The On-Going Battle: Us vs. Them

You cannot expect members to follow you as a leader in battle when you spend the majority of your time between battles criticizing the commanders.


How often have you been sitting around a table solving the problems of the fire service and heard the phrase "if only they would listen to us" or "they will never get it right" or "if we were in charge, they would finally understand the "right" way to do things." Perspective is everything. And the interesting thing about these conversations is that they never change. The world looks very different from the bowels of the engine room in the bottom of an aircraft carrier than from the bridge. And both groups are saying the exact same thing - "they" will never understand what it means to be one of "us."

The fact of the matter is though, that there is no "them" and "us" - a ship never leaves port without power from the engine room, and all the power in the world doesn't steer a ship. All of the functional component parts of an aircraft carrier could make an argument that theirs is the most vital part of the ship. And yet no part: not the pilots, not the fuelers, not the captain are anything without each other.

The same is true in the fire service - there is no "us" and "them" - there is only "us". "Us" are the ones who get to wear the uniform and be part of something bigger than ourselves. "Us" are the ones who have a responsibility to carry on a proud tradition of placing service above self and accepting the challenge of placing ourselves between harm and the citizens we have sworn an oath to protect. "Us" are the ones who promise "we will never forget" and actually mean it.

"Us" vs. "Them" is a disease that can kill an organization. You cannot expect members to follow you as a leader in battle when you spend the majority of your time between battles criticizing the commanders. I recently heard a firefighter recalling a story about an officer he had worked for years prior as one of the most vocal critics of the department, constantly complaining about "them" as if he and his company were somehow not connected to "them." And it reinforced the idea that it was ok to criticize the organization and still claim membership in the part that wasn't screwed up.

The point to be made is that the responsibility for defining "us" starts with the fire chief and must be carried forth completely, consistently, and positively all the way down the chain-of-command. And it is the fire chiefs' responsibility to make sure that the guy or gal scrubbing toilets in the fire station understands their importance as much as the battalion chief commanding a fire or a paramedic defibrillating a cardiac arrest victim.

The key to success is to put everyone's job responsibilities in terms of the greater goal - whatever that goal is. And it has to be repeated again and again so it remains right in front of everyone's vision. It probably sounds corny but when you ask any member of a particular fire department what they are doing, their answer should be "saving lives and protecting property." Clearly they are not actively engaged in that activity every minute of every day, but when you provide that kind of focus it helps members understand that their role is ultimately geared towards that one goal. They may be scrubbing bathrooms or waxing apparatus or standing by the road waving signs for "Change your Clock, Change your Batteries" - regardless of the activity - it is all towards that common goal.

If company officers speak badly about command officers, they should expect their firefighters to speak badly about them. There is a dramatic difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism only occurs when an individual is able to point out a weakness within an organization and offers a solution or series of solutions to solve the weakness in a way that works within the structure of the department. Destructive criticism is the cowardly act of sitting around a table complaining about how wrong everything is.

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