The Finer Things; Leading the Next Generation

The brothers are in the kitchen, we finished up early today and they’re putting together the company meal. I’ve mentioned before how these moments in the firehouse are among my favorites. We really are a family in so many ways and preparing and eating a company meal is always a welcome time in the tour.

Taco night at 2's

Taco night at 2's.

This is where the ribbing and joking goes on, and the tall tales. As the old man, my job most of the time is to keep drinking coffee and comment on their culinary skills from time to time in such a way as to raise into question the quality of their upbringing. “Who taught you to cut onions?” or “Hey, wha’ the…I like my noodles digestible.,…”

“That does it, ….Does your mother know you do that?!”

This is my proper place at meal time. They expect it and in the twisted world in which we live, its appropriate. One of the latest cut ups is getting the new guy to put cinnamon in the coffee, telling him “Oh, yeah, Cap loves a dose of that in his coffee!”. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.   I rant, …probie flees the beanery.  ..And so it goes on as it was for me and I hope, will be for them in later years.

I love these guys.  As the years go by, you watch them mature and grow into solid men and you hope, ..you hope that you have given them what they need to do well.  But how are you to know?  What is the yardstick we are to use?  Has our training been effective?  Has our leadership been effective?

Of course there is always the feedback you get from their next duty station, next captain or chief.  But more than that your imprint can be seen even before they have left your sphere of influence if you are willing to allow them room to grow and solidify their understanding of what you have taught them.  In my experience, company and battalion level leadership styles boil down to two distinct methods (not to include complete dysfunction where the line between leader and follower is constantly blurred).

1.  Do what your told to do, (sometimes in SOP’s, sometimes regardless of SOP’s)….cause I’m wearin’ the brass.

2.  Do what you know needs to be done, based on the principles the organization has defined for you.

We all know or should know that the first method results in a myriad of organizational difficulties.  Perhaps even based on sound principles, the organization is either gripped tightly by those in command and stifling independent action, or it is characterized by a distinct lack of leadership at the top, leaving its line officers no other way to keep themselves from trouble than to narrow mindedly function by the book (or traditional and historical organization norms).  If its source is at the chief level, it will root itself deeply in the company officer level and then you will play the devil getting it worked out of the future officers as well. 

The second method, based on solid guidelines and trust can foster excellent opportunities for young officers and rising line officers to develop their decision-making skills and build self-confidence.  But to go this route, you really must be willing to accept their mistakes as your own because they will tip over the tea kettle.  I have seen it many times over, just when you think they’ve got a handle on things and the reins can let go, disaster hits and you can just hear the micro-managers shouting “See, ….I told you!”  But here you establish mercy and grace, and that is the difference between the two.  Mistakes happen.  I have not gotten through twenty years on the job without having caused a ruckus or two.  Many, many instances of grace and pardon have come my way and yes, a lot of crow too.  The humility serves to temper you, the grace gives you a chance to try again.

Now I’ve been at this a while.  I have confidence in the people I lead. 

Teach them the "Why's" as well as the "Do it this way" part.

I know my department hires quality people and my fellow officers and I work hard to develop them into good, solid jakes.  They don’t all work out, and they shouldn’t all work out.  The “Job” is not for everyone, and not everyone belongs in the job,  in spite of what they might think of themselves and what HR says about everyone being special.  But our organization excels at finding some of the best young men and women I’ve ever met.  And in order to let them become the firefighters and leaders they want to be and that we need them to become, there has to be an environment conducive to surviving your mistakes long enough to make improvements on them.

Imagine an organizational method that prepares you to take the place of those who lead you, gives you time to develop into a competent professional, then gives you room to progress, guidelines and consistent mentoring to help you find your way…I know, ..pipe dream..But is it?  If we can avoid some common pitfalls, we can improve our efforts and make the most of the time we have with these people.

"Invest yourself in them."

One of the things that has caused immense damage in both the fire service and other long-standing organizations has been the all too frequent promotion of those who seemed to excel at the intermediate level into the advanced level without having gained any experience in the middle.  You often see this in small departments vollie and paid, simply because there is no one else to promote or no one else responded to the call.  I’ve also seen it in larger organizations where the failure to provide a development path for officers causes the management to seek to promote those who excel in the promotional testing process.  But that is no guarantee any degree of understanding leadership.  Even those who seem born with the gift of leadership need to be trained to use it in the right ways.  In such circumstances, someone who is really good as a firefighter or medic can end up being in charge of the whole training program without ever having fought much fire or treated any truly critical patients.  Some are pushed to the front seat against their will or sometimes happy to be there but without a clue as to what lies ahead or the responsibility that has been placed upon them.  This is not the way to let loose the reins. 

