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The Parable of the Wise, Old Fireman

It has been my observation that one of the primary ways which Jesus Christ used to mentor his flock involved the use of the parable. Gowler (2002) tells us that, "… A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse that illustrates a lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters." It is a type of analogy which is used to make a point.

There are those who suggest that parables are best used with spiritual concepts. Others suggest that they are best used to make a single point. It is with these two thoughts in mind that I want to share a story with you today. It is based upon many observations which I have made over the past few decades. While I have done some serious research on the concepts in this commentary, I want you to know that this work is merely a sharing of my personal observations on life. Thus begins the Parable of the Wise, Old Fireman.

There once was a veteran member of a local fire department. That fine man had been a member for more than 40 years. He had been to most of his department's major fires, serious incidents, and disasters during his long and honorable career. He had a tremendous memory and loved to share stories of his years on the department.

Basically he had seen and done it all. However, he did not rest upon his laurels. He was always the first one to sign up for the latest courses at the local fire academy. While many of his generation kept to themselves, this fellow liked to hang out with the younger people in his organization. He said that working with young people kept him young.

This veteran fireman loved nothing more than to share what he knew with the younger troops. He loved nothing better than to take the younger members under his wing so that he could share his knowledge with them. However, he never forced his attention and knowledge on any one. He would offer his hand in friendship to the new members and then work from the relationships that developed. He truly enjoyed what he was doing. Life was really good.

Then there came a day when his knowledge was challenged. There was a certain young fellow who became the fire chief. This young fellow never really liked the "old-timer" and all of his meaningless stories. This young fellow made it clear that he knew it all and needed no one else telling him how to run the show. What he failed to understand was the critical role that the veteran was playing in his interactions with the younger folks.

The long-time member was serving as a mentor. This veteran was sharing a form of critical information that people in the academic world call tacit knowledge. It is a form of knowledge that is difficult to transfer from one person to another by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. It is the sort of basic "how-to" stuff which can only been learned over time and through constant practice.

This young chief was not aware of the fact that the fire service is a demanding, ever-changing field. However, it is one where the new tasks and ways of doing business are built upon the firm foundation of things we have been doing for a long time now. He seemed not to understand (or care) that there is always something new coming around the corner at you. Whether it involves the latest tools or technology, there is plenty for each of us to learn. It is also a place where the basic skills must be continually reinforced. You cannot stretch a hoseliner once, or raise and place a ladder once and consider yourself an expert.

But here was this 20-something person, all puffed up with his own importance, quickly proceeding to run his fire department into the ground. One, by one people began to stop coming around the fire station. Attendance at drills was sparse and the number of people responding to fires was on a downward spiral. Some days, the calls were handed off to surrounding mutual aid units.

This young chief was at a loss to explain what was going on. He was telling people what to do, but they just did not seem to understand what he wanted them to do. How could they be so stupid, he wondered to himself?

As the number of people continued to dwindle and the department's ability to get a fire truck on the road slipped dangerously, guess who it was that kept on coming out. That's right, the older, veteran firefighter who liked to mentor, share his knowledge with others, and just make friends.

Oh, he did not agree with what the young chief was doing, but his love for the fire department kept him coming. He never jumped on the young chief when he did something stupid. He threw no rocks, but neither did he throw words of praise. He just made sure that he performed any task he was given in a proper and proficient manner.

One evening, the veteran firefighter passed by the chief's office and saw him sitting behind his desk with the look of a hang-dog, old hound dog firmly planted on his kisser. The older guy popped into the office and said to the chief, "…what's up boss?"

The chief looked up and said, "I don't know. Something is wrong and I cannot figure it out. Why aren't people doing what I tell them to do?

The veteran paused for a moment. He was searching through his vast reservoir of experience for just the right answer to this critically important question. Please bear in mind that this fine older man had served in all of the ranks during the course of his decades of service to the department. He was searching for just the right bit of advice to impart to the newly inquisitive individual.

Finally he sat down in a chair opposite the chief and began to speak. He said to the young chief that he had been waiting for the opportunity to contribute to this situation, but that it did not appear as though the chief wanted to hear any thing from anyone. He noted that this was not a good thing, but that he had not wanted to butt in where it appeared as though he were not wanted. The old timer then added that since he had now been asked he would now toss his two cents of opinion into the organizational pot.

The veteran fireman proceeded to tell the young chief of another chief decades earlier who worked in a similar way. This fellow kept to himself and never asked anyone for their advice or their opinions. When he did interact with the troops he had a sort of a 'my way or the highway' approach to running the fire department. Many of the other members referred to him as a "smart ass." Above all, he made the younger members (of whom the veteran was one at that time) feel really uncomfortable. Not a good state of affairs, the veteran said to his young chief.

The veteran told the young chief that he made up his mind that if he were ever to rise to the officer's ranks that he would remember what he thought to be the mistakes made by this man. He swore that he would work to do every thing in exactly the opposite way of the "know-it-all" young chief. He kept simple, hand-written notes to stimulate his thinking. He shared these thoughts with the current young, know-it-all. Here is his list: " Find and recruit the right people " Conduct your recruit training under a well-trained staff " Mentorship by a veteran during the initial work assignment " A guided system of education in the many aspects of the fire service " The use of experience in a positive manner, viz. critiques after each incident to identify the good things as well as the problems " Re-reading of the educational materials as a way of reinforcing the good things and overcoming the bad things which were identified during the critique. " Making the whole process a continuing circle of learning, doing, critiquing and retraining. " Treat the troops as you yourself would like to be treated. " Be a servant to your troops.

The veteran then went on to state that no one should be exempt from playing their part in this loop of learning. He told the young chief that knowledge and experience only come as a result of years of diligent effort. He stressed that each of us who wishes to excel must understand the demands which are made up us in the areas of learning, performing, and improving. The key methods which we should all consider employing are two-way dialogue, practical reasoning, active listening, and the simple act of sharing.

He closed the conversation with the young chief by saying something really simple, but most direct. It is not about you chief. It is all about the people you lead. As he was leaving the room, he turned and told the chief that he was available anytime the young fellow needed a bit of guidance.

This ends the parable of the wise, old fireman. And so too is it with the wise old veteran's in your organization. They usually know a lot more than they let on, but they do not want to butt in. They did their turn at the helm of the ship and want you too to enjoy your time in charge. Thus it is that I leave it to you all to create your understanding of this story.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.

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