The On-Going Battle: Us vs. Them

April 4, 2007
You cannot expect members to follow you as a leader in battle when you spend the majority of your time between battles criticizing the commanders.

How often have you been sitting around a table solving the problems of the fire service and heard the phrase "if only they would listen to us" or "they will never get it right" or "if we were in charge, they would finally understand the "right" way to do things." Perspective is everything. And the interesting thing about these conversations is that they never change. The world looks very different from the bowels of the engine room in the bottom of an aircraft carrier than from the bridge. And both groups are saying the exact same thing - "they" will never understand what it means to be one of "us."

The fact of the matter is though, that there is no "them" and "us" - a ship never leaves port without power from the engine room, and all the power in the world doesn't steer a ship. All of the functional component parts of an aircraft carrier could make an argument that theirs is the most vital part of the ship. And yet no part: not the pilots, not the fuelers, not the captain are anything without each other.

The same is true in the fire service - there is no "us" and "them" - there is only "us". "Us" are the ones who get to wear the uniform and be part of something bigger than ourselves. "Us" are the ones who have a responsibility to carry on a proud tradition of placing service above self and accepting the challenge of placing ourselves between harm and the citizens we have sworn an oath to protect. "Us" are the ones who promise "we will never forget" and actually mean it.

"Us" vs. "Them" is a disease that can kill an organization. You cannot expect members to follow you as a leader in battle when you spend the majority of your time between battles criticizing the commanders. I recently heard a firefighter recalling a story about an officer he had worked for years prior as one of the most vocal critics of the department, constantly complaining about "them" as if he and his company were somehow not connected to "them." And it reinforced the idea that it was ok to criticize the organization and still claim membership in the part that wasn't screwed up.

The point to be made is that the responsibility for defining "us" starts with the fire chief and must be carried forth completely, consistently, and positively all the way down the chain-of-command. And it is the fire chiefs' responsibility to make sure that the guy or gal scrubbing toilets in the fire station understands their importance as much as the battalion chief commanding a fire or a paramedic defibrillating a cardiac arrest victim.

The key to success is to put everyone's job responsibilities in terms of the greater goal - whatever that goal is. And it has to be repeated again and again so it remains right in front of everyone's vision. It probably sounds corny but when you ask any member of a particular fire department what they are doing, their answer should be "saving lives and protecting property." Clearly they are not actively engaged in that activity every minute of every day, but when you provide that kind of focus it helps members understand that their role is ultimately geared towards that one goal. They may be scrubbing bathrooms or waxing apparatus or standing by the road waving signs for "Change your Clock, Change your Batteries" - regardless of the activity - it is all towards that common goal.

If company officers speak badly about command officers, they should expect their firefighters to speak badly about them. There is a dramatic difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism only occurs when an individual is able to point out a weakness within an organization and offers a solution or series of solutions to solve the weakness in a way that works within the structure of the department. Destructive criticism is the cowardly act of sitting around a table complaining about how wrong everything is.

There is a fundamental difference between working to solve a problem and being part of it. That is not to say that all problems get fixed. They don't. In a lifetime of problem solving there will always be more problems - there will always be some project not accomplished; some job not completed; some initiative not implemented. And it is easy to look at the things not accomplished and assign those jobs left undone to "them" and those that did get done as being because of "us". Should you leave a place better than you found it? Of course. Does that mean that the place was never and shall never again be as good or even better because you personally are gone from it - no way.

There is no them and us - only us - "them" are the ones on the outside looking in wishing they could be part of us. Does that mean "us" is perfect - of course not - we have problems and weaknesses but they are our problems and our weaknesses and we only succeed when we solve problems together. We fail when we allow individual members to place themselves above the organization. We have a responsibility to ensure that we stop a virus from becoming a plague. And as members - regardless of rank - we each have an affirmative responsibility to stop individuals from putting their own agenda ahead of the needs of the community. How many times have you seen a bully attempt to rule by intimidation? That works right up until the group says no more. The group either empowers or takes the power away from a thug or a totalitarian - an individual who places their own self importance above the mission. It is up to the group to stop this dead in its tracks. What are you prepared to do?

Next time - strategies for eliminating Us vs. Them.

Matthew Tobia is a Captain with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department in suburban Baltimore, MD. With more than 18 years of experience, Captain Tobia is currently working as the station commander at the department's newest fire station located in Severn (Station # 4).

Captain Tobia holds a B.S. from the University of Maryland and is a nationally certified Fire Officer III and Instructor II. He teaches extensively throughout the United States and is an adjunct instructor at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy. He has served on curriculum development teams in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Captain Tobia is active in supporting the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp for Children. He can be reached at [email protected].

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