Where are you Going? Three Principles for Identifying Your Path

Albert Einstein, perhaps the most intelligent human being who ever lived, once boarded a train in Princeton, New Jersey bound for Boston. Einstein immediately began fumbling for his ticket upon finding a seat on the train. He had either misplaced the ticket, dropped it, or just did not have it with him. The train's conductor noticed Einstein's frantic search as he checked the other passenger's tickets in the car. Finally arriving at Einstein's seat the conductor asked the re-known scientist if he had his train ticket. Einstein replied that he seemed to have misplaced it and had been searching for it since he took his seat. The conductor said, "Mr. Einstein, I, and everyone else on this train know who you are and I am sure you have a ticket, rest assured that you have a seat on this train". Einstein looked very relieved but still puzzled as to his ticket's whereabouts. When the conductor finished checking the whole car he looked back and found Einstein now on his knees looking under his seat. The conductor walked down the aisle and tapped Einstein on the shoulder and said, "Dear Sir, I have total faith and confidence that you have a ticket. Please take your seat and be sure you can ride this train". To which Einstein replied, "Thank you again, kind sir, but I need to locate that train ticket to find out where I am going!"

As intelligent as he was (and absent-minded), Einstein didn't even know where he was headed. Metaphorically, this may also be true of many people, organizations, and even programs. Far too many organizations merely exist and have no sense of what they want to accomplish or their direction. If an organization has had the foresight to identify their mission they still may lack the vision on how best to achieve their goals or even how to get there.

In reality, determining the destination for an organization and working towards that end is a simple process and success can be realized if three broad and basic principles are followed. All organizations or programs need to formulate a clear vision, all personnel need to "join-up", and all personnel need to "keep their eyes on the prize". If these principles are followed, to the person, the organization, or any program within the organization, can realize success. This is especially true with hazardous materials response programs.

Finding Your Own Way

On the whole, an organization's path to success is unique and there are many routes to take. What works for one organization many not work for another. Still, successful organizations do share common paths. Concerning the path, Yogi Berra once said, "when you get to a fork in the road, take it". With Berra's unique humor aside, this is a difficult proposition. You can only go one way, but which way? The great poet, Robert Frost, also weighs in here with his poem, "The Road Not Taken". In this famous poem, Frost describes the ambivalence of the decision on which path to take but later in the poem relates his elation with taking, for him, the right road. Frost says, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." Frost had the luxury of retrospection when he wrote his poem but how does one know which road to take before the journey is complete? Your own path (or the organization's path) will come down to how well you execute the following three principles.

The Clear Vision Principle

Before the journey can even begin an organization needs to have a good idea of where it would like to go; a clear vision if you will. This is the long view that will guide every effort that is made as an organization. To do this, a mission statement needs to be formulated that describes what the organization is all about and how they conduct themselves. This may seem very elemental yet many organizations have not formalized their own unique mission statement. You may also be hard pressed to find mission statements for programs such as for hazmat response. It cannot be over-stated that the focus a mission statement provides is vitally important for the success of an organization or a program.

There are many guidelines for developing mission statements and examples to follow. Stephan Covey offers excellent guidelines in his book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People". Some basic thoughts he offers from Habit 2: Begin With the End in Mind are;

Covey also states, "once you have that sense of mission, you have the essence of your own proactivity. You have the vision and the values, which direct your life (or organization). You have the basic direction from which you set your long- and short-term goals. You have the power of a written constitution based on correct principles, against which every decision concerning the most effective use of your time, your talents, and your energies can be effectively measured." Your mission statement becomes your organizational focus.

One example of a corporate mission statement is by IBM who says they stand for three things; the dignity of the individual, excellence, and service. Short and succinct it is also very focused. How about the Dupont Corporation mission statement of "better living through chemistry"? Another poignant mission statement.

In the area of hazmat response programs mission statements also provide a focus. One example of a hazmat mission statement is, "The purpose of the hazardous material response team is to identify, locate, confine, and contain the hazardous material during initial emergency operations, if the capability exists to complete tasks safely, to the extent necessary to protect human health and property." This is just one sentence in which all personnel can review and find a focus.

