Lessons from the Circus: 2013

One of the great joys which I have been able to experience in the many years since my retirement from the good, old, Newark Fire Department is the ability to travel when I want to and not when a vacation spot or personal day is open. Thanks to this...


When all seemed in readiness the advisor began to bark out a series of commands designed to guide the performers. On one command the guy on the trapeze in the center began flying. At the next command, the other performer began flying. After a serious of ever increasing swings arcs, the moving performer would reach the peak of their arc, and then let go of their bar and reach out for the waiting hands of the person making the grab.

Three performers made their try and each was successful. It was truly a beautiful sight to see. Think about it my friends. Think of the level of trust you must have in your partner in order to let go of your safe perch and reach for their grasp in midair. Do you have that level of trust in the people with whom you fight fire, or perform rescue operations in your department? 

How do you think that this sort of performance is created and delivered? Let me suggest the following as being the important parts of the formula for success:

  • Training
  • Practice
  • Dedication
  • Commitment

It is absolutely essential for you to have someone who knows how to do the task at hand correctly to conduct the training. The movements must be laid out, choreographed, and then taught faithfully according to the prescribed formula. There can be no tolerance for a half-hearted performance by any member of the team. How good would the flying team be if one member of the group was not see as up to the task by their partners. That lack of faith would go a long way toward breaking up the integrity of the group. Is that how it is in your department?

Once the skills have been taught and imprinted into the brains of the performers, there must been a protracted period of intensive practice. The practice must be conducted under the guidance of the person who performed the initial training. There can be no tolerance for anyone who fails to faithfully attend all of the sessions and devote themselves to continual practice sessions. Is that how it is in your department?
As my band director Jim Bast is so fond of saying, practice doesn't make perfect. It is only perfect practice which makes perfect. Since we humans are always prone to some form of screw up, it is critical to train frequently and faithfully with the people upon whom you will depend.

Let me suggest that their faith in you will lead to you having greater faith in them. That is how I recall things were when I was a battalion chief in Newark. I shared my style and theories on firefighting with the gang and we trained on how I liked to see things work. When we had a fire, the guys knew what I expected and rare was the time when I was disappointed by the gang.

Your dedication to a task cannot be faked or phoned in. When you make a commitment to a group you need to devote yourself to doing all that is asked of you. There should be no doubt that you will be where you are expected to be when you are supposed to be. Whether it is a high-flying circus act, a local community band, or a volunteer fire department the requirements for dedication to the cause remain at heart of all you do.

Teamwork does not just happen. The members of the team must make a conscious effort to devote themselves to the common good. I have heard this 'common good' phrase from a number of politicians lately. I think that for many of them it has sadly morphed into one more B.S. political phrase.

It is my belief that their understanding of the concept of 'common good' is far different than mine. I think what they are suggesting is that doing things for the common good is doing things their way. Sorry Charlie, but that is not how it works The team has to define the common good for their efforts and come to an agreement on how to operate in the chosen manner.

Each member of the team must believe that all of the other members are just as committed to the task as they are. Each member of the team must believe that their fellow travelers are as dedicated and committed to the case as they are. Here is an appropriate analogy. Trust is like something akin to a brick wall which is built one brick at a time. You cannot skip a step or it is possible that you will leave something out and end up with a weak wall that will come crashing down with the first storm of adversity.

This is my lesson from this year's visit to the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Florida. Teamwork, trust and training are essential elements in the success of an organization whether it is a circus or a fire department. Sadly as I go from place to place I am reminded of an old saying with which you might find familiar: "Different circus, same clowns".