In other organizations, any mistake or deviation is met with ridicule or punishment.   The only development that occurs in one of these places is the school of misguided management.  In some orgs, mistakes may not happen often, but neither will anything spectacular.  If you work hard enough, you can successfully crush almost anyone’s enthusiasm for the job.  Note:  Sarcasm intended here.   Failure to properly develop members of the organization leads to endless command and control issues at the house and on the incident scene.  For some, it results in career long habits that can cost lives.

Create moments for them to lead and practice making critical decisions.

And lest anyone forget, this new generation Y is altogether different from the Boomers and the Xers as we so frequently hear.  I have had several frustrated senior men and officers ask me what to do about this gap in focus and purpose that seems to be such a problem among the new generation.   I don’t mean to belittle the problem.  It is a real factor in our fire departments today.   But I believe that good leadership, mentoring and applicable traditions can have a significant impact and go a long ways with these young folks.  They aren’t so different.  They do seem to feel they are entitled, they do tend to seem a little arrogant, and they don’t inherently embrace all things American and traditionally and historically Firemanish.  But they really respond well to involved dynamic, confident, savvy leadership that is patient and willing to explain the “Why we do this” part.  If you like to lead from your desk or by watching episodes of “Rescue Me”, well..yeah, you’ll find them doing  what they know best;  games, social media and the venerable “FB”.  Getting chapped at these guys because they don’t appreciate the paint job on the piece isn’t their fault if you didn’t find a way to communicate its value to them.  If you don’t get involved with them, engage them, ask questions and show them why “Doing Whatever” doesn’t fly in our world, you’ll be left behind by them.   You’ll find them creating their own standard.  Create buy in by learning about them and what they believe, then show them how to fold those things into the fire service culture.  We are, or should be, seeking a blend of the old and the new. 

Particularly with this new generation, its not just skills, its taking time to give them good reasons for what you teach them.

Many of these pitfalls plague us.  It’s up to us, the officers in the mix, to find ways around organizational error and stagnation and create a culture of development.  You want this new breed to succeed.  They will represent us in the future.  There is no sense in cherishing the past traditions and history if you don’t intend to see it through and pass it on.  So next time you’re on a routine job, let one of your own take the lead, give them a lot of rope, demonstrate confidence in their ability, but position yourself in such a way as to suggest support and coverage, not back seat driving.  Create for them a chance to excel, and a place to make big and little mistakes where the damage can be mitigated and lessons learned can be improved upon.  Yes, you put yourself on the line a bit.  But they’re your people, …..you trained them.  Or at least you should have.  For that reason alone, you should care about their performance in their next assignment.  Its your reputation too.

At their next assignment or department, will your department’s reputation be known for creating steadfast micro-managers or for making future leaders?  Where are you in developing the next generation?  Time will tell.

4 Comments

  • Matt says:

    Excellent. Not that anyone asked my opinion, but I think this is your best piece so far, Youngblood. You’ve written many pieces that evoke a feeling of brotherhood mainly through the use of a lexicon of words that have a high emotional potency. This is different. In cold, straight talk, you’ve laid out an argument and supported it well. Everyone in the hierarchy from your own level up to President Obama should read this. Clean it up a little, get rid of all those damned apostrophes in your plurals, and this could be published anywhere. Bullseye.

    • Ah, but your opinion is most valued, queried or not. As one not involved in the “Job”, your opinion and perpective have a great deal of value and as a writer and mentor, you’re critique is sought after. Thank you!

  • Rob says:

    Wow!!!

    Ben…great article!

    I am privileged to say, “Ya…I’ve had a few with this guy a time or two!”

    Your writings will be part of a firefighter mentoring program another brother (here at SCFD7) and I are working on. The topics you write about are perfect for thought provoking discussion. I can’t wait to see how my mentoree takes to the topics.

    Hope all is well with you, the family and the department up there on the tundra. Things are good down here. Looking forward to another day where we can sit down, chat and have a cold one.

    • Hey Rob! So glad you find this rambling so useful. Still don’t know why I feel the need to write, but I do, so I do. I don’t think that I am saying anything so profound, yet people react to it that way. So it must be needed and if it makes a difference for someone than I am thankful!

      Looked for you in the Pipes and Drums photo on St. Patty’s Day! Wish we had a celebration like that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *