Lethal Leadership Landmines: A Primer

One of the most often-quoted phrases is that, "…the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Let me also suggest that the road to leadership success in the fire service is also paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, the road is also strewn with something which I have come to call "leadership landmines." These are things which, if we ignore them and their potential impacts, stand ready to explode in our faces and upset our best efforts at being a good leader. Let me suggest that my job here today with you is to help you weave your way around these various landmines as you travel the road of fire service leadership.

Let me also suggest an excellent starting point for this discussion. No one starts out to be a bad leader. Just about everyone I have ever met had as their goal to become the best possible leader for their troops that they possibly could. However, as they say, stuff happens. Our journey is knocked off stride and our efforts at effective leadership are frustrated. Sadly, far too many people who start out with the best of intentions ends up being sidetracked when they step on one of these landmines.

Here is a list of those things which I place within the category of potential landmines:

  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Location
  • One-Way Streets
  • Expressways
  • Antiquarians
  • Button-Pushers

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

Let me begin by warning you about the serious negative impacts of fatigue. Fatigue is a serious problem because it can sneak up on you. What are the effects you need to worry about? 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 critical thought processes.

It is important to stress to you the fact that fatigue can be (and usually is) a two-way street. Whatever fatigue is doing to as the leader and what you may be feeling, it is having a greater impact on the people who are working on your behalf. These are the people actually doing the hard work. Some of the stupidest things which I ever did as a leader can in hindsight be directly laid at the doorstep of fatigue.

My friends, you have to force yourself to recognize the effects of fatigue and work to counter them. Some of these effects are:

  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Difficulty concentrating and work your checklists
  • 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 who issue. Should you fail to address the problems caused by fatigue you are setting yourself up for all of the bad things which frustration can bring to you and the members of your working team. Frustration can be explained quite simply. You want things and 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 things are quite a bit more complex. You want the fire to go out, but it won't. You want the boss to stop chewing on your butt, but he won't. You wish the crew on the 'C' Shift would stop leaving the pumper in disarray when their shift is at an end. See what I mean when I say that frustration can be a real pain in the place where you sit down.

As a young lad growing up in Freehold, NJ, I often heard a real gem of philosophical advice. I can recall my late grandmother telling me that, "…patience is a virtue." It is my duty to tell you that it turns out that patience is far more of a virtue than I ever imagined it might be. Let me also offer a bit of hard-earned experience. Never pray for patience. You will end up facing a new round of frustrating events which will demand that you accept your fate and soldier on. That is of course the way in which you learn to develop the ability to be patient.

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

  • Find something that you can do and become good at doing it.
  • Enjoy your successes wherever you can find them (it could a community activity or something with another organization. .
  • Help others to overcome their problems and frustrations. This will make you feel better too.
  • If you happen to be 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. As a matter of fact, I can recall an number of times where my smile so thoroughly confused the opposition that they just walked away and let my team win.

Location can be an easy or a difficult part of your landmine mapping strategy. If you like where you work then a great many things which might be annoying will not be a distraction. If you like the people with whom you work, the same thing holds true. However when you hate where you work and dislike your co-workers life tends to assume a very dark and menacing coloration. Let me suggest that this is one of those times when you need to fall back on an age-old warning I heard more than once, "…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 one, buck up and hope for a transfer. Again, if you are religious, you can pray for guidance and assistance. Remember what my dear, departed Granny used to tell me: "…Every dog has their day."

If you have a good assignment just say thank you. Enjoy your time and try to write down the things which make the assignment so fine. In that way, you can use your notes to make future assignments that much better.

'One-way streets' may not be a concept with which you are familiar. Let me explain a bit about what I mean. This term applies to those people who always want things to run their way. They are self-centered and have no tolerance for the ideas put forward by others. In the old days I may have said things like these folks are not team players. Or I might have mentioned that they failed to work for the good of their group. In light of how well I remember the "Me Generation" of the 1980's, I could also offer these people as shining examples from the golden age of selfishness.

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. For suggestions on how to deal with these people, kindly refer back to the paragraphs on fatigue and frustration.

Sadly, there does not appear to be a cure for the disease which these people cause within an organization. If one of them happens to be your boss, you may be in trouble. I can speak from experience that the only way to survive in situations like this is to make it clear that you must avoid them as much as possible. Try to make it seem like you are not trying to infringe on their prerogatives. If they are working with you, be sure to make them aware of the fact that you are on to them and their modus operandi (MO). Keep them on a tight leash. Oh, and by the way, no part of this any kind of fun at all. This is really 'work' at its worst for you as a leader.

'Expressways' constitute a small group of people in your midst who always seem to be on their way to somewhere. No matter what the task that you give them these people tend to run screaming into the night in search of whatever it is that they are looking for. Forget what you ask them to do, they are going to run off it search what they want. Maybe you will have a clue as to what they are seeking and maybe you won't. Please rest assured that whatever it is that they want, it trumps what you want them to accomplish. These folks will be a true challenge to you command and control skills, since they will not be working from the same script as the rest of the team.

'Antiquarians' are those people who actively seek the cloying comfort of the past. Sometimes they are active and at other times they are not. In either case, they are working to maintain the past as their present and future. To these folks there is but one meaning to the word change, and it involves small sums of metal pocket coinage. It has been my experience that folks like this can become an active roadblock to the efforts of your fire department to meet the needs of the future. They can come up with ten ways to justify staying just the way you are, rather than updating or changing your operation.

Passive antiquarians are merely 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. These folks see the value of learning about the past and building upon 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 last leadership landmine in this commentary may well be the worst. These are the button-pushers. These are the troops who know (or sense) what it takes to make the leader lose his or her temper. The first type is the unconscious version who just seems to know how to get the boss angry. I do not think that 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 which 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. You are wrong.

As the leader you must always maintain a rational, level-headed approach to your position. When you lose this, you are in trouble. Remember than an angry person is not a reasonable person, and that unreasonable responses to any situation are generally bad responses. You must by all means available to you work to 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. In other words, 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. Let me assure you that this advice is based upon a couple of really sad experiences from my supervisory past.

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.

Read more of Dr. Harry Carter's "The View From my Front Porch" blog here.