The Organizational Missionary: Planting the Seeds of Change

This week it is my plan to create a ripple in the waters of the American Fire Service. Let me explain the nature of the stone that I am tossing into our collective pond. I want each of you to become the farmer who plants the seeds for a better organization within the soil of their existing fire department.

Think about this my friends. How many leaders cannot lead? How many mangers cannot manage? How many followers cannot follow? Sad to say, there are far too many who fall into each category. Let me once again offer my thoughts on the basics for creating a vibrant organization. There may be those among you who are tired of hearing me sound off about the basics of such topics as leadership, management, and organizational development.

Let me state for the record that I might be tempted to apologize for the repetitive nature of certain parts of my message, were it not such a persistent problem. Let me also suggest that those folks who really need to hear the message are not tuning in to the world of Firehouse and They need someone to take them to the farm field and help them plant the seeds of change.

That is why I preach to you, the people who have become my choir. Only when you take the message and begin to pass it along can we hope to have an impact upon our fire service. This is called the multiplier effect and it will not happen unless you take an active role in the process. You have to spread the word.

One thing for sure my friends, there is one person out there that I know will not be reading my words this week. After last week's commentary on the situation in Maryland he (or she) sent me a rather lengthy treatise that essentially dismissed me as a blathering fool.

He (or she) cried long and loud bemoaning the fact that wasted so much space carrying the blathering of a fool with an ego so fragile that the fool found it necessary to hide his delicate body behind a whole slew of letters at the end of his name. What a hoot. This person has no idea how much laughter he brought into my world during the past week.

I mentioned to my detractor that as a writer of commentary, my primary task is to make people think. I stated that it was obvious from the length of his (or her) assault on me that a considerable amount of time on their part had been devoted to reading and thinking about my words.

Let me reinforce my message to "Some Dude." I write to make you think. It is not my task to have you love me or hate me. It is my task to make you think. At that point I then thanked that person for taking so much time to think about my words, and spending so much time to create a lengthy email reply. I also thanked them for helping me to accomplish my avowed purpose here on earth.

This is the mission which I have set forth for myself this week. I want to see a whole lot of thinking going on around here. I want all of you to read this commentary and then share the thoughts within it with someone with whom you spend time in a fire station. It might be a friend or associate. That does not matter. I would then like to ask about 100 of you to read it again and share it with your fire chief. There are two forms of sharing:

Either is good enough for me. From the response to many of my past emails, I do know that my words have flown under more than one closed office door. I am also certain that some of you have seen my words used in place of toilet tissue from time to time. That is all right too. You cannot like me or dislike me until you take the time to read my words and form an opinion. By then it is too late. I've gotten to you: you have thought.

Let me offer another provocative statement. Far too many of our current crop of leaders (and I use that word to describe position, not talent) have poisoned the waters of our fire service through their selfish approach to organizational development. They have adopted a style of leadership that can best be described as "self ahead of all others" leadership. Their motto is quite simple. Hooray for me and the hell with you.

These same people then proceed to wonder why their people are working according to their own individual self agendas. These "leaders" are wondering why they are having trouble rallying the troops around the flagpole at the center of their organization. The Bible covers this one my friends. I suggest that these folks are just reaping the seeds which have been sown by them and our society in general as it has evolved over the past few decades.

Since I am going to ask you to plant some seeds within the soil of your organizational world, it is probably a good idea for you to think about the societal soil with which we must deal in this the 21st Century. If you are getting on in years, do you think it is the same societal soil that you and I grew to adulthood in? If you are a younger person, do you even care that society has changed in the last few decades? Is the impact the same if you are in the generation between the X, Next, and Boomers cavalcade? Believe me when I say that it is important for all of you to look at this concern.

The issue of societal soil is of critical importance because that is where you have to plant the ideas for changing your fire department. Along these lines, let me give credit where credit is due. It was my good fortune to hear a truly outstanding sermon in church this past Sunday. It was preached by Reverend Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. We were fortunate that he was able to take time from his busy schedule to help our congregation celebrate 150 years of sharing faith in the Colts Neck, New Jersey community.

