Leadership: Ten More Commandments

June 16, 2003
I offer the list to you as someone who has learned, often at the school of hard knocks, to benefit from looking at things with an adjusted perspective.
This month's column will add to that familiar list of actions to either be accomplished or avoided in order to lead a righteous life. These additions, however, are directed at those of you in formal leadership positions within the fire service. Whether you are a company officer or chief of the department; whether your organization is big or small, career or volunteer, urban or rural; whether you're in the early stage or the twilight of your career, these guidelines are suggested as ways for you to be more successful in your job. As always, your opinions are welcome and may be submitted via e-mail through Firehouse.com.

I offer the list to you as someone who has learned, often at the school of hard knocks, to benefit from looking at things with an adjusted perspective. I have attached one or two of my favorite quotes, where applicable, to summarize the thought in better words than my own.


1. Improve your ability to communicate. Pericles said, "The thinking human being, not able to express himself, stands at the same level as those who cannot think." It's sad that our high schools and colleges are graduating more and more young people with less and less ability to clearly express themselves. While ours is a "hands on" occupation, leaders must be able to articulately express their thoughts, both verbally and in writing. If there is one skill that, if mastered, will set one apart from the masses in this day and age, it is that ability to communicate effectively. Remember this old Hindustani proverb: "The dumbness in the eyes of animals is more touching than the speech of men; but the dumbness in the speech of men is more agonizing that the eyes of animals."

2. Decide when a decision is required. In our job, and especially under emergency conditions, we frequently find ourselves under the gun to act without the benefit of having enough information. We don't always have the luxury of being able to study and analyze something before having to commit to a course of action. But the great thing about our line of work and the people in it is that, more often than not, the decision made is the correct one. If not, a little creative tweaking on the fly is usually sufficient.

Henri-Frederic Arniel said, "The man who insists on seeing with perfect clarity before he decides never decides." We need to learn to minimize the risk and maximize the opportunity for success by streamlining the decision-making process, and by exercising good judgment based on our own experience and that institutionalized by others in our field.

3. Upgrade when the technology is outmoded. A friend of mine, who is a retired U.S. Army colonel, likes to say, "The army got rid of the cavalry when it discovered it had more horses' asses than horses." That's a fairly rough way to say it, but I can't express it any better. We need to occasionally re-examine the way we operate and then, every once in a while, we need to turn to a better way. Ron Coleman defines tradition as "Anything we keep on doing after we've forgotten the original reason for doing it." Now, I'm all for tradition. I hold dear many of the traditional values of the fire service. But all I'm saying here is that when a new and better way emerges, and our only reason for not embracing it is because "we've never done it before," then it's time to mechanize the cavalry, wouldn't you say?

4. Dance your own steps to your own tune. As a leader, you are a unique individual. Your style is an eclectic collection of all the influences others have had on your life. You have experienced, witnessed, heard about, read about, laughed about, cried about, studied, avoided, repeated, and chronicled an encyclopedia of events that, once synergized, define how you see the world. Go ahead and share that with the rest of us. You'll be surprised at how quickly others will adapt your style into their own collection. Just as no two of us share the same DNA or fingerprints, our leadership style will never exactly parallel someone else's. That's a good thing.

5. Embrace what you know to be right. In The West Point Way of Leadership, author Larry Donnithorne writes, "People [who] claim they see no payoff from moral behavior?are like Scrooge bragging about not having to buy Christmas presents because he has no friends." To follow up a bit on item #4 above, your sense of ethics has been determined by your family, your church, your schools, your friends, and your experiences. Publicize your feelings about what's right and what's wrong. Letting people know where you stand is critical in establishing a vision for yourself and your organization. Rolling Thunder, a Shoshone medicine man, wrote, "Scientists will eventually discover what pagans have known all along." It seems to me that the longer I live, the more truthful that statement becomes.

6. Occasionally go with the gut. Sometimes, after all the analysis you can possibly do, your gut instincts will suggest a different path. Follow it! It is a clear signal from a higher power-your own subconscious self. Whether your analysis is flawed or you're overlooking something important, or whether it's a simple case of not seeing the forest for the trees, learn to obey your instincts. I don't know if you've ever worked for someone who was obsessed with the numbers-I have and hated it-but the numbers don't always get to the heart of the matter. Dr. Morris Massey asked, "Painting by numbers has never produced great art; why should managing by numbers produce great organizations?" Sometimes you have to just let the analysis fall by the wayside and go with the gut.

7. Orbit the impenetrable mass. Gordon MacKenzie wrote a wonderful little book that I highly recommend, entitled Orbiting the Giant Hairball. His premise was that the organization (in his case Hallmark, but it could be any organization, including your fire department--or mine) is a giant hairball. "Two hairs unite. Then they're joined by another. And another. Before long, where there was once nothing, this tangled, impenetrable mass has begun to form." Every new rule and policy is another hair for the hairball, since they are never removed. The individual's challenge is to "find orbit around a?hairball [which is to] find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual, and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the institution."

8. Find a way to get it done. Staying with MacKenzie's book: "Any time a bureaucrat (i.e., custodian of a system) stands between you and something you need or want, your challenge is to help that bureaucrat discover a means, harmonious with the system, to meet your need." If the budget is the obstacle, seek alternative funding. If it's a bad rule, get it revoked. Whatever the problem, find a way around it. And if, in so doing, you manage to let the bureaucrat have the credit, good for you. One more future obstacle removed.

9. Reject the idea that forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission. Have you had this one pulled on you yet? If not, get ready, because it will surely happen. How to avoid it? First, forgiveness may indeed come, but it should be accompanied by consequences. That ought to at least ensure that it's only tried once. Second, and more importantly, make permission easier to obtain. We owe it to our subordinates and team members to allow them to fail. Failure, as long as it's treated as a lesson learned and not a one-way ticket to the doghouse, is the best object lesson in the world. Lessen its impact up front by minimizing the risk, helping to make it a calculated one based on sound judgment with a reasonable potential for success, and you'll be rewarded for having the good sense to treat failure as a good try with imperfect results. Fix that on the next try.

10. Recognize and celebrate the cast. On his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of my boyhood heroes, John Unitas, said, "A man never gets to this station in life without being helped, aided, shoved, pushed and prodded to do better. I want to be honest with you: The players I played with and the coaches I had?they are directly responsible for my being here. I want you all to remember that. I always will." Now, I submit to you that that may go without saying, but it shouldn't. All of us need to remember (and shout from the rooftops) that we have gotten, get now, and will get lots of help from those around us. Perhaps that attitude is what motivated Unitas' teammates to want to produce so well. And did they ever produce!

There you have it, a list of a few simple tools to add to the box. As always, I look forward to your thoughts. After all, that's where many of these came from! Please e-mail me at the address found in the box below.

Bruce Thompson is the chief of the Sierra Vista(AZ) Fire Department. Chief Thompson started his fire service career in 1974. He is a Past President of the Arizona Fire Chiefs? Association and a 1989 graduate of the National Fire Academy?s Executive Officer Program. E-mail Chief Thompson at: [email protected]

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