Leadership: Catchin’ Speedy

What is it about leadership that is so elusive?  Grab your cup and get a refill, this’ll be quick.  While we’re at it I should mention that leadership is an issue we need to talk about more.  I been cogitatin’ on it and I think I will begin to hash out some thoughts.  But for now, there is only a little Joe left in the pot.  We’ll keep is’ un’ short.

"Hey Amigo? How do wh'ee catch thees' Speedy Gonzolas?"

I remember as a boy watching the Warner Bro. cartoon of Speedy Gonzales.  There were these two cats hanging out on a roof, scratching their stomachs and looking very hungry.  It used to crack me up how the stupid cat (wearing a long crooked sombrero) would say to the less-stupid cat, “Hey Amigo, how do we catch th’ees “Speedy Gonzales”, and the smart cat would reply, “..’Chew need BRAINS to catch th’ees Speedy Gonzales!”  At which the stupid cat replies again, “Ah, Amigo,… where do we get th’ees brains?”

Perhaps we’re on the same roof with those two cats.   This thing called “Leadership” is elusive, like trying to catch a speedy mouse while being trapped in the body of a stupid fat cat.   Maybe for some of you I’m making this too simple a picture, but I think its a good illustration…..yer’ spillin’ yer coffee…

We lead because we either are appointed to, are gifted at influencing others, or because its our job and brute force is often successful in getting things done.  But true leadership; being successful at it, that’s another story altogether.  Like those cats on the roof, looking for the elusive easy meal.

Speaking of being on the roof, my brother and an old school friend of mine met recently at an event in our old home town and she had asked him about me.  He stated I was a “fireman”, to which she replied with the percpeption that I must “Jump” a lot.  This resulted in some confusion as he thought about me leaping off burning roofs until he realized she was referring to the elite “smoke jumpers” of which I am not one.  He straightened out the confusion by explaining that I was the other kind of fireman, and a Captain.  I no longer got on the roof myself, but “directed the younger firefighters on the roof.”  This in turn caused me to chuckle.  He’s thinkin’ o’ the Chief!  Of which I am not one either.

A. Felig "WeeGee" photo taken in the 1930's. Jakes workin' their craft. Used by permission. The Gordon Archive.

There is a point where you go from being the one doing the job, to being the one who directs the job.  From worker to Shepherd/Guide.  In some companies, the worker is the gruff old fart who has been cuttin’ holes in roofs since before the Loo’ was out’a his diapers and still usin’ a sippy cup!  This is a fine line and one that isn’t easily walked by many in our clan.  We are by our training and ambition, very aggressive players in a team sport.  But when you don your red helmet, (orange for some), you are changing your position, your duty and your goal.  Why do so many of us miss that part?

I work in a department, an entire state actually, where there is a perpetual line of new people coming through the revolving door.  Our state is used as a training ground for folks waiting to get hired elsewhere.  It isn’t too often that we have on our company  a well trained, EXPERIENCED member.  So often, our senior man is at best, finishing his or her third year in the service.  The temptation to govern these people with an iron hand is not only omnipresent, but is also somewhat justified by the amount of inexperience present at any given scene.  On the other hand, there are many departments which we have all been a part of where the officer and company are at the same level of experience or worse completely upside down.  Yet the officer is still not exempt from leadership, just because the old hand on the company is sproutin’ gray hair.  As a new officer I gulped once or twice, hitched up my britches and faced down my driver who had a reputation for stirrin’ trouble.  I made it clear in no uncertain terms that I expected his assistance in leading the company.  I would be sure to give him the respect his time and experience rated, but I also was counting on his support with where I wanted to go with the company.  Or…he could apply for a transfer.  We weren’t together long.  But I have to admit, while we were, we got along well together and I was sorry he chose to exit.  Sometimes there isn’t room for two big dogs.

University Redi-Mix Fire, October 31, 2008

"Ice on the hose, ice on the nozzle, ice on the rungs, ...hold on.!" Photo by D. Waisenan

My point is simply this, you have a job to do once you don the officer’s bugles.  Don’t shirk it.  Your job is no longer to swing an axe (although I’m always lookin’ for the opportunity).  We who lead the company do need to be on the roof, we do need to be first on the roof, but the job itself should be done by those who are supposed to do it.  If they aren’t capable, what are they doin’ on your truck?  Have you done all you could to prepare them?  Have you made it clear that you expect them to do all they can to prepare themselves?

Take a step back, (don’t fall off the roof) and let them do the job.  As I said in my previous post, if you trained them, you should be able to trust their learnin’.  At some point you have to let it go.  Ah, …the fine line…

Discovery Riverboat, Wharehouse Fire. Nov. 2010

Rarely are we going on the roof with experienced firefighters. Yet it is critical that we allow them to grow in their confidence and skill. Photo by Steven Bender.

