The Past: Roadblock, Help, or Hindrance?

Our world is in a constant state of flux. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is constant. In the world of 2002, it is possible to expect almost anything to happen. How unlike the time and place where many of us grew to adulthood, is this America of 2002.

We are all the offspring of that generation which spent their lives in a search for peace, stability, and prosperity. To many they are now known as the Greatest Generation. Collectively they grew out of the depression and conquered fascism. This is the generation that is now passing from the scene.

Stability was also portrayed as the hallmark of Dwight Eisenhower?s years in the White House. Whether that is a true assessment of life in the 1950?s is now problematic; an issue left to be studied by historians. Our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had lived through truly challenging times where change was a constant. It would appear that they craved stability and prosperity.

The television shows of my youth celebrated the stability of the nuclear family. Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver seemed to show the world structure, stability, and permanency. Nevertheless, did these shows really portray a real life view of the world? My father seemed to know a great deal, but did he always know best? Ward and June might have left it to the Beaver, but Mom and Dad held a tight rein on my life. I do not seem to recall Ward beating Beaver?s butt. So were these shows real or did they portray a dream world as being the real McCoy.

Unfortunately, these shows also sowed the seeds of future problems by creating the thought within our youthful minds that things would always be the same. Everyone would always be together at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Life with my friends in school would go on indefinitely. They really did not prepare either my generation or I for the challenges that seemed to take off like a rocket for outer space in the 1960?s.

Throughout my life, as well as throughout my career in the fire service, these twin forces of change and permanency have worked one against the other. There are those who proudly trumpet that the fire service represents " ? 350 years of tradition unimpeded by progress". On the other hand, there are those people who seemingly celebrate change every time they change their underwear. We in the fire service tend to think of ourselves as unique. Are we, really?

In the world of organizational design and development, change, and its management serve as a frequent, baseline topic of discourse among scholars. As a matter of fact, there is a wide range of views on what we in the fire service would seemingly think to be the same subject: change. Let me lay out the two extremes for you.

Let me offer an extreme view of the continuity and continuum of change as portrayed back in ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.540 ? 480 B.C.) noted that, "You could not step twice into the same river[s]; for other waters are ever flowing on to you." If you think about it, he is right. The water that you stand in one moment is being replaced as you stand in it. It might be the mighty Mississippi, but it is never exactly the same water passing your feet.

At the other extreme, you have fire chiefs who run their fire departments as their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers did before them. This is true throughout the fire service, but more often encountered in the volunteer ranks. During a recent consulting job, I interviewed three generations of the same family. While this situation may bring comfort to the players in the game, it does little to allow for the nuances of change. The members of this agency expect everything to remain as it has for the past 60 years. This may not be a realistic attitude.

Current research into the how the human brain works is offering us new insights into the issue of change. A front-page article in the Sunday Star Ledger of Newark, New Jersey sets down some interesting thoughts about the human brain as the base point of change. In this article, Amy Ellis Nutt makes the following insightful comment. "It takes millions of neurons firing in sequence to create the simplest thought, and in the same way the Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed one never steps in the same river twice, we cannot have the same thought twice." Wow, every thought is a unique experience, never again to be exactly replicated. There will be similar thoughts, but never the same exact thought.

Let us all get this straight. We seek stability, permanency, and prosperity as worthy goals. Change is bad. However, our brains are an ever-changing mass of chemical and physical interactions. No wonder we are all so confused about change in our lives.

Many of us want things to remain as they were when we were little buddies listening to Sid Caesar performing live comedy on a 10-inch television. Some of us want things to be just as they were on the day before President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. Others among us wish to have things remain much as they were when Ronald Regan was creating our 600-ship navy back in the 1980?s. For others, their history and good old days only date back to the Gulf War. We all seek to have this aura of stability in a world that is based upon thoughts created by human minds: human minds which create every new thought in a unique manner.

Maybe what we really want is something totally different from what we believe it to be. Perhaps the issue is not change as an element of our lives. It may well be that what we are looking for is a greater degree of control over life as it swirls around us, much like the whirlpools that swirled around the feet of Heraclitus in 500 B.C. Maybe we want to be the wind, rather than the leaves blown before it.

