The Seven Habits of Highly Defective Fire Chiefs

Aug. 29, 2007
On a road trip recently, I listened to a book on tape called The Seven Habits of Highly Defective Leaders, and it reminded me of a saying I had heard many years ago: No one is entirely worthless; they can always serve as a bad example.

On a road trip recently, I listened to a book on tape called The Seven Habits of Highly Defective Leaders, and it reminded me of a saying I had heard many years ago: No one is entirely worthless; they can always serve as a bad example.

As I considered this, I thought of the many people I have known in my career that sabotaged their own careers through bad habits. Maybe they just had no desire to succeed, or maybe they were simply clueless, but they did a great job of derailing their careers. Much worse, some actually made it to the chief level or even the chief's office and made the lives of their people miserable.

I thought it would be worthwhile to cover these seven habits, which I have adapted freely (i.e. plagiarized) with slight modifications, for two reasons. First, you may recognize yourself in one or more of these habits and you can take corrective action. Two, you may be wondering what you can do to sabotage your own career, so here is the surefire way to accomplish that if it is your objective.

  1. Be prophylactic.

    The best way to be prophylactic is to insulate yourself from others. Do not participate in groups. Never volunteer for assignments. Retire in place (that's RIP for those who like acronyms). Sheath yourself in smugness and despair. Become a human fountain of misery so others constantly avoid you. Winston Churchill once said that it was good to have enemies because it meant you had stood up for something at sometime in your life. Churchill did not know what he was talking about. Being prophylactic is the best way to avoid having enemies and to protect you from controversy and change.

  2. Begin, and never finish.

    This is a great habit because you can do so much with it. You can accept any new assignment or project with impunity because you know you will actually never do the work! Make lists but do not check anything off. Just be sure to not forget and actually complete a project. Effective chiefs have in boxes and out boxes on their desks. Highly defective fire chiefs have a DAND (pronounced dandy) box. DAND stands for Die A Natural Death. This is where you place those assignments that you do not plan to complete, and let them die naturally. Keep your DAND box near the wastebasket, and when the DAND box is full, just tip the contents in to the wastebasket, and start fresh. If questioned about your project or assignment, obfuscate and talk about the process you are developing to begin the assignment, or some other equally irrelevant deflection. Be inter-defective and drag others down with you by blaming others when the work or project fails. Procrastination is your trusted saw. With time and practice, you will be as defective as Wally in the Dilbert comic strip.

  3. Pick your nose.

    This is a power strategy that can be used to project your image to others clear across a crowded room. Though not socially accepted, picking one's nose is an essential defective habit. Nothing says "stay away from me" like a finger planted firmly in your nostril. Nothing prevents the spread of germs via a handshake like a big green booger perched on the end of your finger - no one will shake hands with you. The logical extension to picking your nose is to have sloppy grooming and dress habits. An unkempt appearance means you won't get picked for special assignments or to represent your department in public, thus giving you more time to slack off. Picking your nose in public is very useful and can get you extra elbow room in the middle seat of an airplane.

  4. Think - Loser wins!

    Win/win takes too much work. Win/lose means that one of us is going to lose. Be proactive: go on the offensive with loser wins - you decide the outcome. Practice whining. Appear oppressed. Blame others for everything. Look for sympathy. Contract victimitis, which has no effective cure and is sometimes spread to others. We live in an age of guilt, so cash in on that. Only fools go down with a sinking ship, so blame someone else, and climb in that lifeboat.

  5. Don't try to understand anything

    Things change all the time, so why bother to understand anything. Why go to college or take classes on new management techniques - you learned everything you needed to know to be a chief 20 years ago. Do not take the time to learn anything new. What has changed about fighting fire in 300 years - it is simple: put the wet stuff on the red stuff. Here is the secret to making this work for you: require others to conform to you! Talk about your leadership skills and make others adopt them. This creates a sideline of co-defectiveness where you drag others down with you. If done properly, those "college boys" will be leaving your organization faster than rats from a sinking ship. Since you are not learning anything new, use the time you save to practice other defective habits like picking your nose and not listening.

  6. Don't write thank you notes

    Writing thank you notes is a waste of your valuable time and can lead you to believe that you need to recognize the work of others. Baloney. Other people work for you. You deserve all the credit. Do not waste time recognizing the work of others. Take credit for everything except failures. When projects fail, blame others (see habit number 4).

  7. Get burned out and use old saws

    Squander your emotional and psychological resources. Develop unhealthy habits. Go on Mental Medicare: bankrupt yourself emotionally and then get others to care for you. Take, but never give. Why be a mentor to anyone, it just takes work, and they probably will not appreciate what you are trying to do for them. Do not bother to reenergize yourself; you will just have to work at being burned out again. Why sharpen the saw? It is just going to get dull again. Get others to cut your wood - if they do not, blame them (see rule number 4).

In summary, the lack of personal improvement I see in many current and potential fire officers is astonishing. I review resumes where all learning ceased after rookie school, or after achieving the minimum level of state certification necessary to maintain employment. In interviews, I ask: "What have you done to prepare yourself for this promotion" and the lack of personal preparation guarantees that the candidate will not be promoted. The fire service needs effective fire officers. Do a thorough self-assessment to see whether your habits are effective or defective. Habits are learned behaviors. If you practice effective habits, then reinforce them through personal enrichment and development. If you have one or more of these defective habits, do everything you can to break that habit and replace it with an effective habit. If you have a bad habit or two remember that your history is not your destiny, and that your career is in your hands.


  • The 7 Habits of Highly Defective People: And Other Bestsellers That Won't Go Away: A Parody, by C. E. Crimmins and Thomas Maeder, September 1996, Dove Audio Recording.

Dennis Wolf is the chief of the Germantown, TN, Fire Department. He joined the Germantown Fire Department in March 1977 and rose through the ranks to become fire chief in November 1995. He also serves as Germantown's Emergency Management Director.

Dennis holds a bachelor's degree in Fire Administration from the University of Memphis and a master's degree in Fire Service Leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a charter graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program. An active 22-year member of the IAFC, he is a Past-President of the Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association and a member and past officer of the Mid South Fire Chiefs Association. He is a Chief Fire Officer Designee (CFO) and holds the grade of Member (MIFireE) in the Institution of Fire Engineers.

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