Once the organizational or program mission statement is formulated and agreed upon it should be posted for all personnel to read and on which to focus. It should be referred to often and everything you do should be consistent with it. In essence it becomes your North Star; your guide for all operations.

Based on the mission statement program goals should also be developed. Goals are the important milestones that the program strives to achieve along the journey and they should be realistic and achievable. They too, will take time to develop and all personnel should have input in their development. Some examples of hazmat program goals for a training program may be;

Training Plan Goals;

1. For all firefighters to be competent and feel confident with their hazmat skills.

2. For all communication specialists to know how to take a hazmat or terrorism related call and then assist and support responders on those emergencies.

3. For all senior staff to know their responsibilities as incident commanders and how they can assist hazmat team efforts.

4. For hazmat team personnel to be competent and feel confident with their Technician Level skills and;

  • To all score above 70% on written knowledge level assessments
  • For the hazmat team core personnel to score above 80%
  • For the average score for all hazmat team personnel to be 78%
  • For all personnel to rate all phases of their knowledge and confidence in Technician Level skills above 7 (scale 0 to 10)

5. For all hazmat team core personnel to average over 9 hours of hazmat training per month.

6. For the fire department to be in total compliance with all state and federal training requirements for hazardous materials response by July 1, 2002.

7. For the department to be in total compliance with the minimum recommendations of National Fire Protection Association's Standard 472 for hazardous materials training by January 1, 2003.

All of these efforts serve to provide the route that your organization or program takes. It is the strategic planning that is essential to the quality and focus of any endeavor. History has proven that the organizations that have employed these concepts are the ones who have succeeded. Finally, when these concepts are employed correctly it should feel good for everyone who is involved. If it feels good it probably is good-ethically, morally, legally, etc., and all personnel and their efforts will reinforce what was developed. A clear vision for your organization or program and the path your entity decides to embark on should also feel good deep down in your gut.

The Join-Up! Principle

Organizations should also work toward getting all personnel to "pull in the same direction". In other words all personnel have to be motivated to work together toward the common goals that have been identified. They need to all have the same clear vision.

We have all heard the statement that "we can lead a horse to the water but we can't make him drink" before. It refers to the idea that we cannot motivate a person to do something they do not want to do despite our best efforts. To voluntarily take action or do some task is a matter of personal choice but how can we get the "horse" to drink? That question has been answered by a modern day horse-whisperer by the name of Monty Roberts.

In his groundbreaking book, "A Man Who Talks to Horses", Roberts describes how he learned the language of horses through his years of observing them as they related to each other. The language of Equus taught Roberts how to tame the wild horses to be used as work animals on ranches. Robert's approach utilizes non-violent and non-coercive methods, along with Equus, to get the horse to do what they want to do. Roberts calls the whole process "join-up" and has demonstrated on numerous occasions how a wild mustang can be saddled and ridden within 30 minutes. Robert's "horse-gentling" methods are truly remarkable.

In a subsequent book, Roberts points out how the methods he uses for horses can also apply to working with humans. In other words, if humans are treated with respect, not coerced, and allowed to "join-up" by themselves they will be much more inclined to get involved because of their own motivation. This is such a simple concept yet it is ignored by many organizations.

It is very simple; treat others the way you want to be treated; the Golden Rule. Most employees in today's workplace simply want to be involved in the direction of the organization and want to be able to contribute. From experience, if that is allowed and there is a sincere climate of participation employees feel better about their workplace and are more apt to contribute and to "buy-in" to the program goals. On this topic, Covey warns that without involvement, there is no commitment. With personnel, "no involvement, no commitment". This seems to be a critical part of the human "join-up" process.

The Team

Hazmat responders are hybrid personnel who usually enjoy challenges, they think critically, and are intrinsically motivated. Quite often, the hazmat person is among the best personnel on a fire department and most can be labeled as "doers". Ideally, these are the types of people you would desire for your team. If you can select them it is good but if they step forward it is even better.

When you choose team members among volunteers, choose them carefully. Most likely they will be involved in the program for a long period of time so you need to analyze not only their knowledge and skills but also their attitudes and motivations. Also, while most teams compensate team members for hazmat response team duties you should avoid the team member who is there solely for the money.

