The Wave of Progress

March 24, 2015
Dr. David Griffin explains how the traditional "sports wave" requires many to participate, much like the firefighters who are facing change today.

In February of 2015, my wife and I were attending a college basketball game between my alma mater, The Citadel, and their military rival, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), on The Citadel’s home court in Charleston, S.C. Now this is a deep-rooted rivalry that has to do with much more than just basketball. Each program and school takes pride in beating one another on the playing field, but also in which freshman year is more challenging. 

As the pre-game pleasantries began, the crowd continued to grow and the fans began to voice their opinions of both schools toward one another. It wasn’t even tipoff yet and the crowd was going at each other. Of course, this was all in fun, however, you could tell by the look in some of the fans eyes that they meant business. The environment was classic sport rivalry, but with the added touch of military energy. Cadets booed in the face of VMI fans as they walked by the “McAllister Maniacs” section. VMI fans fought back by dramatically showing the cadets their t-shirts that simply read “Beat The Citade.l” You have to respect that company pride, right?

As the game began, the crowd was even more engaged, hanging on to every call by the referees and every possession of both teams. When the referees made bad calls, The Citadel contingent let loose with roars that encompassed the capacity crowd. The coaches from both teams danced on the court in disagreement with the calls and some of their respective player’s performance. Even the players joined in with body language that stated they were better than the opposing team and that they disagreed with some of the ref’s calls.

The game continued to go back and forth until VMI took a commanding lead in the second half. The VMI fans were ecstatic, but as you could imagine, The Citadel fans were not happy. Around this time, a fan stood up and began to orchestrate the wave. You know, the sporting wave that’s done all over the world to get the crowd more involved in the game. This lone fan continued to orchestrate the wave until more and more people became involved. At first, only a one quarter of the capacity crowd of over 4,200 were participating. However, after three total evolutions, the wave was performed by almost everyone in attendance around the arena five complete times. This included the same fans who were at each other’s throat for the predominance of the game. 

How was one person able to get that many individuals to set aside their differences of opinions and beliefs for one unified goal? Also, what does this have to do with leadership and progress? Well, let’s take a closer look to find out. 

There is much controversy regarding who created the wave. However, research credits professional cheerleader Krazy George Henderson as starting the first wave in the United States on Oct. 25, 1981 at a playoff game between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. He had previously created it by mistake at a hockey game in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada as he tried to get opposing sides of the arena to stand. It didn’t work out as he had planned, but it started the phenomenon known today as the sporting wave.

Since his start in cheerleading in 1968, Krazy George always looked to find different methods of getting the crowd involved in the games as he knew this would create a better experience for all parties involved. As he tried these new ideas, they didn’t always work. He actually failed quite frequently. However, his goal was to get crowds as large as 75,000 to operate as one cohesive unit. This would cause everyone to get along and work together for the outcome to be noticeable. If only a few thousand in a crowd of 75,000 performed the wave, the essence and energy of the movement would not be experienced by everyone at first. Yes, these few thousand started the wave, but it took the rest of the crowd’s involvement to make it successful. 

As these few thousand people grew larger, he continued to orchestrate their movements until almost all 75,000 people were working together for one end result: the wave. He took pride in keeping the wave alive for three to five total evolutions as he knew this was no small feat. 

The Wave & Leadership

Now think about this. What happens as the wave begins to die off? Well, slowly but surely the crowd loses its energy and the cohesive movement is no longer visible. This is not always the best atmosphere for the support of the players or the creation of a memorable sporting environment. The same goes for leadership and progress.

Think of an instance when you were trying to get your personnel involved in a new initiative for the betterment of the organization and the service provided to the citizens. At first, only a few people may have participated. It probably felt that it was not a large enough contingent of personnel to spread the efforts of progress across the remainder of the organization. This is similar to the creation of the wave at a sporting event. It starts with only a few people and grows into something extraordinary. However, at first, it seems like a major feat. 

When starting a progressive initiative, this is all that it takes. You have to create an environment that allows others to become involved. Let me go ahead and warn you that it will not happen overnight. As more personnel see the progress and the individuals involved, they will slowly become a part of it until the “wave of progress” is apparent. Now don’t get confused here. As in the wave at sporting events, you will still have negative individuals who don’t want anything positive to occur. So, of course, they will resist the “wave of progress.” These individuals will eventually be overtaken by the ones who want to progress this profession and their respective skills.

The point of this story is this: leadership and progress are two areas that will continue to challenge us each and every day. There is not one person who can give you the million dollar answer on how to be the best leader or how to institute progress. However, what we can do as leaders is look to other types of examples that can help us grow each and every day. In the long run, this will create a better environment not only for the emergency services arena, but organizations all over the world. We can take something as popular as the wave at a sporting event and inject this energy into our own respective organization. 

Yes, the wave creates energy for an entire crowd. However, it’s started by one leader and then followed by people who believe in its energy and purpose. The difference for us as leaders is that we need the wave to continue long after the three to five evolutions that Krazy George made his goal. How do we do this? Easy. We continue to progress every aspect of this profession and each individual’s respective organization. If we do so, the wave will continue and there will be no time for someone to miss an evolution. If they do, they will be passed by the others who are involved in every step of the “wave of progress” from inception to institution to continuation.

So ask yourself this. Am I a valuable part of the “wave of progress,” or am I watching others enjoy the fruits of their labor and hoping that the “wave” dies? Well, sorry for your luck. This “wave” is not going anywhere. Either stand up and surf the “wave of progress," or step aside, because you’re in our way. It’s no longer the way we’ve always done it. Welcome to the future. This is how we do it now; with continual progress. Cheers.

DR. DAVID GRIFFIN is a captain and training officer with the City of Charleston, S.C., Fire Department. He was the operator of the first-due engine on June 18, 2007 when nine of his fellow firefighters perished in the line of duty. He has a bachelor of science in education from The Citadel, a Master of Science in executive fire service leadership, and a Doctorate of Education in organizational leadership and development. He is the author of the best seller In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy, a global speaker and instructor, a certified Chief Training Officer and Fire Officer with The Center for Public Safety Excellence, is currently completing the Executive Fire Officer Program at The National Fire Academy. He is the owner of On A Mission, LLC and can be reached at

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