Top Ten Commandments for Recruitment & Retention - Pt 3

The following article is the third part of an expanded series based on my "Top Ten Commandments for Recruitment & Retention." No, you won't find these commandments etched on any stone tablets, but they are available for free downloading at my web site:

The Third Commandment: BE A GOOD FOLLOWER.

Behind every good leader is a bunch of good followers. You're already in a leadership position if you've learned to be a good follower. Learn your position and play it well.

Now this idea is not original. I borrowed it from someone I consider to be my virtual mentor: Harry Carter. I say virtual because I've never met the man. I've only read his articles diligently for years and have corresponded with him via e-mail on similar topics.

Harry first penned this commentary for his 'Command Post' column in the November-1998 edition of Firehouse Magazine and it's available at his web site: The reprint hangs on my bulletin board in my home office and at the fire academy. It's not only a "must-read" for everyone in the fire service - career or volunteer - it's a must-read over and over again. We need to be constantly reminded of where we fit into the 'big picture.' My intent is not to plagiarize his entire editorial - but simply to apply some of his concepts to the topic of recruitment and retention.

Tell me if this scenario has ever played out in your volunteer firehouse.

Leadership elections are decided with less rigorous standards than the selection of the winning beauty pageant contestant. Except in this election, there are no evening gowns, swimsuits - and especially no talent contests.

Nonetheless, there's plenty of catfights, back-stabbing and behind the scenes bitterness that they don't show you on TV either. Often, the final outcome is determined with all the legitimacy of a Florida presidential election, setting aside standards established in department by-laws in an underhanded effort to get the 'right' people into the seat of power.

In the end, the most popular win the vote and the talented, dedicated and/or qualified end up with nothing more than a consolation prize. Miss Congeniality gets nothing but another year of frustration and ill-leadership to look forward to (ill-leadership is derived from words like illiterate, illegitimate and ill-advised).

Or, in rare instances, fairness prevails and the good guys win and the truly qualified candidates reign despite the efforts of those who didn't find them to be the most popular.

In either case, the election is history and now the real fun begins.

I've seen instances where the 'popular' voters elect their candidate only to abandon them for the year ahead, leaving them on their own to create success, change and progress with no human resources to work with. They fail to support the very people they elected.

In these cases, it is often the previously mentioned 'good guys' who will suck it up, and 'make do' with what they have for leaders and continue to support the cause for the good of the company and the community. Unfortunately, this often results in history repeating itself when the popular voters return at election time.

And, I've witnessed events where the qualified and talented get elected only to be greeted with apathy amongst those they are to lead.

I see it every day. Members think their officers aren't doing anything - only because their officers aren't doing the same things they're doing. The members don't understand that, if the officers are doing the firefighters' jobs - they can't be performing their own tasks - which are distinctly different from that of the firefighters.

Harry uses the phrase "Understand that the boss has a job to do, and so do you."

They also fail to realize that we as firefighters need to take the necessary steps and the right training paths to become an officer. It's not just paperwork and additional responsibility that come with the job - it's understanding people and true leadership principles.

They falsely equate time spent with real experience. They confuse class attendance with true learning and knowledge. They mistake task achievement with management success. And they often underestimate the 'emotional overhead' and added challenges that come with being in a leadership position.

However, this lack of understanding is not entirely their fault. As real fire experience goes down and as social-economic changes continue to affect the caliber and make-up of people we recruit, we see a gradual decay of tradition and discipline in the fire service.

Tradition can be re-captured and instilled through the presence of material reminders and properly preserved department history. Discipline starts with self-motivation of every individual. Regardless of what team we're playing for, we as individuals need to be not only self-inspired, but also objective enough to let the leaders lead and the followers follow.

And of course, there are biblical and other theoretical references that relate to the head's inability to function without the body and vice-verse.

It's simple. The leadership of the fire department is the head and the firefighters are the body. The head gives direction to the body and the body responds with performing the functions as the head directs and sends valuable feedback to the head.

When the two parts work together - the whole body moves forward, is productive and remains healthy. And when they don't - movement is jerky, progress is slow and decay eventually settles in only to be followed by a long, painful death.

The moral of this story is to learn your position - and play it well.