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This One's for the Back Bench People

It has been my good fortune to have been a volunteer firefighter for more than four decades now. I have seen and experienced a great deal, both good and bad. Based upon that understanding of how it works in our world let me ask you a very simple question. How many of you have watched the troops sitting in the back row of a company meeting at your fire department and grousing?

What you may ask is grousing? Grousing is an ancient concept dealing with a person’s perception of how poorly the world is treating them at any given moment. It might also be called the "oh poor me syndrome." It has been my experience that grousing usually leads to a negative interaction, such as rock throwing. I define rock throwing as the hurling of rocks in either a literal or metaphorical sense.  For grousers, the weapon of choice is a metaphorical rock or barb chucked at those running the show.

However, rock hurlers rarely respond to requests for thoughts and ideas. When grousers are asked for suggestions, they can be observed studying the tiles on the ceiling or counting the weaves in the carpet.  Their silence is overwhelming.  During this visit with you it is my intention to help you avoid becoming a grouser. They usually cause problems and I would prefer that you all might be remembered as being positive rather than negative in your actions.

I can recall one time In church where something the pastor said during his weekly trip through the Bible interrupted my absorption with the ceiling tiles.  He quoted a passage in which we were exhorted to be doers and not just observers of the passing scene.  Let me define a doer as one who takes action.  I quickly jotted that thought down in my notebook and let it lie fallow a bit.

Then a simple thought came into my mind's eye. Speaking up for yourself is one distinct way to become a doer.  Here are a couple of examples to illustrate the point.  Focus for a moment on a popular Steve Martin movie of the 1990's, Roxanne. Remember the part where Steve Martin, as the fire chief, was ghostwriting love letters for one of his firefighters. The words he gave the firefighter were actually the thoughts he wanted to share with Darryl Hannah, who was the lady love in the movie.

The firefighter acted as an intermediary for the chief’s words of love. Think how much time and trouble would have been saved and how much more effective the words would have been had they been uttered directly to her in the first place! (Of course, it would have made a lousy movie plot.) Remember the problems Martin had when he was found out as the actual author of the words.  He had to woo Hannah all over again. Wooing is what a man undertakes to create interest in him in a woman.  My friends, this is hard work under any circumstances.

Move a little further back into history, and consider the tangle of Miles Standish, Priscilla and John Alden.  How much simpler his life would have been had John uttered his words of love directly to his intended?  It sure would have saved a great deal of time and heartache.

You learn to must speak up yourself.  Let me also suggest that the “back bench people” need to speak up for themselves.  At your next fire company meeting when you have a valuable thought or idea, share it with the group.  Speak for yourself; be a person of character.  Do not be a hider and slider; be a doer. If you believe in something, get off your butt and get into the action.

Let me share a quotation from Albert Einstein that covers this very topic: "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried."

Have you noticed that the people who never make mistakes are the people who never do anything?  These are the people who bob and weave through life laboring mightily to avoid any form of responsibility.  They will toss rocks at others but will never offer a suggestion.  I used to wonder why I am always in trouble so much more often than others.  I know now that it is because I am always doing or attempting to do. Let me now define a doer as one who will be remembered as a person often in trouble.  Believe me: it’s worth the trouble!

How, you might ask, does this advice square with the “life within the box” advice given in my "Thumbprint Management” commentary a few months ago?  Usually, if you are flexible enough and work at it hard enough, you can adapt, fit the pattern in the box.  However, occasionally in life, we are compelled to change the pattern, the shape of the box, we find ourselves in.  If that is your choice, then be a doer. Take action to change the shape of the box or cut a window in it.  Speak up, and from personal experience, I offer a final definition. 

Let me close with an important thought.  A doer is one who must be ready to accept one of two things – accolades or brickbats. 

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.