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Almost: The Fine Art of Just Settling for Something

How many of you have a litany of stories about how you almost won something, were elected to something, or just missed winning something? After more than six decades of trying and succeeding (and trying and failing) I am here to tell you that for far too many people, life is a series of "almost" events. The word "almost" is often used as one of life's great crutches.

Once again I have been blessed to experience another fabulous sermon at the Colts Neck Reformed Church. Our Pastor, Scott Brown, spoke of the significance of the word almost as it pertained to the interaction between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Pilate could have set the Lord free. He could have changed the course of events in recorded history. He did not, but almost did. Let me ask you to think about the deep meaning of the word almost in that situation. Think of what happened (or might have happened).

My friends, there are really only two times in life when almost counts. I am sure that you have heard of those two instances many times my friends. They are in the world of horseshoes and hand grenades. How many times have we marched in victory parades for football teams which almost won a championship game? To the best of my recollection, none come to mind.

So too is it in the world of leadership. "Almost" is a word devoid of any real meaning. Think about it. How many times have you ever praised a person for almost being a good leader? How many times have you cheered for an NFL receiver who almost caught the winning pass? You just don't do that. It just does not work that way in the world wherein you and I dwell. I know I have never won praise from the fire chief when I almost held the fire to the building of origin. All he saw was the destruction of more than one building.

How many people have you ever met who promised to do something and then never showed up to do what they promised? Think about it. Did the fact that they almost helped you ever hold any water when it came to getting the job done for your fire department? I think not. In addition to the concept of "almost," a lack of follow through by people is turning out to be one of the growing number of organizational diseases we are facing in increasing measure here in the second decade of this the 21st Century. But how can our people model such a behavior if many in the world of leadership do not model it for them? Poor leaders begat future poor leaders.

As an observer of the world around us, I am noticing something distressing among a number of the newer members of our fire service. In the first instance there are just not as many people coming in to join our departments as we need. It seems to me that volunteering is a concept which has fallen upon hard times in society. I guess there are a lot of folks who almost came out to join us, but for whatever the reason they stayed home that day.

Another problem I have begun to see involves those people who actually do step forward to join fire departments, who then devote a great deal of time to completing the necessary training to qualify them for full membership in their fire departments. However, once they have completed all of that training (nearly 150 hours here in New Jersey), it is then that you stop seeing these people. They are being carried on the roles of our departments, but are not rolling out with us on the responses which form the very reason for our being. What is going on here?

Luckily my fire department has seen some really great young people step up to join the Adelphia Fire Company team. These people turn out for all of the training drills, show up at the business meetings, and respond to all sorts of emergency calls; not just the structure fires and major rescue calls. Ask I paused to ask myself why this is so, the answer was right there before my eyes.

The leaders in my fire department show up and do their job. They are at the drills and meetings. They do not hide in the office doing paperwork when the troops are performing the work details. They lead our troops from the front. They are all frequent attendees at the Fire Department Instructor's Conference (FDIC) and the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore. They do this because that is the behavior which has been modeled in our department for a long time now.

Let me put forward another observation. The active firefighting troops hang out together. They attend classes at the county fire academy and spend time together in active BS sessions around the firehouse. They gain knowledge both in the formal venues and informally in the comfort of the Adelphia firehouses.

One of the criteria for attendance at the FDIC is an individual's activity levels in the fire company. We reward the active troops with the benefit of outside education. Those who "almost" show up and fail to follow through are counseled and in some cases improve. You need to take an active role in working to improve the performance of your marginal, problem children.

To that end, let me suggest something that I learned many decades ago as a young Captain in the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department. This involves placing the eager person with the not so eager person. You then must work to bring the enthusiasm of the hard-charging person to bear on the person who is not performing quite so well. The same thing can be done at the small group level. It has been my personal experience that the enthusiasm of an active group is contagious.

However, you cannot leave anything to chance here. You must be there to work with your people. As the leader, you must model the behavior you wish to see among your troops. If you want people to be on time, be there early and encourage them to meet with you.

