Riding the Right-Front Seat: "Leadership Landmines"

It is critical for those riding the right-front seat to remember that, above all else, you are in a position of leadership. You can never ignore that if you hope to be successful as a tactical leader in your fire department.

In line with that thought, let me share one of the most-often-quoted phrases I have heard during my time in the fire service: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The road to leadership success in the fire service is also paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, that road is also strewn with what I call “leadership landmines” – if we ignore them and their potential impacts, they stand ready to explode in our faces and upset our best efforts at being a good leader. My job is to help you weave your way around these landmines as you travel the road of fire service leadership.


Going off the tracks

No one starts out to be a bad leader. Just about everyone I have ever met had as a goal to become the best possible leader. However, as they say, stuff happens and our efforts at effective leadership are frustrated. Sadly, far too many people who start out with the best of intentions end up being sidetracked when they step on one of these landmines. Here are some potential “leadership landmines”:

  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Location
  • “One-way streets”
  • “Expressways”
  • “Antiquarians”
  • “Button-pushers”

This list is far from complete, but it is a good start. The more of these landmines you locate on your operational map, the better and safer will be your journey through the minefield and the better your chances for success as a leader. I assure you that I am dead serious about this list. Each bullet point involves a lesson I learned the hard way.

Let me begin by warning you about the serious negative effects of fatigue. Fatigue is a serious problem because it can sneak up on you. It can lead to a decrease in your ability to use judgment effectively. It may cause you to ignore or rush through certain critical steps in your decision-making process. It can literally short-circuit your thought processes.

Fatigue can be (and usually is) a two-way street. Whatever fatigue is doing to you as the leader, it is having a greater impact on the people working on your behalf. These are the people actually doing the hard work. Some of the stupidest things I ever did as a leader I blame on fatigue.


Fatigue’s effects

Force yourself to recognize the effects of fatigue and work to counter them. Some of these effects are:

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of focus
  • Lack of motivation

There is a real problem here, because it is your thought process which is at the root of this issue. If you fail to address the problems caused by fatigue, you are setting yourself up for all of the bad things that frustration can bring to you and the members of your working team. Frustration can be explained quite simply: You are not getting what you want. Your needs are not being met.

Think about it this way. If you are hungry, food is the cure. Thirst can be met by the use of water and other fluids. Other issues are more complex. You want the fire to go out, but it won’t. You wish the crew on C shift would stop leaving the pumper in disarray. See what I mean?

My late grandmother often told me “patience is a virtue.” It turns out that patience is far more of a virtue than I ever imagined. Let me also offer a bit of hard-earned experience. Never pray for patience, for you will end up facing a new round of frustrating events that will demand that you accept your fate and soldier on. That is, of course, the way to learn to be patient.


How to counter frustration

For those of you who must face frustration as a daily work requirement, I offer the following guidance:

• Find something you can do and become good at doing it

• Enjoy your successes wherever and whenever you can find them; it could be a community activity or some task with another organization

• Help others to overcome their problems and frustrations; this will make you feel better too.

• If you are religious, pray for guidance (not patience)

• Try your best to keep a happy outlook, in spite of your troubles and travails

Sometimes, a smile can get you through a rough patch of road. Heck, I have even seen times when a smile can make the other side mad enough to go away. Mission accomplished.

Location can be an easy or a difficult part of your landmine-mapping strategy. If you like where you work, then many things that may be annoying will not be a distraction. If you like the people with whom you work, the same holds true. However, if you hate where you work and dislike your co-workers, life tends to assume a very dark and menacing coloration. This is one of those times to fall back on an age-old warning: “What goes around comes around.”

As surely as night follows day, you will discover that there are both good and bad assignments. If you have a bad assignment, buck up and hope for a transfer. If you have a good assignment, just say thank you. Enjoy your time and write down what makes the assignment so fine. In that way, you can use your notes to make your future assignments that much better.


The “one-way streets”

There are people I call “one-way streets,” and you may not be familiar with this concept. Let me explain. This term applies to people who always want things to run their way. They are self-centered and have no tolerance for ideas put forward by others. These selfish people are not team players, for they fail to work for the good of their group.

As long as one-way streets get their own way, they pose no problems to you as a fire service leader, but how long can it really go that way in any fire department? Unfortunately, when these people fail to get their own way, they work hard to make life miserable for everyone around them. There does not appear to be a cure for the disease these people cause within an organization. If one of them happens to be your boss, you may be in trouble. The only way to survive is to avoid that person as much as possible.


The “expressways”

Also trouble are the “expressways” in your life. “Expressways” constitute a small group of people who always seem to be on their way to somewhere. No matter what task you give them, they run in search of whatever it is that they are looking for. Forget what you ask them to do; they are going to search for what they want. Maybe you will have a clue as to what they are seeking and maybe you won’t. Rest assured that whatever it is they want trumps what you want them to accomplish. These people will be a true challenge to your command skills, since they will not be working from the same script as the rest of the team.


The “antiquarians”

The people I call “antiquarians” are those who actively seek the cloying comfort of the past. Sometimes, they are active; at other times, they are not. In either case, they are working to maintain the past as their present and future. To these people there is but one meaning to the word “change” and it involves small sums of money: coins. These people can become an active roadblock to the efforts of your fire department to meet the needs of the future. They can come up with a dozen ways to justify staying just the way you are, rather than updating or changing your operation.

“Passive antiquarians” are people who pay great attention to the past. Actually, they can become tremendous resources for their collective knowledge of the corporate past of your organization. They see the value of learning about the past and building on it, rather than ignoring the lessons of those who went before us. I have a number of friends who serve this most important facet of future planning.


The “button-pushers”

The last leadership landmine in this commentary may well be the worst. These are the “button-pushers.” These are the troops who know what it takes to make the leader lose his or her temper. The first type is the “unconscious button-pusher.” They just seem to know how to make the boss angry. I do not think they have actual ill will in their hearts; they are just good at angering the boss.

The second type is a far more vicious threat to you and your sanity. These are the “conscious button-pushers.” The talent these people possess involves knowing how to get the leader to lose their cool when it suits their needs. The danger with this type of threat is that they also have a knack when it comes to making it look like the leader’s fault when these situations occur. Once you have initiated an improper response to their button-pushing activity, you are done for.

As the leader you must always maintain a rational, level-headed approach to your position. When you lose this, you are in trouble. An angry person is not a reasonable person, and unreasonable responses to any situation are generally bad responses. You must by all means available to you identify the “button-pushers” in your organization.

My advice to you is to minimize your contact with any and all “button-pushers” in your work group. Use forums and situations where you are never one-on-one with them. Always have a witness. And never conduct any non-emergency interactions with them when you are tired, angry, previously frustrated or agitated in any way.

If you have read this column and decided that my words are aimed at keeping you out of trouble on a day-to-day basis, then you have captured the true essence of my intent. It is my hope that these words will help you to travel the straight and narrow road of supervisory success. That is the starting point for all of you who hope to succeed while “riding the right-front seat.”