Karpluk: Old Words Create New Ways

I purchased one of my favorite books in 1994; it’s a thin paperback titled, As a Man Thinketh written by British philosophical writer James Allen. It continues to change the lives of men and women who are open to the truths written by Allen since it was first published in 1902.

It’s one of those books that I revisit quarterly and when I was reading it recently I thought of the feedback from my previous blog on changing a fire department’s culture and realized that many of Allen’s truths are applicable to today’s fire service.

I was recently asked a question concerning change and whether it’s necessary for a fire department to change its culture. There can be two key reasons for striving to change a department’s culture-firstly, we need to change when our department culture holds us back from progressing into the future, and secondly, when an existing culture is unhealthy. In both cases it is imperative that the department changes its culture otherwise it simply cannot achieve the greatness it deserves.

Because the beliefs, values and perceptions of firefighters form the basis of a department’s culture, it only stands to reason that changing a department’s culture will require a change in the way firefighters think. Let’s see if some of Allen’s philosophy and statements written over 110 years ago are applicable to today’s fire service.  

Every man is where he is by the law of his being; the thoughts which he has built into his character have brought him there I think it’s fair to say that every department is where it is today because of the prevailing thoughts and character in the department. It doesn’t take long to discover that the progressive fire departments in North America are a result of the prevailing thoughts focused on visionary and progressive goals. This results in a department rich in character that delivers exceptional service to its community.

With this in mind, when the complainers in an unhealthy culture point fingers and blame others for the way things are, one only has to listen to the words spoken of the disgruntled and it soon becomes obvious that their state of discontent is self-induced.  Without a doubt, the thoughts and character of a fire department bring it to where it is today.

Until thought is linked with purpose there is no intelligent accomplishment - A fire department may have great staff with great ideas, but until these ideas are linked to a purpose (or more commonly known as goals) it simply cannot grow and progress into the desired future state. If a department’s existing culture is holding it back from progressing into the future, rest assured the leaders with a vision will face frustration and opposition. This is wasted talent and it’s going to be a rough ride for staff because the existing culture is set on maintaining the status quo and essentially breeding complacency and stifling firefighters imaginations and creativity. It's a basic truth that no intelligent accomplishment will ever occur for the fire department lacking purpose.

There can be no progress, no achievement without sacrifice - People are more comfortable with leaders that tell them something they want to hear, rather than something they need to hear. In many cases the “need to hear” is critical to the survival of a department and the leader communicating this message is often viewed as bringing forward bad news. The truth is that unless we are willing to pay a price today (a sacrifice) then we simply cannot progress into our desired future state. There isn’t a free lunch here. A department wanting to be viewed as professional must demonstrate professionalism and make sacrifices along the way to be professional. This may require training when you just don’t feel like it, or studying when you just don’t feel like it. In all honesty, I wouldn’t even call this a sacrifice.

In all human affairs there are efforts, and there are results I ’m a firm believer that every fire department deserves greatness and this can only happen when all of the members are working together. It’s not a solo act from a select few, but a commitment from the rank and file to change behaviours, accept new ideas and a willingness to put in the time and effort to make things better. Like anything else in life, you reap what you sow and if a department is focused on change to improve something, then the result will be a culmination of the efforts put forth by the firefighters.

Does a fire department culture need to change? In 1902 James Allen wrote, “Man is made or unmade by himself.” When you reflect upon this statement, “A fire department is made or unmade by itself,” then you are able to answer the question yourself.