Discipline: A Learning Tool for all Seasons

Rather than dwell on the authorization aspects, the goal should be the creation of a fire department environment wherein discipline is an accepted tool of organizational demarcation and delineation.


As officers or members in your local fire department, you too have a need to develop an organizational orientation; one which favors compliance with departmental regulations. Let’s start by providing the age-old advice that you must set the example. If you want to have your troops arrive at events of time, set the standard and be there early enough to greet them when they arrive. If you want everyone to be in the proper uniform, be sure that you are. I recall hearing the story of the chief who yelled at his troops for not being in uniform. Sadly, the man was in shower clogs and a bathing suit as he administered his diatribe

How, you may ask, do should we all come to the conclusion that it is more correct to follow the rules? A flash of consciousness can come from a combination of dedicated co-workers and selfless leaders. Over the years I have written a number of columns about those folks who so thoroughly support you that they would rather suffer physical pain than be found guilty of disappointing you. This provides a combination of an enlightened, learning environment and some excellent role models.

One of my former supervisors was a deputy chief, a true gentleman from the old school. In his 40-plus years of service, the man never took a sick day. Each order which he received from headquarters was received and carried out in a straightforward, concerned manner.

Never one to raise his voice, this man was always in complete control. Perhaps it was the confidence which he exuded that formed a great deal of the environment wherein we labored. Never once did he publicly speak against the department, nor did he ever conduct himself in any way other than as a complete gentleman. It is his example which was frequently stimulated my instincts to be an obedient, willing member of the fire department team, rather than lose my temper. These were the stories which we shared at his wake earlier this year.

It would be my opinion that whatever type or manner of discipline exists in any organization, it is a direct outgrowth of the leadership style of the head of the fire department. As Tom Peters has stressed in a number of his texts and lectures, it is up to the leaders of any organization to form a cohesive picture of the direction in which they feel the organization should be headed. They are then obligated to pass that vision freely down through the organization. And so it should be in the case of discipline.

It is the leaders’ vision of discipline that determines how discipline is delivered through the organization. Discipline must be evenly applied at all levels. Those people trained by veterans of the Russian State Police will deliver a totally different approach to discipline than those who have been trained in a nurturing, supportive environment where obedience to the norms of fire department conduct was infused into people as a matter of daily living. As with all things, it is teaching by example which leaves the strongest impression.

The best was to work with people is to coach them in the desired direction. Much has been made of the fact that many of our greatest leaders have had the influence of a strong mentor.

Such was the relationship between Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Fox Connor in the years between World War I and World War II. Eisenhower was later to write about him that, “… life with General Connor was a sort of graduate school in military affairs … In a lifetime of associations with great and good men he is the one more or less invisible figure to whom I owe an incalculable debt.” Connor continually challenged and supported Eisenhower through a conscious period of organizational, as well as personal growth and development. As has often been emphasized, mentors take risks with people and those people grow as a result of those challenges which they receive.

So it should be in the area of discipline. We must first spell out reasonable guidelines for our people. We must then create in them an understanding of the organizational boundaries within which they are to function. Having done these two things, we must give them the freedom to try their wings at being a viable part of the team. When they succeed, be supportive and when they fail be even more supportive. The results will be well worth the effort.