Trust: Leadership's Solid Cornerstone

One of my favorite church hymns has a line which has helped to guide my life for many years now. The line goes like this: "Trust and obey, for there is no other way." A simple thought indeed, but it can serve as the basis for great faith if followed diligently. Unfortunately, many times we fail to follow this simple guide. Many times we lose the way and lose faith in our fellow travelers. Trust in our fellow travelers then becomes a casualty of life.

My friends, I believe that the seeds for this form of trouble lie within each of us as humans. There have been times when my trust has been repaid with kindness, generosity, and cooperation. Sadly there have been those occasions when people have taken advantage of me. These folks saw my kindness as a sort of weakness and exploited it for their own selfish gain.

Tough on me I guess, but I do not care. I don't think I will change. Many times I have found that these people who took advantage of me wanted nothing more than situational power and control. They would lie, cheat, and steal to whatever extent was necessary in order to achieve their goal of gaining power.

This has led me to believe that far too many amongst us are what might generously be described as control freaks. People like this reach positions of leadership and then decide that they and they alone, know what is right for their fire department. Forget the fact that others helped them to get where they.

Suddenly they feel themselves to be the font of all wisdom. Worse yet they feel that no one else has their wit, charm, grace, and intelligence. They begin to feel that everyone else in the organization must pay them homage for the mere privilege of remaining a member of that group. Somewhere along the way they begin to lose the trust of their people. However, it is their trust in others that is the first casualty.

These leaders (and I use the word loosely) begin to feel that people are out to screw them. Some even begin to entertain delusions of immortality, like they will be the leader forever and a day. This is the point in time where we begin to see the beginnings of what I like to call "Hide in the Bushes Leadership".

I doubt that you will see anything written in the literature of the leadership field on a style of leadership with this particular name. What you will probably see is an extensive body of knowledge about how some people in positions of leadership begin to feel threatened by their subordinates. At some point they begin to believe that everyone is against them.

Much like Captain Queeg in the classic Herman Wouk war novel, the Caine Mutiny Court-Martial these people come to believe that everyone is against them. In the novel the captain's paranoia and its resulting leadership paralysis led members of his crew to relieve him of his duties during a time when they felt that his actions would result in their deaths during a typhoon. These crew members were then subjected to a trial by military court-marshal.

In the novel, Capt Queeg told the members of the court-martial board that he would have succeeded, except for the disloyal people who did not know how to follow his orders. Sadly, his track record of paranoid leadership was brought out during the trial and he was left a broken man on the witness stand.

This same thing can happen to fire chiefs too. Chiefs can sometimes end up isolating themselves from the members of their departments. It is then that strange things begin to occur. When this sort of thing happens, the paranoia of those in charge sometimes takes them in strange directions.

There is a place in America where the fire chief has become the neighborhood snoop. Perhaps you have met that person. This person holds their staff in such a low regard that they have come to believe that they personally have to hide in the bushes and attempt to find their people doing things that were proscribed by the regulations of their organization. I can see this person peering out of the posies hoping to catch someone violating a regulation.

People like this assume that fear is the only form of power which can be used to whip their staff into shape. They wake up each morning worrying about how the troops will be trying to screw them during the coming day. Countless hours are devoted by people like this creating schemes with which to catch the worthless swine of the department screwing off rather than devoting themselves to the organization.

I guess they have simply come to fear their people rather than trust them. It is this supervisory paranoia that causes some people to begin doing screwy things. These people feel that they need to be everywhere, do everything, and keep an eye on everyone and everything.

These are the people who Douglas McGregor might have labeled Theory X Leaders. If you recall, McGregor wrote about the behavior of human beings in the workplace. He created two competing theories to explain his thoughts. They were Theory X and Theory Y. The assumptions behind his Theory X were that people just did not like work. Because they do not like work, people must be threatened to make them work.

He also wrote that people like to be controlled anyway. Since people do not want to work and want to be controlled, a boss needed to be tough to get work out of those who did not want to work. He offered, under Theory X, that you had to keep a close eye on people or they would try to avoid doing their jobs.

I often thought of his words as I labored in the vineyards of this fire department or that while suffering under the lash of the boss. How could that person doubt my love for the fire service? How could they ever imagine that I wanted to give anything to the department other than my best efforts? This was one part of my life where what I read in the books helped me to understand the quandary within which I was embroiled. This knowledge helped me to make it through the day.