If you want people to attend the drills, you must attend them. More than that, it is critical to insure that you never waste people's most valuable commodity: Time. Your drills must advance the knowledge level of your department's members. You must succeed in developing effective drills. You must develop and present team-oriented sessions. Almost is not good enough.

Let me suggest that you concentrate on goal setting and goal attainment. Drifting aimlessly through life is not the way to move toward success. No, it will assure a life filled with "amost" or "almost-like" situations. It is critical for you to follow through on the goals you set for yourself. Nothing happens automatically in this world. None of us was born with any guarantees as to our potential for success. Even those people who are born into families with great wealth and advantages are still just as subject to screwing up as you and me.

It is also important that each of you reach out to other people to assist you in building your fire department forward into the future. The goals which are developed must be goals which are agreed to by the organization. That is why cooperation and interaction with other folks is so important. This is not always easy. Some people are difficult to deal with. However, you must suck it up and do what is right for your fire department. That is how you will move toward assuming the true mantle of leadership within your organization.

This will not just happen. You will need to invest the proper amounts of time, talent, and enthusiasm in this effort. A good example of how to do this comes from the world of music. Think about the job which is performed by orchestra and band conductors. They must blend the wide array of musical talent in their group into a cohesive entity.

It may well be that you have the best people at every position. However, unless you blend them together, emphasizing their strengths and working to overcome their shortcomings, you will not be able to achieve the best possible musical presentation. I have played with a number of groups which fell just short of delivering a pleasing musical performance. Trust me when I tell you that the sound created by a group which "almost" comes together is not as pleasing as one where the talents are properly brought together. After all, it is the actual performance which really counts. So too is it in our world.

Let me close by suggesting a couple of attributes for those of you who do not want to "almost" succeed as leaders to consider:

  • Focus
  • Common sense
  • Simplicity

By focus I mean paying attention to details. This is extremely important. Try not to focus on the insignificant stuff. You can easily lose focus if you worry too much about the things you cannot control. Also you should not fall into the trap of micromanaging your people. Nobody likes working for a boss who is always looking over your shoulder and breathing into your ear. To this end let me suggest that you set your goals, train your troops, point them in the right direction, turn them loose, and let them work.

Further, you must be consistent. No one likes working for a boss who continually shifts the focus of his actions much like a flag flying in a brisk, but shifting wind. No one likes a leader who blows hot and cold according to their mood on a given day. People must be able to count on you to be the same person, day in and day out.

My friends, it is very easy for me to suggest that you need to use common sense in your day-to-day operations. However, as we all have heard time and again, there is nothing common in our world when it comes to common sense. I have been accused of having common sense when it comes to operating in an organizational environment. I am not sure whether I do or not.

However, my wife loves to hear people say that I have common sense. First she rolls her eyes a bit. Then she laughs a little, and then makes that funny little face that all wives seem to use when they have heard something about their husband which seems to fly in the face of their actual life experience with the husband in question.

It is my guess people think that I have common sense because I have developed the habit of asking a lot of questions. Perhaps there are not enough among us who take the time to ask the necessary array of who, what, when, where, how, and why questions which are so necessary in solving life's problems and challenges. This is how I do business. When I need to make decisions, I need information. I guess that is what people see and then consider common sense to be.

Lastly, I want to urge you to make the simplest plans possible. History suggests that Civil War general (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant created some of the simplest plans in the history of warfare. Have you ever heard the expression, "…the devil is in the details?" This is one of life's truest little statements. I was taught a long time ago to use the KISS method of planning and leadership. It has been my experience that there greatest successes come from actually 'keeping it simple stupid'.

My friends, in order to become the most effective leader possible, I would suggest that you work to eliminate the word "almost" from your personal vocabulary. Stay positive and work to bring your people together with a vision involving teamwork as the basis for success. Learn as much as you can about the skills and abilities of all of the players and then create a simple, focused plan to bring success to you all.

"Almost" just won't get the job done. After all, I was almost elected the Captain of my track team in high school. But mistakes on my part ruled out that possibility. My life was diminished by the poor judgment on my part in that instance. Let my hard-earned lessons guide you toward future success in your career. Take care and stay safe.