The Fire Station Pyramid of Success - Part 2

March 1, 2008
Mark Emery continues a series on fire station success based on Coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success.When the time comes to clear out the locker, wouldn't you like to know that you left your fire station and your fire department a better place than before you got there? Would you like to be remembered as a poised and confident leader and as a team-player?

Mark Emery continues a series on fire station success based on Coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success.

When the time comes to clear out the locker, wouldn't you like to know that you left your fire station and your fire department a better place than before you got there? Would you like to be remembered as a poised and confident leader and as a team-player?

Last month, you were introduced to the Fire Station Pyramid of Success. The Fire Station Pyramid of Success is about developing — and maintaining — a legacy of personal and professional leadership. You were also introduced to an amazing man: coaching legend John Wooden, who developed the original Pyramid of Success. Wooden is recognized as the greatest basketball coach of all time; many consider him to be the greatest team coach of all time. During his tenure at UCLA, the Bruins won 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years — including seven in a row.

Although his UCLA coaching record justifies the accolades, it is important to note what was important to Wooden. He never coached a team to win or beat an opponent. He didn't coach his teams to win championships. He didn't give pep talks. Wooden believed his number-one responsibility was to prepare young men for life after basketball. Although the championships and statistics are impressive, at 97 years old, Wooden is most proud that 95% of his players graduated with a college degree. He is most satisfied that his players left UCLA as decent, respectful members of society. Wooden knew that basketball is just a game and that life is not a game. Wooden's Pyramid of Success has nothing to do with sports; the Pyramid of Success is about life and leadership.

The young men who played for Wooden will tell you their personal success and the success of UCLA was due to the principles of the Pyramid of Success. After more than 30 years, they still consider Wooden to be a friend and mentor. Coach John Wooden is a wonderful human being. The Fire Station Pyramid of Success is based on Wooden's Pyramid of Success and on his beliefs, values and principles.

Professional Excellence

First and foremost, the Fire Station Pyramid of Success is about developing and maintaining personal and professional leadership. The Fire Station Pyramid is also about teamwork and establishing a legacy of personal and professional excellence. Those four italicized words are compelling: leadership, teamwork, legacy and excellence. Who wouldn't like to be associated with these four words? Who doesn't want to be remembered as a poised and confident leader and remembered as a team player? Who wouldn't like to leave a legacy of professional excellence at their fire station?

After I leave the fire station for the last time, with my locker contents stuffed into a box, one of the first things that will change will be the entry-door code. It is unlikely that I will be notified of the new entry code; it is even more unlikely that a statue will be erected to honor my 30 years of dedicated service. That's the way it should be; if I know that I left a legacy of always trying to make things better for the people I had the privilege to work with, and remembered for always trying to make my fire department and the fire service a better place, I will be content. Paraphrasing Wooden's definition of success: Success is peace of mind that comes from the self-satisfaction in knowing you gave your best effort to become the best of which you are capable.

True, lasting self-satisfaction and success are not realized by a statue or a plaque or by winning championships. True success comes from peace of mind and self-satisfaction. Knowing that you gave your best every day will provide lasting peace of mind and self-satisfaction. Giving your best every day will establish a legacy of personal leadership and professional excellence. (If you're going to be in the fire station anyway, why waste your own time? Being lazy is cheating yourself; being lazy and rounding corners means that you made a conscious decision to not be your best. What a shame when the culture of an entire fire station is lazy and rounds the corners. That fire station has no leadership.)

The Fire Station Pyramid of Success is not a motivational, get-leadership-quick pyramid scheme. First and foremost the Fire Station Pyramid of success is about personal and team leadership.

Start With a Strong Foundation

This article will enable you to build a strong foundation for your pyramid of success — both personally and in the fire station. Professional excellence begins with this rock-solid foundation. Your rock-solid foundation will consist of five blocks:

  1. Industriousness (hard work)
  2. Enthusiasm
  3. Friendship
  4. Loyalty
  5. Cooperation

In 1934, Wooden began constructing the pyramid using two powerful blocks that serve as its cornerstones: Industriousness and Enthusiasm.

Industriousness. Wooden called his left cornerstone industriousness. Industriousness simply means that lasting, meaningful things don't happen without hard work. At the fire station, I call this showing up to work rather than simply showing up at work. Hard work is essential if you desire a worthwhile outcome. Wooden does not equate hard work with time. Each of Coach Wooden's UCLA practice sessions lasted just 90 minutes — no more and no less. However, each of those 90 minutes was meaningful. Wooden's amazing legacy is the result of smart hard-work. No moment or motion was wasted during a UCLA practice session. Smart hard work was better served by investing focus rather than time.