Fortunately McGregor also wrote of the Theory Y style of leadership. In his 1960 text, The Human Side of Enterprise, he wrote about the competing theory which stated that the expenditure of physical and mental effort at work is as natural as the efforts we all expend when we rest, or are involved in some recreational task we enjoy.

He also wrote of how much harder people will labor on behalf of an endeavor if they understand the direction that their organization is taking, what was expected of them, and their actual role in the organization. He spoke of the need to increase the employment of people's intellectual powers on behalf of the organization.

It has long been my belief that we are not involving our people in the ways of creating our workplaces. Whether out of fear or ignorance, far too many fire chiefs fail to reach out to their staffs for new ideas. Far too many chiefs fail to understand that each of their folks is a living, breathing, and thinking resource: a resource which must be nurtured and grown to its fullest value.

Many times we encounter situations where things would have turned out better if the members of the organization had been brought in to assist in the formulation of future plans. However, the negative attitude of the leader, or their fear of the troops, did not allow this to happen. Rather than creating a group which has bought into the organization, you have people who feel abused and neglected.

The boss then has to rant and rave to get the job done. They then use this as the justification for future situations wherein they further ignore the capabilities and opinions of their people. As you might imagine, this whole distasteful situation continues to grow into a downward spiral of ever-increasing speed. Whereas trust fosters loyalty, the lack of trust creates an atmosphere of ever-increasing distrust.

It is at this point that you will begin to find fire chiefs riding around in unmarked cars spying on their staffs. People are not stupid my friends. Regardless of how their leaders treat them, people will persist and persevere. The job will get done. However, they will only do enough work to keep themselves out of trouble. This is a truly sad situation indeed for the organization involved.

How can this situation be turned around? Unfortunately, such changes usually require a change in the leadership. The problem is that many times the subordinate leaders have become so accustomed to operating in this world of fear and distrust that they refuse to believe that any other way of operating exists. When they take over, things do not seem to change much.

You know me my friends. I believe that there is a better way out there, but it takes courage to try a new approach to running the ranch. Let me suggest that there is a way to do this. All it takes is the selection of a new leader who loves people. This new leader then begins to turn the path of the organization ship in a new direction.

Just for arguments sake, let me suggest to you that your new leader meets the criteria for being a servant leader in the true mold of Greenleaf and Autry. Will this sudden injection of a people-oriented, servant leader lead to instant success? While you would think that it would, I offer that there are three things that you might expect to happen in this situation.

Your organization will have those people who are so desperate for a change, that they will buy into the new leader's ideas in short order. These are the people upon who you should begin to build your future successes. These are the people whose strengths must be played up and whose weaknesses addressed. These folks will make you feel good about yourself and your ideas for change.

The next group will be a bit standoffish. While many in this group have been vocal critics of the old regime, they are going to hold off from granting their support to your efforts. These are the folks who will challenge your skills as a salesperson. They will wish to see each and every "I" dotted and "t" crossed before they will sign on board. However, once convinced of your sincerity, they too will become ardent supporters of your efforts.

The last group will be the toughest group. These will be the people who flourished under the old boss. They either knew where the bodies were buried, helped to bury the bodies, or were paid for their silence about the location of the bodies by the assignments or privileges they were given.

These people almost never come around to the new way of doing business. Regardless of this, they will have to be understood, appreciated, and treated the same as everyone else. Perhaps it is true that people can be killed with kindness. Here is your opportunity as a new leader to see if this can be done.

You must make sure that you treat everyone alike. Treat them with respect. Offer your support. Solicit their ideas and opinions and seek to make their contributions a part of your plan. Never yes people to death or give them lip service. People possess an uncanny ability to always spot a phony.

You must sincerely ask for their ideas and support. Use their ideas whenever you can. If you cannot, please be kind enough to explain the reasons for that decision too. Then work to see if the people can help you come up with other acceptable alternatives, based upon their original offerings. The more you work to include people in your plans, the wider will be the circle of your support.

It is my hope that you can understand the rightness of this argument about growing trust and support among the members of your fire department. I am sure that there will be many among you who totally disagree with my belief that people really want to contribute to your organization. That is your right in a free society.

Next time you are hunkered down in the front seat of your unmarked chief's car, spying on the troops, pause for a moment and think a bit. Let me offer a thought to guide you. It is a slogan which was made popular during WWII when the need to conserve gasoline for the war effort was a critical element of government policy.

I think it sums up my views on all of you "Hide in the Bushes" leaders out there across America ruining our fire service. "Is this trip really necessary?" I think not. "Trust and obey, for there is no other way."