Is this the point? Is the real issue change or is it control? Do we seek a greater degree of control over our lives? Think about the comfortable sameness of a life where one no longer has to march to the beat of someone else?s drum. I believe the truth of the matter lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of a world driven by the flux of continual change, and the stable sameness of our faraway youth, whenever that youth might have occurred.

For many fire officers whom I have encountered, control is that spark plug which fires the engine of their being. If they cannot have control over the actions of others, they feel that there is no meaning for them in life. Fire departments have classically been portrayed as paramilitary organizations. In fact, the use of companies, battalions, and divisions is a direct extrapolation from the military. Our culture has firmed up around the military model.

Even in our most progressive organizations, rank and unit designators have remained the same. Someone is the chief. Moreover, a lot of other people, who think that they should be chief, are not. That is the world you see around you today. That is the culture that we have inherited.

There are those in the world who would have you believe that there can be no changes. If you think about it, we have created what old timers among us might call an Ozzie and Harriet view of how fire departments should operate. Life is simple and comfortable. Do not worry. Mom and dad (the chief and her assistants) will take care of you. Hence, you and I are all prisoners of our cultural heritage. You should now see the reason for my choice of the title for this commentary.

However, if modern medical research is beginning to tell us that our brains are never going to allow us recreate the exact same thought, how is it then that this prison can really exist? Why can?t we simply think of a new reality? If we don?t like the one we have, why can?t we just invent a new one?

It is my opinion that we wish to stay the way we are because it is much easier to stay the same than to change. I believe people fight change because it is easier to stay the same. Perhaps we are lazier than we think we are. Changing requires an effort, staying the same does not; or so it would seem.

Change can involve new technologies, new equipment, and a whole new set of thoughts to think and words to say. Since change is different, it also involves a certain amount of fear. Fear has long been a fixture in humankind. It is a given. If our ancestors had been afraid of change most of us would be living in Europe, Asia, or Africa. They were willing to take a chance.

The exceptions to this come from those instances where it becomes easier to change than to remain the same. These changes occur when we as the participant see the benefit to the changes that are being proposed, or are swirling around us.

It is much easier for me to sit here in my office crafting my daily work on the computer than to go out to an office somewhere. In the months and years since I left the vineyards of the Newark Fire Department, I have come to enjoy a new reality. I feared leaving the department. I put off retiring on three different occasions. The unknown world outside of my place in the fire department became the enemy.

Finally, it dawned on me. I was working for pennies on the dollar. I was spending three hours per day battling an ever-growing stream of commuter traffic. I was battling a boss that was more resistant to change than any other person I had ever met in my life. These penalties for the privilege of working for my friends began to outweigh the joy I experienced as a suppression fireground commander. It stopped being fun and began to assume the trappings of work. When I weighed the facts of life in this new light, the decision to change became obvious.

This is how you must come to make change work in your fire departments. There will be obvious things at work in your environment, and there will be subtle things moving along beside the obvious. Many people think that change is a massive event. Small events can make a real difference. My friends, you need to look towards making small changes that can have a great impact. Once the impact is felt, other things will soon begin to follow suit. The fact that you are interested in reading this commentary is important. That small change in your life can lead to many things, but only you will be able to know.

It is difficult to portray this concept for you in concrete terms. Many times in life, we arrive at what Morgan (1997) describes as "bifurcation points" or forks in the road of life. You will recognize them, because the choices will involve something that familiar and comfortable contrasted with something that is new and challenging. We urge you to have the courage to take the new fork in the road. I can provide you with knowledge and wisdom, however it is up to you to supply courage.

You cannot change by staying the same. Much like the players in the cast of the Broadway musical play Les Miserables tear down the barriers in the streets of Paris during the French Revolution, I would urge your to attack the roadblocks produced by your existing organizational culture. You and your organization will fail if you continue to hug the old teddy bear that your department represents in your life.

Move forward or stagnate, that is your choice. Just remember what happens to fruit when you leave it one the vine. I suggest that you too will wither and die if you fail to embrace change.