Do You Suffer from 'Thumbprint Management?'

As is often my way, this visit with you was created to provide a number of positive hints and clues which can assist you in becoming a better fire officer and leader. This commentary was created in order to offer you some survival skills. These skills are the hard-earned, battle-scared remnants which are the product of what I now believe to be a misspent adulthood.

There are situations and circumstances where it is possible that you may end up laboring on behalf of a person who does not possess a clue about people and how to interact successfully with them. These folks tend to operate from an inward focus and only dwell on those things that are of importance to themselves. Your job satisfaction, your family life or your enjoyment of life in general is of absolutely no consequence to them. They operate under the following three operational criteria:

  1. They want!!!
  2. They want!!!
  3. They want!!!

Please note that nothing about you appears here. You are not a part of the equation.  It is only their thumb pressing down firmly upon your head which counts for anything in their book.  Hence it is my conscious decision to name this column “Thumbprint Management.”  Sometimes things are so bad that if people look closely, they can actually see the imprint of the thumb on the top of your head.  These are the extreme cases, but they do happen.  Trust me when I suggest that I have been there and done that when dealing with folks like this.

If this form of leadership seems a bit one way to you, then you are beginning to awaken to the point of this premise. The real problem here is quite simple.  It is probable that many of you cannot simply say, “Stick all of this in your ear,” and walk away.  You have to take what is dished out, because the alternative is either:

  1. Unemployment, if you are a career fire person like me, or
  2. Banishment from something that is a great part of your life should you be a volunteer.

It is crucial for me to stress to you that in my personal experience the fire service is probably the best job/hobby/vocation/avocation in the world, outside of being a ware-tester in an ice cream factory, or a piano player in a brothel.  I am here to tell you that you must never let someone else who has a jaundiced view of the fire service world have their way and ruin it for you. 

Sadly I have seen folks who took great delight in simply creating havoc in other people's lives. It is time to ask you to be tough my friends. I want you to remember that if you quit these people win. That is bad for the good people who are looking to you for help in time of crisis. You must be strong for the people you are charged with protecting; be they fire fighting people, EMS troops, or the citizens of you fair town.

At this point it is critical for you to understand that parts of what follow are for information and edification; other parts are designed to cause you to chuckle as you deal with the nuisances of daily life.  You need not keep the information separate from the humor.

Just do not use the wrong information in the wrong spot. But remember, smile a lot.  Sometimes a smile can really confuse people.  Use your smiles and your praise as the situation dictates.  Remember, however, there are times when an error, such as your smile at the wrong time, can cause the other side to really stick the square peg of life into the round hole of your existence.

Let me now move to what I believe are the survival skills necessary for situations such as these.  The first step is to discover just what it is that the boss wants you to do.  Sometimes it is obvious. They yell at you.  They tell you to jump three feet off the floor.  Your task here is obvious.  Give that person the requisite three feet of elevation

However, here is where you can begin to have some fun. Never tell the boss that had he left you alone, you could have jumped five feet.  If that leader is that short-sighted as to ignore a subordinate’s potential, that is their loss.  Save the tall jump for the moment when it will benefit you, or someone you really trust and admire.  This is one of the primary secrets to surviving in a bureaucracy.  Find out just what people want.  Give it to them and be sure that they are aware that you gave them just what they wanted.  There are two positive points to this:

  1. It might keep you out of trouble.
  2. You will always be operating within your comfort zone.

The second step in our plan is to fill the system with a paper trail to keep the boss informed of all of the steps that we are taking.  Let them know that we are accomplishing every aspect of what they wish in the exact manner desired.

This is a somewhat longer version of the ancient Roman appellation: “We came; we saw; we conquered.”  It reads a bit more like this:

Dear Sir:

Day 1.  At your personnel request, we set sail on yesterday to perform your task.

Day 2. While sailing on the way to success today, we encountered some rough weather.  But we persevered and are on target for success.

Day 3. We are approaching the gate of the kingdom you wished us conquer.  We saw the enemy at this time.

Day 4. It being a holiday, we pitched camp and waited a day.

Day 5. As we approached the gate, the natives appeared unfriendly; so we sent for a friendliness consultant from headquarters.

Day 6.  We attacked, but were forced to stop at roll call time, for lack of the requisite overtime pay.

Day 7.  We attacked again.

Day 8. We think we have conquered, but being unfamiliar with the concept of conquest, we have requested a conquest consultant from headquarters.  We await his arrival.

Day 9.  The consultant says we have conquered, so I guess we have.  We will be back, as soon as weather and personnel conditions permit.

And so runs our journey on the seas of bureaucracy.  By operating in this way, you will keep the boss off your butt.  You will also offer him frequent opportunities to butt in.  Rest assured that your judgment will not be trusted and the guidance will be frequent, extraneous and off the mark.  But available it will be.

Does this seem a bit cynical to you?  Good, you are still paying attention.

Step three of our plan involves the use of a few simple words in a highly repetitive manner.  You may recognize them:

  1. Yes sir
  2. Yes sir
  3. Three bags full

It has long been my experience that a person's career will be filled with sadness and sorrow in those cases where they forgot these three sets of words.  Let me suggest that as you become more senior in your department you will find this advice to be true.  It will always play a part in this comedy-drama we call life.

My final rule is equally simple, just like all the rest.  Become a master at knowing the rules and regulations of your agency.  I have long liked to use the analogy that the rules must come to serve as the parameters of the ring of life, wherein all of your career’s boxing matches are held.  Think of them in the following way:

The world outside the rules
where all is evil and improper

The world within the rules where all
is right and proper

By remembering this as you spar your way through the boxing match of life, you will have the quality of right on your side.  It is tougher for the boss to have your kiester if you are cloaked in the robe of righteousness.  He or she may not like it, but the boss has to live with it.

So what is it that I have shared with you in this short missive?  Quite simply my friends, there are those supervisors within the fire service who have developed all the people skills ever used by Atilla the Hun.  And no matter what we say or do, that person will still be the boss.  However, I want to assure you that does not mean you cannot labor mightily to enjoy the period of your slavery.


  1. Always know what the boss wants and give it to them.
  2. Write about everything you do.
  3. Create a record of your journey through life.
  4. Cloak yourself in the righteousness of your motives
  5. Learn how to say, “Yes sir,” when your heart is filled with obscenities.
  6. Always operate within the rules and regulations.

We sure hope that you do not need to operate under this set of rules.  It can be tough, but it can also be the best way to make the most of a bad situation.  And remember, a little prayer will never hurt.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark Fire Department as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and life member of the National Fire Protection Association. He is president of the United States of America Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) of Great Britain. Dr. Carter holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.