass."  He chuckled, "No, no.  That's just Gunny." 

Captain Whitmore's nickname is "Gunny," carryover from his days as a Marine where he was a gunnery sergeant.  Gunny's are the link between the boots on the ground and the platoon commander, often a lieutenant with a lot of formal education but little combat experience.  As a new officer, you must have the support of your gunny or you are in for an uphill battle in your assignments.  I knew then that I was the new officer being broken in by the still sharped-edged gunny who's only job was to make sure the new guy didn't get everyone killed, or in my case, fill their heads with complete nonsense.  He was doing his job of running the soft one off before he could do any real harm.

I believe strongly in the message I preach and I have seen it work over 40 years, realizing only as an adult why I believe as I do.  What Gunny grilled me on was my belief system, not something I had merely read and was half-heartedly parroting for my own satisfaction.  I stood my ground, in doing so, I displayed some sliver of resolve and delivered a message that must have resonated with Gunny.

A sign hangs above the radio room at Jacksonville station 1 (Captain Whitmores firehouse), it reads, "Whatever you are, be a good one." As I stood beneath it before teaching the first session I couldn't help but feel the message was a metaphor for the trip and the maiden voyage of Fully Involved.  I gleaned what that bit of foreshadowing meant as I cradled the book that Gunny had given to me in my hands.  It reinforced that we are forever students and that those who genuinely take the time to listen will hear the message.  The message of Fully Involved is to lead from anywhere, and I find that I learn something new from someone every time I venture out.  There are many amazing leaders out there and often we are blind to thier abilities and the positive affect they have on the organization.  We must continually learn, coach, and lead in our way to make things go.  I was reminded that we are aggregate of everything and everyone we have ever known and experienced.  Pieces of our every contact in a lifetime of contacts have molded and shaped us into who we are today.  Today's interactions change who we will be tomorrow.

In exchange for passing my experiences forward, Gunny offered me an opportunity to grow.  Real leaders never stop teaching for they realize that passing life experiences and tools for success down the line is their greatest gift to the future.  I held the book in my hands, thumbing through the dog-eared pages as a wry smile spread across my face.  I noted the underlined sentences, and the notations scribbled in the margins.  I had read the book a few years before and had highlighted some of the same areas.  Something that stuck with me from the book is that a leader must show genuine interest in their people.  I recognized immediately that this was the act of a man who most likely doled out praise sparingly, was tough to win over, and this was his way of showing interest in me and finishing the job.  He was making me better by sharing something that had helped him on his journey as a leader.  Gunny was working overtime investing additional time and interest in me and I'm not even sure he realized he was doing it.  It is simply in his nature to lead.

As the crews filtered from the council chambers, Captain Whitmore approached the podium as I packed up my laptop and collected my things.  He shook my hand firmly, the way Marines do, as he did, he looked me in the eyes and said, "Good class.  I enjoyed it."  Two simple sentences, a hand shake, and a book from a leader like that are among the highest compliments I have ever received.

Thank you Gunny.

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