His words were truly inspirational, drawing upon the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi and the Holy Bible. While he was challenging us to grow the Christian faith in our community, I saw an immediate cross over to the world of the fire service. He was speaking on the need to plant our seeds of faith into the soil of our current society in order to grow and nurture our flock.

In my mind I began to ponder the problems of planting the seeds of good leadership in our fire organizations in order to build a solid foundation for the people who will follow us in the future. He spoke of the problems with our soil right now. He spoke of how few people were actually attending an organized religious movement in America today. He spoke of the millions who never worship in a given week. The shocking part of this was that the numbers have doubled in the last decade.

Reverend Granberg-Michaelson then spoke to the actual flaws which have worked to make the soil of our soul so hard to till these day. He heavily referenced Gandhi when he spoke of the following weaknesses running rampant in American society today:

They seem to be just as applicable as they were in Gandhi's time. Let me add one thought of my own. There has been a growth in the feeling that the world owes us a living. That one goes back beyond Jiminy Cricket, the Walt Disney character of my youth who sang a cute little song with that same title during the cartoons I watched on the weekly Walt Disney Hour.

How are you and I going to plant the seeds of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication into a soil tainted with such a wide array of negatives? It will not be easy. Nothing good or worthwhile in life ever is. It is up to us to stand toe-to-toe with those who take the negative posture of the naysayer.

Both a faith in God (or your choice of a Supreme Being) and a faith in the good works (and future potential) of your fire department require you to believe in something that grows beyond the boundaries of your human body. You must have faith in the actions of others.

Whether you are working as a Pastor or a Fire Chief, the rules and needs are the same. According to Reverend Granberg-Michaelson you must bring people into your organization. You must build them up to be a productive part of your organization. You must then turn them loose to do the good things for which they have been trained and indoctrinated.

Bringing someone into your organization requires you to reach out to them and share your beliefs with them. Initially, you need to listen more than you need to speak. To do this you need to create a vision that meets the identified needs of your organization and your community. Portray that to potential newcomers, then sit back and listen to their thoughts.

Unfortunately it does not always happen this way. In far too many instances, the leader simply sits down and thinks. The leader then works to create their vision for the future of the organization: theirs and theirs alone. That is all well and good, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, far too many fire chiefs (and some pastors I am sure) stop right there.

Our leaders fail to seek input from the people who will be tasked with doing all of the dirty work required to fulfill the mission of the organization. They adopt the age-old posture which uses the motto made famous by a 1950's television show: "Father Knows Best." My friends, this just does not work any more (if it ever did). We need to actively solicit a by-in from the members of our team, be it a fire department or a faith-based organization.

These people claim they want their people to think, however they lack the ability to trust these people enough to allow them to think. Rather than turning their people loose, they put them in a box and require them to do just exactly what they are told.

It is my feeling that it would be far better for these leaders to involve their folks in the process of planning and vision and then seek their input. In this way they will be allowed to develop a spirit of buy-in to the new vision which needs to be developed in many parts of our nation.

This approach will allow you to create an organization with a shared vision and shared values. In organizations like this people will work hard to get the job done so that they do not disappoint their fellow travelers. This tactic will allow you to develop an organization where hard work and dedication are the rule rather than the exception. It will be this way because you have allowed them to create an environment wherein these attributes are encouraged and expected.

It is the diligent farmer who seeks to grow their crop well. They become devoted to tilling the soil and harvesting the crops. In the case described here it may well be that you have to fertilize the soil with the power of dedication, love, honesty, and patience (mostly patience). In a selfish world, these attributes are little known and not often used. However their effect remains as it always has. You will also have to be mentally tough and morally strong, for your loving actions will almost certainly be met by cynicism and distain. You may end up getting your hands dirty planting the seeds of organizational improvement. So be it.

Do not worry. You are battling for a better fire service. I have been assured that the Lord is on the side of the right. I believe that with all of my heart and soul.