The firefighter or fire officer who avoids hard work and cuts corners will never reveal his (or her) full potential. Wooden captured the spirit of hard work as follows: You can work without being industrious, but you cannot be industrious without work. Wooden advises that industriousness must complement — not interfere or compete with — a life that is balanced. His highest priorities are family, faith and living according to his principles.

Enthusiasm. At the right corner is the second cornerstone, enthusiasm. Enthusiasm simply means that you enjoy what you are doing; when you show up at work your heart and mind must be fully engaged to work. Again, Wooden: Without enthusiasm you can't work up to your fullest ability.…Enthusiasm ignites plain old work and transforms it into industriousness.

As a company officer, you must be enthusiastic; enthusiastic about training, enthusiastic about fire prevention, enthusiastic about customer care, and enthusiastic about maintaining your "house," your tools and your apparatus. You control the rudder that guides your crew and your fire station.

Enthusiastic leadership can be expressed in many forms. Enthusiasm doesn't mean you need to be an organizational cheerleader; you don't need to be loud, gregarious, dynamic or animated (you're not trying to sell the latest infomercial exercise gizmo). You simply need to be an enthusiastic leader. Enthusiastic leadership requires only that you express enthusiasm through consistent industrious action. Don't surrender your fire station leadership to a recliner and TV — to do so is selfish, lazy and unprofessional.

Complaining about your job, your administration and the weather is the antithesis of enthusiasm. If you don't like your job, get another job. If you don't like your administration, prepare yourself — with enthusiasm — to become the administrator you wish you had. (If you don't like the weather, relocate.) Either your heart is in the fire service or it's not. On high-performance teams there is no in between. Do things that will help your administration look good; doing so will make your fire department look good and will make you look good.

A key component for enthusiastic leadership is to understand that firefighters work with you, not for you. Teamwork requires respectful collaboration. So that you evoke the best in yourself and those you supervise, your primary responsibility as a leader is to generate and maintain enthusiasm. With authentic enthusiasm (not artificial) you will compel your peers to progressively higher levels of achievement. As an enthusiastic and hard-working leader, you will direct your efforts at three primary targets:

  1. Your people
  2. Fundamentals (the basics)
  3. Career (life)-long learning

If you and your firefighters are to continually grow and improve, no target is more important than enthusiasm for learning. Career-long learning can be summed up as follows (adapted from Wooden): It's what you learn after you know it all that's important.

As a leader, you must be willing to work hard, to be industrious. You must balance hard work with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm and industriousness are the cornerstones of your Fire Station Pyramid of Success. Each cornerstone is powerful; together they enable your crew to become a positive, proactive influence. Fire station success will come when every member of your crew takes ownership of your vision and accepts responsibility for his or her part in achieving your vision. (Hint: Your crew needs to know what your vision is.)

Between the Cornerstones

Between the cornerstones your foundation will be comprised of three blocks: Friendship, Loyalty and Cooperation. Together friendship, loyalty and cooperation will strengthen your cornerstones of industriousness and enthusiasm.

Friendship. For fire station success, both personally and for your crew, there must be some level of friendship. Friendship is a powerful influence when it emerges from mutual respect, esteem and devotion. Only through consolidated effort can you, your crew and each firefighter begin the journey to discover true potential. Friendliness greases the skids of industriousness and enthusiasm.

Friendship in the fire station doesn't mean that you have to go fishing together or be the godfather for each other's kids. In the context of Wooden's Pyramid of Success, friendship means mutual respect and simply getting along. Wooden positioned friendship beside industriousness because it is something you must work at diligently. In your fire station, the first step toward getting along is to neutralize the "blame game." Like a parasite, bitching and blaming latches on from the inside and eats away at the pyramid's foundation. When you blame others and are intolerant of other's backgrounds, foibles or differences and you give up your responsibility as a leader, the foundation crumbles.

Ridicule and blame (and close relative bitching) will cripple your leadership because it directs your focus to things that you can't control or change. Even if justified, ridicule and blame serve no useful purpose. The aim of the "blame game" is to protect (or inflate) egos, not to build a proactive, winning team. Finally, never lose sight of your own fallibility — you (and me) are not above making mistakes (I've made some doozies). Those who have been ridiculed and blamed will relish their opportunity for payback — with interest. A palpable attitude of sincere friendship — mutual esteem, respect and devotion — was one of Wooden's secrets for creating his high-performance teams.