I am always a step away.  Just keeping with the roof example, I am always within reach of the firefighter I am working with.  If they don’t do the assigned task right, I may provide some slight corrections at the time, but save the lecture for back at the house.  I don’t issue a tongue lashin’ unless they’ve left their brain in the bucket.  But the hard part is not doing the job for them.  Perhaps they know how to do the job, but you just won’t let them get at it.  Getting to perform on a working fire is rare enough without you stealin’ the work from them.  Yes, there is the need to demonstrate to the crew that you are still capable and can lead the way by example.  But your job has changed, Loo.  You aren’t supposed to swing the axe anymore, nor man the nozzle.  You are a guide, a sentinal, a forward observer.  You are in the “shit” as they say, and should be in the front of it, but as a leader of the bravest your town can put forth.  To be that leader you have to keep your head on a swivel.  Can’t do that if you’re stealin’ tools from your people.

One thing I’d like to discuss more in depth and that is how a leader makes his way through this difficult path.  You may be the officer who took the promotion because in your department, that’s what you do.  You might be the one who took the spot because you have visions of self-grandeur and power.  Or maybe you’re the one who took the job because you wanted the extra pay.  I don’t know..do you?  Are you the one who took it without having a reason?  Whatever the case, you’re it now.  And playing the same game without realizing the game has changed will cause you to miss the mark.  Failure to recognise the change in your position in the organization will not only cause you to be stagnant, but it will cause the organization you belong in to suffer as well.

Coached Wooden of UCLA fame, said, “To achieve signifigance, its a good idea to select an activity for which God has given us a measure of skill.”

"Orlando Fire, Engine 1"

"Your job has changed Cap'n, or hadn't you noticed? With all due respect, Engine 1, Orlando Fire, waiting for action! Photo by author.

For your sake, brother.  I hope you learn to change with the times in your life  and if you have found that leadership, I mean true leadership doesn’t sit well on your shoulders, seek help to change.  None of us finds it easy to give up the things we really dig about the job.  You know though, just like its the firefighter’s responsibility to learn his position as “Can Man”, OVM, or Nozzleman, it is also our responsibility and duty to learn the art of leadership and that brother, is where so very many of us are stumbling.  We look left and we look right, wondering which chief we can place the blame on, but Jake, its up to us to find the right path, regardless of the support above.

Once, when a very young officer, in a fit of desperation I asked a VERY old and well respected old timer what I could do about the lack of leadership above me in the department I was in at the time.  He shook his head as he took out his makin’s and rolled a cigarette in a brown paper wrapper and muttered “Not much.”  I turned away dissappointed.  I was expecting him to pass on some sage wisdom, and I felt he had merely laughed at me, but in reality, I later realized he was telling me a great truth.  There isn’t anything to be done except to begin leading.  Brother, you’re it.  Better get it right.  We’ll talk more on this.

Now,..where’d that pesky mouse go?



  • Steve says:

    Truer words were never spoken… and I waited a long time to have someone put them on paper. Now, if it were mandatory reading, and mandatory training and most important – Mandatory behavior and actions…. Oh that I might see the day!

    I think leaders in all careers should have to cut the apron strings much as do people learning to fly. You study the manual, sit through the classes, do the hands on training, fly with an instructor who is always ready to take over the controls if necessary…… and then comes the big day!

    You are doing touch and gos and doing OK, and the instructor says” pull to the end of runway 36 and stop”. No big deal, you do that. But when you stop, the instructor gets out of the plane, and says, “shoot 3 touch and goes and then return to the flight shack”…and walks away.

    You are on your own! And with some lingering doubts you turn the plane and line up with the runway..and off you go.

    But there is more to it than that… The flight instructor has done what he needed to do to bring you to this point, can sense that you are ready, and has the knowledge and courage to walk away and allow you to “do your thing”! There comes a time when you have to let go!

    In my book, that’s one example of leadership!

    I challenge your readers to insert their career leadership position, whether in the Fire or Police Service, or any other, where I have written flight instructor. If you have done your job, at some point the people you lead are ready to do their job. You have one benefit the flight instructor does not have – you can be an arms length away in case something goes astray – he can’t. Think about that! But remember, just because you are an arms length away – doesn’t mean you should use that arm every time you see someone not doing something as well as you can. After all, that would take some real doing – wouldn’t it ? 🙂

    I’ve rambled on a bit Ben, but I hope that what I have written has added in some small measure, to the wisdom of your thoughts

  • BATES says:

    Great article, I can relate to those illustrations very well. I look forward to hearing more!

1 Trackback

Leave a Reply

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