Are We All on the Same Page?

Sept. 26, 2005
Just the other day I wrote an in-depth article for Firehouse magazine. The topic of this article involved a common-sense presentation of the findings of my doctoral dissertation. I felt that the academic version should be translated into the language of the average firefighting citizen. Academic papers can be really boring. As a matter of fact, I think boring is a mandatory part of the academic world.

Just the other day I wrote an in-depth article for Firehouse magazine. The topic of this article involved a common-sense presentation of the findings of my doctoral dissertation. I felt that the academic version should be translated into the language of the average firefighting citizen. Academic papers can be really boring. As a matter of fact, I think boring is a mandatory part of the academic world.

My dissertation was entitled, "Member Retention in the Volunteer Fire Service: An Analysis of the Impact of Leadership." The basic premise of my article was whether the quality of leadership had any influence on whether people stayed in or left their volunteer fire organizations. The findings of my study were such that bad leaders appear to be driving good members away from our volunteer fire departments, along with a host of other problems.

As is my way, draft copies of this article were circulated to a number of respected friends for their comments and corrections. I like to see whether my thoughts are close to the mark or way out in left field, as both have been known to happen. The comments from my buddies indicated that my words were pretty much on target. That is to say they too agree that there are people who might never have left the volunteer or paid-on-call firefighting world had they had been exposed to a better quality of leadership.

One of the comments which came from a buddy in Massachusetts during a recent phone call told me that there are those out there in the world who have been personally exposed to the effects of negative leadership. My friend asked me if it was possible that the bad leaders of the world were unaware of the fact that they were not good. He also asked me if it was possible to have 21 firefighters on one page and the chief on another.

My answer to him was short and sweet indeed. That was a yes to both queries. I said that these are two of the most frequent of all organizational problems. Those who are most in need of personal change are usually the ones who go through life blissfully unaware of the havoc they leave strewn about in their wake as they move from disastrous interaction to asinine comment, and on to stupid statement. It was this telephone conversation which led to the selection of the title for this week's visit with you.

One of the major problems that every organization faces from time to time is the issue of focus. Sometimes you find yourself asking whether everyone in you department is doing the same things as you. I have witnessed situations in certain fire departments where it almost seems like there are four teams of horse pulling in four separate directions.

In ancient times this sort of four-way harness was used to kill people in a most painful, horrible manner. In ancient times this pulling in four directions was the quartering part of the punishment known as drawing and quartering. It was extremely painful to the person being punished, and a most horrible way to die. So too is it painful to watch an organization tear itself apart.

One of the best examples of the need to be on the same page comes from the world of music. In order for a musical number to sound its best, all of the players must be playing the correct note at the right moment. I have been at rehearsals where the band director accidentally gave different arrangements of the same piece created by different musical arrangers, to the band.

This error was discovered in short order, as there was a sudden burst of discordant notes and odd sounds. The cacophony which resulted was not pleasing to the ear, soul, or psyche of anyone present. The melody was similar, but the supporting notes were all screwed up.

This happened to me the other day in church, where I am a member of the Alleluia Jazz at the Colts Neck Reformed Church. We were to play a really neat musical piece for the congregation during our service. During the pre-service rehearsal, something did not seem right.

My part appeared to be off by a couple of measures. I ended up with a really exposed tuba solo that just did not seem right. I found myself having to skip measures to keep up with the melody. However, I adjusted to the situation and did not stand out too badly.

During the break between services I asked our band director to take a look at my part and see if something was amiss. As I returned from coffee break she informed me that she had accidentally added two measures to my part. The corrected version was much easier to play and made more sense. Of course the pastor and his associate liked my "solo" during the first service so much that the director added in a few extra bass notes for me to lead the band in at various parts in the music.

The band leader did her job. That is how a leader functions. They lay out their vision for the organization, much like a composer or arranger writes their sheet music. They then pay continual attention to the manner in which their organization is working and keeps an eye (or ear) out for the wrong notes which can stymie the group's progress. Corrections are then made as needed.

This is a critical process for any organization. Let me share a real sad story with you about a situation where it did not happen.

There is a small church near me which recently experienced vision and coordination problems with their new pastor. It seems that one Sunday a member of the congregation stood up during the period when messages from the congregation were traditionally addressed to the members of the congregation, and thanked a number of people for their efforts at a recent church event.

Apparently this did not sit well with the new pastor and she let the congregation know in no uncertain terms that she did not like this. Further she stated that this practice of standing for announcements during "her" service would cease immediately. At the point, as I hear the story from friends, the congregation began to stand up and leave the church. They voiced their displeasure by voting with their feet.

Just the other day I saw a moving van out in front of the church parsonage. The belongings of the pastor were being loaded for her move to a new place. My sources tell me that a new pastor will be in the pulpit come October 1. Is this not a train wreck that could have been prevented by a bit of proactive communications between the pastor and the congregation? I think it is.

How often have you seen leaders who seem to have a path in mind for their organization that is out of step with the direction towards which the group has classically been headed? Are these people so full of themselves that they think their all-knowing powers of omniscience are greater than the collective wisdom of the group? Or are they just stupid?

It is a shame to see such instances of head-body disconnect. Other buddies of mine have labeled this phenomenon rectal-cranial inversion. Perhaps the leader's new direction was a good one, however, sadly, they failed to articulate their vision and act for input from the affected members. This would be like a band leader waving their baton and being met by a round of total silence among the musicians charged with bringing the score to life.

So it is also within our world. Any organizational success which a fire chief might ever hope to achieve must be well-rooted in the soil of the world wherein they operate. They members of the organization make things run and create the successes. Given that many fire departments change their leaders every year or two, this tendency to go off in a new direction can provide the fertilizer for any hidden seeds of discontent that are already planted in your organizational fields.

How hard is it for an individual to call a team meeting? How hard is it to ask for help in charting the future course of any fire department? How hard is it to admit that you do not know it all and that you need help? If experience has taught us anything, it has taught us that people like honesty and that they also like to be asked for their thoughts. Further, people really like to have their opinions weighed in a fair and open manner.

The best way to do this is to discover where your people stand. Let them know what you think and how you feel. Then work to achieve a consensus. Sometimes it helps the group to understand why they must move from their extremely comfortable present to a seemingly changed and disquieting future. Sometimes the leader is presented with another way to solve a problem. You can only do these sorts of things through the process of periodic team meetings.

This is the type of thought that I share with my students during my course on organizational change. The first thought I try to instill in my students early on during the class is that nothing is as permanent as change. There are basically two ways to handle change my friends. You can assume that it will happen and plan for it, or you can ignore it and be blown about like a leaf during a windstorm.

Perhaps it is this failure to understand change, combined with a modicum of false pride that stokes the fires of organizational discontent created by far too many leaders. It might also explain how people can end up playing the concert of their lives with a huge number of wrong notes. Thus it is that people who do not like what they see vote with their feet, if they can.

I hope that this explanation meets the needs of my buddy in Massachusetts. He asked for some help and guidance. Perhaps he and his associates should approach their fire chief and discuss the number of discordant notes that seem to be coming from their organizational band.

It is my hope that these words may help those of you facing similar challenges in your fire department. I think it would be a real shame for the members of your department to stand up and walk out on a bad leader, thus voting with their feet.

Let me close with a simple thought. Most bad leaders do not recognize their shortcomings. They fail to recognize they are bad leaders. You will need to be patient, honest, and forthright in your approach to them. Let me assure you that your efforts will not always be met with ringing approbation by the boss. However, you need to do what is right. For you see, it is your life that must be lived by you. Better to enjoy life than hate it. Your call my friends.

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