Loyalty. Loyalty is the cohesive energy that will take individuals and transform them into a team. For this reason, Wooden positioned loyalty at the center of the pyramid's foundation. Loyalty serves as the foundation's keystone. True leadership is not quid pro quo (this for that); true leaders are not motivated by what they may receive in return for their good (or bad) deeds. You cannot "buy" friendship and loyalty. Ponder this: How can you ever perform to the best of your ability unless you are loyal to someone or something other than yourself?

Leadership loyalty does not mean that firefighters are obligated to respect you. (They may be required to respect your rank, but that doesn't mean they respect you.) Leadership loyalty means that you respect yourself and respect those you lead. Leadership loyalty means that you respect your firefighters, that you respect your administration, that you respect your fire department, and that you respect the opportunity and the privilege to contribute to the fire service community. Properly focused respect will nurture team loyalty. Self-respect is built on loyalty to yourself; being loyal means being true to your word and refusing to compromise your values and beliefs in order to advance or maneuver politically in your own self-interest. Being loyal to your "higher, noble self" will enable you to become a doer rather than a "stewer and brewer."

Strong feelings of loyalty will sharply increase your team's eagerness to learn and grow. As a bonus, loyalty will nurture the flexibility your crew needs for adapting to rapidly changing conditions. Within your fire station, foster loyalty by being industrious, friendly, and enthusiastic; speak highly of people when they are present — and when they are not present. Loyalty means supporting people when they make mistakes just as often as you will support them when they excel. (Sometimes, the only significant feedback people receive from up the organizational food chain is when they make a mistake.) Try this: Think of each firefighter as your customer!

Cooperation. There must be cooperation at all levels if your crew (and your fire station) is to reach its full potential. Cooperation means working together to accomplish common goals — a united team effort. However, if you want to receive cooperation you must first be cooperative. Cooperative fire station leadership is about empowerment — not power and control. Cooperation cannot be demanded; you must earn cooperation, earn respect and earn loyalty.

As a mature, cooperative leader, you seek the best way rather than insisting on your own way. (You are not the only person with good ideas.) A mature leader is willing to risk looking for excellence from others because they are not threatened by the success of others. The success of others is celebrated as a contribution to organizational excellence and the organizational big picture. Without friendly, enthusiastic, cooperative interaction among your crew, there can be no cooperation at your fire station. A selfish, lazy, immature fire station culture will position you against them — especially if "them" are new members who are not selfish, lazy and immature. (An immature fire station culture will often produce juvenile, petty shift wars.)

The manifestation of fire station success and professional excellence is a friendly and cooperative combination of diverse talents, abilities, backgrounds and styles that can transform a collection of individual firefighters into a loyal and enthusiastic high-performance team. Successful high-performance teams work hard, get along, and are enthusiastic, loyal and cooperative. Bottom line: If your crew doesn't like you (or you don't like your crew), you will have a tough time developing a high-performance team — never mind building the pyramid; you will be challenged to simply assemble the foundation.

Friendliness, loyalty and cooperation don't come easy and they often don't come naturally. Lasting friendliness, loyalty and cooperation require industriousness and enthusiasm to achieve and sustain. The only way to pull a fire station out of a downward spiral is with rock-solid leadership. To put into perspective the value of your fire station having a rock-solid foundation, you need only consider the antonym (the opposite word) to each pyramid foundation word:

  • Industrious — Lazy, lethargic, slothful
  • Friendly — Antagonistic, hostile, aloof
  • Loyal — Unfaithful, treacherous, not trustworthy
  • Cooperative — Unhelpful, obstructive, unaccommodating
  • Enthusiastic — Apathetic, indifferent, passionless

I don't care if going to the fire service is your avocation, your vocation — or both — how would you like to work in a fire station that is slothful, hostile, untrustworthy, unhelpful and passionless? Having a root canal would be more enjoyable.

Build Upon Your Foundation

You have just discovered the foundation for personal, team and fire station success and for achieving professional excellence. However, you will not be successful unless you take action. As business-excellence guru Tom Peters once said:

Creativity + Awesome Follow Through = Success!

Wooden's Pyramid of Success principles are not "Kumbaya" consultant psychobabble. (Recall that Wooden's NCAA dynasty was built upon the Pyramid of Success.) The pyramid is a simple, yet powerful life navigation system for personal and professional excellence — and for enjoying the peace of mind that comes from the self-satisfaction in knowing you gave your best effort to become the best of which you are capable. Once you have assembled a rock-solid foundation you will ready to assemble the next level of your Pyramid — the preparation level:

  1. Self-control
  2. Alertness
  3. Initiative
  4. Intentness

Next month, the second level of your Fire Station Pyramid of Success will be added atop the foundation. In the meantime, invest in yourself, your crew and your fire department. Today is a good day to begin building the foundation for your leadership legacy.

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