The Leader as a Master Mechanic

It is amazing how many times a thought can come to you in an unlikely place, or at an unlikely time. It is also interesting how many of these thoughts can lay dormant within you for weeks and then suddenly burst forth. Many of you who know me could rightly accuse me of have numerous odd thoughts; and many of these thought and ideas have arrived in my brain at really screwy times. Perhaps this week's topic has a shot at setting a new record for off-the-wall.

My wife and I were sitting in our living room watching the Today Show on NBC. The topic of discussion was post-partum depression. It brings sadness to an event that should be cause for great joy. This illness is turning out to be a growing problem across the country.

Katie Curic was interviewing Brooke Shield and a medical researcher about this problem. At one point the researcher mentioned that many medical practitioners do no have all of the necessary tools to recognize and treat this growing medical problem.

It was at this point that my mind went rocketing back to a sermon that Reverend Scott Brown preached a few weeks back. So how, you might ask, can I possibly be able to tie Katie Curic and Scott Brown together in the same paragraph? My answer is simple and direct. I don't know. It just came to me as I was downing my third cup of coffee for the morning.

Back on April 24, Scott delivered a sermon which spoke to the need for each of us to understand that there is normally a right tool for each task that must be accomplished in life. Here is the tie in my friends. It is all about tools.

While the researcher on television was speaking to the need for acquiring the right skills (knowledge and techniques) to properly treat a patient, Scott was alluding to the fact that some people are better at doing certain things than others. It is my belief that he was suggesting leaders must come to know their people so well that they are able to select the right tool for the task at hand, much like a Master Mechanic.

A good buddy of mine from Freehold, New Jersey is, I believe, a Master Mechanic from the old school. Leo Haley kept the Carter Family Fleet running for more than 30 years. No matter what challenge my wife, children and I threw at him, he always seemed to have the right tool in his toolbox to take care of our troubles.

How then does this mechanical analogy apply to our fire service world? Perhaps the classic way to describe this involves the concept of round pegs and square pegs. How many times have you heard the phrase that speaks of placing a round peg into a square hole? The number has to be in the hundreds, if not thousands. It is a classic description of the need to fit people to those tasks for which they are suited.

This is a topic often discussed in the literature of the leadership field. A description of the transactional style of leadership would suggest the importance of leaders coming to know the skills, talents, and needs of their people. The following speak to that need:

  1. Leaders must assess the relative worth of the individuals that make up their team.
  2. Transactional leaders must know and understand the needs of their organization.
  3. Transactional leaders must know and understand the needs of their people.

Leaders should possess the skills to create an environment wherein there is a high degree of correlation between the needs of the organization and the needs of the organizational members. More than that, the leader must learn how to place the round-peg person into the round hole. Each person must be considered as a tool in the toolbox of the fire service organization, to be used at the right time.

This also suggests that the leader must develop an awareness of the capabilities of each person for whom they are responsible. I have long taught that each of us is a distinctive being. Each of us has grown to adulthood within a truly unique set of experiences. While you may be able to group your people into general categories, I would not recommend this as a way of leading your team.

The master mechanic has many different sizes of wrenches in their toolbox. Would a master mechanic use a standard American wrench on a metric nut? I think not. Would the master mechanic use a ball peen hammer when a rubber mallet was called for? I sure as heck hope not.

So it must be with the leader and their utilization of team members. Think about the members of your team (department). Are there those who are quiet and reserved? Are there those who are outgoing and gregarious? I would imagine you have some of each in your organizational toolbox. Here is where the master mechanic analogy comes into play.

Let us say that you have to decide who will deliver a series of public fire prevention training sessions. Would it be better for you to select the quiet and withdrawn person? Or would you want an outgoing people-person member of your team to conduct those classes? All things being equal the answer seems to be fairly obvious. You would want to have the classes taught by someone who likes to interact with people.

This presumes that you have trained your staff in ways that emphasizes their strengths and minimizes their weakness. Here is where the master mechanic concept comes to the fore again. The wise mechanic keeps their tools in working condition. The wise mechanic knows the value of their tools and does not abuse them. They insure that the tools are cleaned after use and placed back in the proper place in their toolbox.

Think back to that time when you tossed a wet wrench back into the toolbox without drying and oiling it. What did you find when next you wished to use that tool? If my experience is any guide at all, you will find a rusty wrench that is not up to the task for which you have chosen it. This lack of the proper tool at the appropriate moment hinders your ability to get the job done in a timely fashion.

So too is it with the people who make up your organization. Let me offer another view of the example given above. Let us say that you choose to give the task of teaching the public education classes to someone who is not comfortable interacting with people. What might the consequences be for you, that person, and your organization?

