The Leader As a Master Mechanic

July 1, 2006

It is amazing how many times a thought can come to you in an unlikely place or at an unlikely time. It is also interesting how many of these thoughts can lay dormant within you for weeks and then suddenly burst forth. Many of you who know me could rightly accuse me of having numerous odd thoughts; and many of these thoughts have arrived in my brain at really screwy times. It may well be that this month’s topic has a shot at setting a new record for “off-the-wall.â€

I was watching a researcher on TV speak to the need for physicians to acquire the right skills (knowledge and techniques) to properly treat their patients. All of a sudden a thought hit me. While the researcher was alluding to the fact that certain physicians did not have the training and tools to do their job, a thought came roaring into my mind: It is not that way just with doctors.

Yes, certain physicians lack the tools and understanding to do their jobs; however, the same is true with mechanics, leaders, fire officers and a whole array of people. It is about using tools and talents to get a job done. When you serve as a leader, your people are your tools. You have to understand that some people are better at certain things than others. I am suggesting that leaders must know their people so well that they are able to select the right tool for the task at hand.

A good buddy of mine from Freehold, NJ is, I believe, a master mechanic from the old school. Leo Haley kept the Carter Family Fleet running for more than 30 years. No matter what challenge my wife, children and I threw at him, he always seemed to have the right tool in his toolbox to take care of our troubles.

How does this mechanical analogy apply to the fire service? Perhaps the classic way to describe this involves the concept of round pegs and square holes. How many times have you heard the phrase that speaks of placing a round peg into a square hole? It is a classic description of the need to fit people to those tasks for which they are suited.

This is a topic often discussed in the literature of the leadership field. A description of the transactional style of leadership would suggest the importance of leaders coming to know the skills, talents and needs of their people. The following speak to that need:

1. Leaders must assess the relative worth of the people who make up their team.
2. Transactional leaders must understand the needs of the organization.
3. Transactional leaders must know and understand the needs of their people.

I am suggesting that leaders must possess the skills to create an environment wherein there is a high degree of correlation between the needs of the organization and the needs of the organizational members. Each person must be considered a tool in the toolbox of the fire service organization.

This also suggests that the leader must develop an awareness of the capabilities of each person for whom they are responsible. I have long taught that each of us is a unique being. While you may be able to group people into general categories, I would not recommend this as a way of leading your team.

The master mechanic has many different sizes of wrenches in their toolbox. Would a master mechanic use a standard American wrench on a metric nut? I think not. Would the master mechanic use a ball peen hammer when a rubber mallet was called for? I hope not. So it must be with the leader’s use of team members. Think about the members of your team (department). Are there those who are quiet and reserved? Are there those who are outgoing and gregarious? I would imagine you have some of each in your organizational toolbox. Here is where the master mechanic analogy comes into play.

Let us say that you have to decide who will deliver a series of public fire prevention training sessions. Would it be better for you to select the quiet and withdrawn person? Or would you want an outgoing “people-person†member of your team to conduct those classes? All things being equal, the answer seems to be obvious. You would want to have the classes taught by someone who likes to interact with people. This presumes that you have trained your staff members in ways that emphasize their strengths and minimizes their weakness. Here is where the master mechanic concept comes to the fore again. Wise mechanics know the value of their tools and do not abuse them.

Let us say that you choose to give the task of teaching the public education classes to someone who is not comfortable interacting with people. What might the consequences be for you, that person, and your organization? In the first place, that individual will probably not do the best possible job. This could lead to a mental letdown that can have long-term consequences for that person. The unhappy person could possibly become a drag on your team. Their attitude could affect the attitude of other team members who might come to fear you. They would see what you had done to one person and begin to wonder and worry about whether you might do the same thing to them.

Another possibility is that this situation could also lead to unhappy customers who could begin to make your life difficult. They could go to your supervisor and ask that pressure be put on you to do a better job in selecting speakers and educators.

You have created enemies. Sun Tzu wrote centuries ago that the making of unnecessary enemies was an action that a wise warrior should not take. These enemies could act in one of two ways. They could attack you. They could seek to undermine your team. As a matter of fact, it could become even worse than that. Your enemies might decide that it would be advantageous for them to form alliances. They could then conspire against you. In that case, you would then be battling a growing array of forces, not really knowing when or where the next would occur. All because you failed to act as the master mechanic would. These travails will dog your life simply because you chose the wrong tool for the job.

How might you avoid the hazards of selecting the wrong tool? My suggestions will be simple, but implementing them may be difficult.

My first suggestion is that you get to know each person. This will require informal private meetings. Do not attempt to pry secrets out of your people, but search for answers as to what makes them tick.

Here are a few sample questions:

1. Why did you choose to become a member of our organization?
2. What do you like about your duties?
3. What disturbs you about your duties?
4. What are your hobbies?
5. What do you have to offer to us that we might not know about?
6. Is there something in the manner in which our department operates that you might be able to change?

These are but a few of the things you might wish to explore. Be aware that there will be those who will not want to respond. Take this as an indication that there are either reticent to say anything or worried that you are up to something sneaky. Do not be discouraged.

It has been my experience that you can expect three basic reactions from people when you are attempting a change of any sort. There will be those who enthusiastically embrace your efforts, because they see them as positive. Another group will remain neutral until they can get a reading on your intent. When these people feel confident that you have no hidden agenda, they will begin to respond to you.

There will also be a third and far more challenging group. These are the people who may never come to trust you. These folks will always disagree with you and at best see you as someone who must be tolerated. This type of person is always going to be with us. It is here that the concept of patience comes into play.

Think back to how long it took for the concept of incident command to emerge in our fire service. How about the battles we fought in the name of firefighter safety, such as the battle to get firefighters to wear self-contained breathing apparatus? These battles were won by dedicated people with another important attribute. They had the ability to persevere. Think of the daily battles we fight in trying to get people to drive safely and wear their seatbelts.

Think of how many times we battle people who want to drink and drive our fire vehicles. On and on it goes. Each of us who seeks to lead others is constantly being challenged to find the right tools for the situations we face. Do not give up. If you choose to surrender, the forces of doom and ignorance will win. That is not a pretty thought. Persistence and patience will eventually win the day.

One critical test of good master mechanics is to see how they respond to challenges. The patience needed by a master mechanic in troubleshooting a mechanical solution is no different from the patience needed by an effective leader. There will be a time when each person who rides a fire vehicle will wear a seatbelt.

It may be that you need to find the right person to attack the seatbelt and drinking issues. Maybe you are not the one. That right person will have the tools and the talent necessary to overcome all of the opposition to doing the right thing by your people. Let me urge you to begin your journey today.

Seek to become a master leadership mechanic. Seek to gather together the best tools available to do the job in your department. Then work to develop the skills and instincts needed for the task of selecting the right tool for the right job. I believe that the rewards will be worth the heartache.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently the chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is secretary of the United States Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through at [email protected].

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