Once members are selected they need to be developed to respond safely, effectively, and efficiently. This is an on-going process that needs to be clearly spelled out, communicated to all personnel, and then adhered to. Personnel need to be effectively coached, counseled, and supported in their development by program leaders. Also, encourage all personnel to take active roles in their own development. Get them involved by dividing responsibilities for the training program. Have each person develop a training module for a training program component in which they have interest. This is another form of join-up. They are participating in an area in which they have an interest and they have control of their own destiny. This concept also lightens the load for other people.

Another facet of the team environment involves morale and attitude. This is an example of a value or demeanor that must come from within each team member. Attitudes cannot be forced upon team members but if the right climate is fostered morale can flourish. An atmosphere of trust and mutual respect will most likely encourage join-up.

The concept of teamwork also has to be continually emphasized for a successful program. Since most hazmat teams are extensions of fire departments the idea of teamwork usually is not a problem. Yet, teamwork can be reinforced and magnified within the hazmat team arena because of the more specialized tasks, training, and the size of the team. The smaller numbers of team members provide a great setting for developing an "esprit de corps" or a bond between team members.

It can be observed that successful hazmat programs exhibit a unique closeness and trust between team members. These unique relationships among members of hazmat teams may be because of the nature of hazmat response. The teamwork concept is truly grasped and the phrase "there is no 'I' in team" has new meaning. In the hazmat team concept true synergy develops where the sum is much greater than the individual parts. Team members rely on each other and they all realize they are interdependent on each other in order to achieve team goals. With hazmat response teams the successful programs promote the concept of "the strength of the pack is in the wolf and the strength of the wolf is in the pack". In other words, no single member is more important than the other but in combination all members working together become the strength of the group.

Successful programs also develop a "quiet confidence" in team members as a result of their hazmat team affiliation. They seem to walk with confidence because of their competence. They are good at what they do and they exude an air of confidence to others, but, they are also humble and know their limitations.

Successful programs seem to expedite the join-up process.

The Eyes on the Prize Principle

Another principle to follow is to maintain the focus of the program. Strive to evaluate your program from time to time to see if you are hitting the nail on the head. Are you on track? Are you following what was identified as your organizational or program mission statement? Are you working towards or achieving your goals? Are your personnel involved and committed to the program? These are all questions that must be asked and contemplated periodically.

The road toward the program goals may seem long and slow but improvements should be viewed on a long-term basis. Gregory Noll, a noted hazmat educator and author, once said that we should avoid evaluating our programs by watching the clock but more so by the calendar. Noll emphasizes that improvements will come but patience is the key. Remember, too, the old adage that the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Quality programs take time.

The great basketball coach, John Wooden, also stressed to his teams the "slow and steady" concept. Wooden continually drilled his players in the basics, improved their conditioning, and worked hard at the mental aspects of basketball, all in small increments. Hazmat programs are similar; much hard work takes place and then one day, in retrospect and review, the program seems to have made huge improvements.

Conversely, setbacks or efforts that fall short of goals should also be evaluated. View them as opportunities to improve and not necessarily as setbacks. Through analysis the reasons they became setbacks can be corrected and quite often the experience can actually strengthen the program. Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packer coach, once said that people could learn more from their defeats than from their victories.

So, commit to your path and then stay the course. Through reflection and evaluation if you find that your path has varied make adjustments as necessary. Equally important is to identify successes and goals achieved, and then celebrate them. It is vitally important for all personnel to see that progress has been made and hard work and team efforts have paid off. This celebration also strengthens the bond between team personnel and serves to build up more inertia for accomplishing additional goals. Celebration also develops positivity, which begets more positivity. Successful programs seem to build upon their successes, which propels or drives the organization in future endeavors. In short, success breeds success!

These principles are deep, fundamental truths that have application for all organizations and programs. Adherence to them will most likely lead to success. Covey says, "principles are guidelines for human conduct that are proven to have enduring, permanent value. They're fundamental. They're essentially unarguable because they are self-evident." Combined with good management practices, strong administrative support, and a workplace climate that is conducive to employee participation these principles should assist any organization or program achieve success. If you can develop a clear vision, enjoy the join-up of all personnel, and keep your eyes on the prize, then your organization or program can find success. Organizationally, when you reach that fork in the road you will be able to immediately identify which way to go and that should make all the difference!