In the first place, that individual will probably not do the best possible job. This could lead to a mental letdown that can have long-term consequence for that person. The unhappy person could possibly become a drag on your team. Their attitude has the potential to affect the attitude of other team members who might come to fear you. They would see what you had done to one person and begin to wonder and worry about whether you might do the same thing to them.

Another possibility is that this situation could also lead to a group of unhappy customers. They might begin to make your life difficult. They could go to your supervisor and ask that pressure be put upon you to do a better job in selecting speakers and educators. That puts the pressure on you.

What have you done? You have created enemies. Sun Tzu wrote centuries ago that the making of unnecessary enemies was an action that a wise warrior should not take. These enemies could act in one of two ways. They could attack you. They could seek to undermine your team.

As a matter of fact, it could become even worse than that. You enemies might decide that it would be advantageous for them to form alliances. They could then conspire against you. It that case, you would then be battling a growing array of forces, not really knowing when or where the next would occur. All because you failed to act as the master mechanic would. These travails will dog your life simply because you chose the wrong tool for the job.

How might you avoid the hazards of selecting the wrong tool? My answer to you will be simple indeed. However implementing my suggestions will be difficult, in that they will require you to devote time to becoming a proactive leader. My suggestions might also require you to change your way of leading, and we all know how hard it is to change.

My first suggestion is that you begin to spend time getting to know each person on your team. This will require a series of informal meetings. You should set it up as a series of private sessions. Offer coffee, water, soda, or something similar in an attempt to put the other person at ease. Do not attempt to pry secrets out your people, but begin searching for answers as to who they are and what motivates them to be a member of the team.

Here are a few sample questions:

  1. Why did you choose to become a member of our organization?
  2. What do you like most about your duties?
  3. What disturbs you about your duties?
  4. What are your hobbies?
  5. What do you have to offer to us that we might not know about?
  6. Is there something in the manner in which our department operates that you might be able to change?
  7. Is there anything you would like to know about me?

These are but a few of the things you might wish to explore. Be aware that there will be those who will not want to respond. Take this as an indication that they are either reticent to say anything or worried that you are up to something sneaky. Do not be discouraged. It will take time to establish your credibility.

It has been my experience that there are three basic reactions which you can expect from people when you are attempting a change of any sort. There will be those who enthusiastically embrace your efforts, because they see them as positive. Another group will remain neutral until they can get a reading on your intent. When these people feel confident that you have no hidden agenda, they will begin to respond to you. This may take time and a number of positive actions on your part.

There will also be a third and far more challenging group. These are the people who may never come to trust you. These folks will always disagree with you and at best see you as someone who must be tolerated. This type of person is always going to be with us. It is here that the concept of patience comes into play.

Remember that patience is a virtue. I think the best description of how change occurs comes from the statement written by John Heywood back in the 1500's. "Rome was not built in one day." So it will be with your attempts at learning about your people. There are many classic examples of change-related problems within the history of the fire service.

I would urge you to think back to how long it took for the concept of incident command to emerge in our fire service. How about the battles we have fought in the name of firefighter safety? There was the battle to get people off of the back step. Then there was the battle to get our firefighters to wear a self-contained breathing apparatus on their back. For many of you, these are the battles of history. For me, these are vivid memories of what it was for me to grow up in our fire service.

These battles were won by dedicated people with another important attribute. They had the ability to persevere. They kept chipping away at the wall until they broke through. Think about the battle you and I are still fighting in our attempts to keep our people from dying in the line of duty. Think of the daily battles we fight in trying to get people to drive safely and wear their seatbelts.

Think of how many times we battle people who want to drink and drive our fire vehicles. On and on it goes. Each of us who seeks to lead others is constantly being challenged to find the right tool for the situations we face. Do not give up. If you choose to surrender, the forces of doom and ignorance will win. That is not a pretty thought. Persistence and patience will eventually win the day.

One critical test of a good master mechanic is to see how they respond to challenges. The patience needed by a master mechanic in trouble-shooting a mechanical solution is no different from the patience needed by an effective leader to mold their people into an effective team. There will be a time when each person who rides a fire vehicle will wear their belt.

It may be that you need to find the right person to attack the seat belt and drinking issues. Maybe you are not the one for the job. That right person will have the tools and the talent necessary to overcome all of the opposition to doing the right shown by your people. Let me urge you to begin your journey today.

Seek to become a master leadership mechanic. Seek to gather together the best tools available to do the job in your department. Then work to develop the skills and instincts needed for the task of selecting the right tool for the right job. I believe that the rewards will be worth the heartache. Take care and stay safe.