Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Stay Hungry

It's hard to comprehend how those driven individuals who are hell-bent on moving the fire service forward are constantly excommunicated from their organizations and told to keep quiet. Those who are not silenced - rather, those celebrated few - are considered visionaries who serve to propel their departments forward as destination organizations to which we should all aspire to be a part of. It's all about the climate of acceptance within the agency. It's all about want for change.

Let's be very clear, vision is scary to some people. Vision requires the ability to look ahead, to listen, and most of all it requires a lot of hard work to see the vision actualized.

I have flirted with the subject of listening to voices of all ranks in the organization before in "Trouble Maker." Those who sit on their opinions and wait for others to answer the tough questions aren't the ones who lead.  They wait for someone else to be the villain and then latch on to the point - once made - after the ice is broken.  A fatal leadership flaw is a lack of openness to new ideas or suggestions.  Another fatal flaw in leadership is being a fake.

From "Trouble Maker":

It is interesting - to me, anyway - that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. 

Here are some examples:
  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.
Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how firefighters (and company officers) are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. “That’s how it is done here. We’ve always done it that way.”

Be a "yes" man and you'll go far my son. Question the conventional and you're in for a bumpy ride. Fasten your seat-belt.

In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”
Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are. If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?

Remember, these are considered leadership traits.

Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass. Once again fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction. 

Call me old fashioned, I suppose I'm a victim of the person I was as a kid - back before I entered the work force - when I believed that hard work and perseverance always pays off.  It usually did in athletics, so why should the competitive realm of the fire service be any different?
Polarizing individuals are often catalysts for change, they inspire dialogue and invite fresh perspectives.
The bitter reality though is this; you're only as valuable as your last performance, or maybe that doesn't count either because being a leader means pissing people off.  You can only achieve as much as the organization is willing to allow you to achieve. Polarizing agents like those who challenge the status quo will always be viewed as separatists who rock the cozy little boat that some of us float along in throughout an insipid career.  Polarizing individuals are often the catalysts for change, they inspire dialogue and invite fresh perspectives.

As harsh as it sounds, as bold and as visionary as some of these voices are, the bourgeois does not want to take a step in a positive direction.  

The reason?  Vision is scary.

We have to move the ball forward on our own.  We have to build the circle from the inside out. Grow your circle of positivity by seeking out those who share the vision. That vision is one of hard work, dedication to the craft, mental, and physical fitness.
The keys to success in this venture are strong station leadership and core chemistry.  Strong core leadership ensures that the role players fall in step and comply with the program.  Without strong leadership in the station the new faces - recruits - can easily slide into bad and potentially lethal habits. You don't have to have a title to be a leader, you can lead up, down or sideways.  Show your fellow firefighters how to be a positive influence from anywhere in the department even if the positional leaders are unwilling or incapable of supporting your efforts.  

A house divided cannot stand - that's what they say anyway.  We're surrounded so we have to be able to count on the the person in the foxhole - or on the pipe - next to us. 
We should honor our past, carry on the proud traditions, but expect nothing from it.  
Giving it more thought I realized that when the attacks began on our proud profession that we owe it to ourselves to protect each other because it is readily apparent that nobody else is going to.  The positive strides that the fire service made in the past decade are relevant only in the eyes of history. The fire service moving forward will have it's own unique composition and chemistry.  We should honor our past, carry on the proud traditions, but expect nothing from it.  The future is ours to create. 

We must be hungry.  The new fire service cannot exist on reputation. Hunger and drive for perfection is what will define our fire service.  We must rally around each other. What will emerge will be a leaner, stronger, and smarter machine that carries us forward.  

It will be how the new generation of leaders (of all ranks) puts it's spin on the core values of the fire service that will define success or failure. The one constant in the past was the adherence to the way (strong work ethic and being of high character) and how the nucleus carried the torch, setting the example for the new faces that dotted the stations from year to year.  We must not lose sight of the way.

There are two things that unite people faster than anything: a common goal, and a common enemy.  The goal is to move the ball forward, the enemy is complacency.  Train more, think more, talk about the job more.  

How can these be considered bad things?
It starts here.

They shouldn't be.

The new fire service must be a group not of reputation but a team of character.  If we take anything from the past it should be this; be not who others think you are, existing on reputation, be a person of character, because that is who you really are. 

Hard work and dedication should count for something.  Even if you don't like (or can't stand) the messenger, listen to the message. If the message speaks to you use it for the positive, if not, delete it. Don't silence outspoken voices, you might learn something. 

Scary, I know.

R.I.P. Lt. Richard Nappi (FDNY). 


  1. Great work Mark. The message is on point!!

  2. I wrote "Hungry" in one caffeine fueled afternoon after I got a message from a buddy - I sent him "Defiant" to proofread - saying he had to lay low because he was getting hammered in his own organization for being stoked about the job. These guys that get hammered take knowledge and enthusiasm to depths that I can't begin to fathom. Why would anyone try to silence that? Enraged, I started clattering away on my keyboard. I still don't understand those who try to bridle enthusiasm.

    I hope to learn from everyone I meet through sharing on the blog. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  3. Awesome brother I loved it! keep up the strong work.

  4. These articles are too good. They can't be true. Just kidding. Good to see others feel the same way. I have been frustrated, beat down, talked about and almost gave up. These words inspire me to keep on keeping on! Keep up the good work.

  5. “Sometimes it’s hard to be a prophet in your own land.”

  6. If it's not too much to request, if possible a printer friendly version of your articles would be much appreciated.

  7. This is a great piece.It's a shame you didn't point out the difference between the "visionary" that is moving the organization forward in a positive direction, and a "manager" that is making changes due to the political influences that He/She is working under. Thus the saying, not all change is good change. Our industry is under a great assault by the political forces in this country. They do not care how many personnel it takes to do a job, they do not care how it effects the public or those responding. They only care about providing what looks like the same service for less money. We as the fire service are committed to providing the best services we can and we are also our own worse enemy. As they take from us, we change our culture to fit the "new paradigm" we continue to try to provide the same services with less personnel, less equipment, unreliable equipment etc. As our older generation moves on to retirement, we are losing great wisdom and leaders. Men and women that have done the job and learned through trial and error. We are gaining book smart, job dumb managers that try to present themselves as leaders to a very young and also book smart new generation of firefighter. I truly worry about the future of our fire service and the great loss of life that I see coming on the horizon. The "Leaders" need to cry out, push for the changes that help the service and make our jobs more efficient, but they also need to fight for what our predecessors learned through the school of hard knocks and what the service they passed onto us was. Our staffing levels and what we could or couldn't provide to our communities were learned through experience and it's what they fought for to pass on to us.