Avoiding the New Boss Blues

Oct. 2, 2006
No matter how you got to the point where you are today, be ready for the letdown.

A few weeks back I wrote a commentary about the concept of sharing what you know. My gripe with the fire service was that the tacit knowledge acquired by veterans during their years of service was not being shared with the younger members who will be around long after us old dogs have stopped learning tricks of any kind.

This week's visit with you is the start of that effort on my part. While I will not be doing this every week, I will slot in a periodic commentary specifically targeted to an area of knowledge which my buddies in the veteran's camp have come to view as gospel. Here it goes.

Congratulations my friend. You have just been placed in a new position of responsibility within your fire department. Maybe you have undergone an extensive period of studying, promotional examinations and personal interviews. Then again you may have been elected by your friends to this new position. There are also those among you who may periodically end up in the right front seat in an acting capacity.

You are probably feeling pretty good about yourself right about now. I know that any promotion I ever received was a time for good cheer and celebration. So spend a bit of time enjoying yourself. There is nothing wrong with reflecting upon your success. Take the time. You have earned it.

However my friends, no matter how you got to the point where you are today, be ready for the letdown. There is always a letdown of some sort after each moment of joy. So it has been throughout my career in the fire service. I can recall my first time in the right front seat in the U.S. Air Force. It happened to be in the spring of 1968.

I had spent a great deal of time studying and felt that I was ready for the new job and its attendant duties and responsibilities. That made one of us who felt I was ready. I was assigned as a crew chief on a crash-rescue vehicle at the crash station on the flight line at Eielson Air Force Base outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Today you would call me an ARFF guy.

My problems came not from the close inner circle of friends I had nurtured during my time as a driver and firefighter. Most of us had attended training school together at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. These folks knew me quite well and knew that I would have their interests at heart. No my friends, the problems came from other places.

There were those who felt that they had been gypped by the system. They felt that since they had been in the service longer than me, they should have been promoted ahead of me. They took their frustrations out on me. What they failed to note was the number of things my associate and I had done to prepare ourselves for leadership roles.

I had a number of college credits on my record and worked hard to do the right things. Correspondence classes, previous job experience, and a great deal of extra work within the fire department allowed me to grow as an individual and impress my superiors with the quality of my work and the level of my dedication. So too it was with my buddies who were promoted at the same time as me.

My roommate and I spent a great deal of time working with our fire prevention division. Each month he would don the costume of Sparky the Fire Dog, while I wore the Smokey the Bear suit for our public education effort. It was fun for us and had a strong positive impact upon the dependent children at Eielson Air Force Base. We went about the call of duty.

So I felt qualified for the responsibilities I was given. That did not make it any easier to endure the snide remarks and backstabbing actions of others. There were a few of us in the same boat and I guess we looked to each other for the strength to endure the onslaught of negativity which we faced.

There were those who tried to play the cards of oppression and prejudice. They stated that a number of us were promoted because of our race. I discovered early on that one can never control what other people will think. You will also learn early on that not everyone is a supporter and encourager of your career. They have plans for themselves, and you are not on their radar screen.

These negative vibes have gotten worse as our society moved through the "me" generation to the current model that I have come to call the "what's-in-it-for-me" generation. I promise you that you will hit the brick wall of peer jealousy very early on in your new role as a rider in the right front seat. This holds true whether you are in a career or volunteer fire organization.

A few years later, I faced a similar problem in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department. The negativity was the same, but the reasons were slightly different. I was promoted to the rank of Captain after only four years and one week of service. Many of the guys who got promoted at the same time as me had at least double the amount of service.

Jealousy is not a pretty thing to see. Sometimes it is blatant and sometimes it is subtle. However, I would like to caution you that it will be at work in and around you as you move into your new position. Be on the lookout for people who will stab you in the back at their earliest opportunity.

The key to both of the situations I have mentioned above comes from knowing what will happen and then making up your mind that you are tough enough to leap the hurdles that will be placed in your path. You must also be ready to do battle with older people of the same rank.

I can remember having a real pitched verbal battle with a fellow Captain who insisted on calling me "kid". This problem came to a head one night after a particularly bad fire when this guy's company stretched a hoseline off of my pumper company, and after the fire left the hose in the street for my crew to reload. My crew was tired of the actions of this man and his crew of prima donnas.

They had pulled this crap on us before and this night just happened to be the straw that broke the camels back. When I approached him about it, he tried to provoke me into a fist fight at the fire. Fortunately I was not stupid enough to succumb to his challenge. Hell, he probably would have kicked my butt anyway.

No, I suggested to him that he and his truckload of prima donnas return with us to my station for a further discussion of this issue. I knew that I was going to win when he agreed to my suggestion. When we got to the quarters of Engine Company 15, I asked him to come upstairs to my office. If anything negative were to happen, let it happen behind closed doors was my thought.

The interaction was quite brief. Before he could utter word one, I stared him down and told him that I wanted him to cut out the "kid" crap. I told him that as a veteran of the Vietnam Conflict, I had long since passed the "kid" stage of life. I further told him that I earned my rank in the same way that he did. We had both studied and taken the same sort of civil service promotional examinations offered by the state.

I looked him right in the eye and indicated that I wanted us to be friends. I extended my hand to him and after what seemed like a really long time, he un-balled his fists and grudgingly extended his hand toward mine. I do not think that we ever really became buddies. However, we did develop a healthy respect for each other. They reloaded our hose in the future when they stretched it at a job. And I did not end up getting my butt licked.

The key to the new-boss conflicts is keeping your cool and taking the moral high ground. The same holds true for the interaction between you and your crew. Many times you will end up with a crew that is more senior than you. That is how it was for me in Newark. Most of the guys on my first crew were old enough to be my father.

If you want to win people like this over, you need to do it with your interpersonal skills, your technical skills, your honesty, and your sincerity. You need to learn as much as you can about who your people are and what motivates them to be team players. You must then create a team based upon the skills and interest of both you and your crew.

A buddy of mine taught me the value of the team meeting. Much can be accomplished by the honest discussion of the problems facing your team. It is critical to lay out your plan for running your company. You must also make sure that what you want to do is allowed by your department.

The person in the right front seat has to become a font of knowledge as regards your department's rules and regulations, standard operating procedures, and operational guidelines. You must act within the guidelines established by your department.

If you establish yourself as one with little regard for the rules, do not be surprised when your troops begin to challenge you. If you disregard the rules, you will engender an example that will come back to bite you on the butt. This is critical.

I am sure that I will share a few more bits of wisdom with you as the months pass and we move further on down the road to helping you become a better officer. Rome was not built in a day. The same is true with regard to your career as an officer. Let me close by saying that no one will ever become perfect.

However, if you fail to work at self-improvement, I can guarantee that you will travel a long road as you sit in the right front seat of your fire truck. It isn't easy and it doesn't happen without effort on your part. No one just becomes a leader. Each of us who has been granted the privilege of leading others has had to learn how to do the job.

So it is with you. You are nothing special. Yet at the same time you are very special. You have the ability to influence the manner in which people work. If you are good they will be good. If you are not good, they will not be good. In either case the people in your world will see what you are doing. You cannot hide from the truth.

I hope that this week's visit with you has been of some assistance. Be sure to share your thoughts with me. That is the only way that I can make this sharing process better. You can reach me a [email protected].

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