Don’t Forget the Losers in 2010

By Michael P. Dallessandro
Did the title of this article get your attention? Hopefully, it did. For the purposes of this article I will use the term “losers” for humor, with affection, and to make a point. I mean no ill-will by using the term, but be aware of the fact that, YES, there might be some losers in your fire department, and some of them might not be very happy right now. As the New Year unfolds, many fire departments select their leaders, be they firematic or administrative, through the good old democratic process of election. This time-tested method is probably the fairest way to do this and, as one of our assistant chiefs put it during a recent conversation, “The membership normally gets it right” when it comes to selecting its leaders. During my 25 years in the volunteer fire service and in other volunteer community and social activities, I would tend to agree that in most cases people do get it right and elect the right people.
I can also clearly understand why some people do not get elected, or advance further up the line for that matter, based on their conduct, performance, or behavior issues. I am sure we can all think of somebody in our own fire department who has run for office year after year, never once being elected to anything–the troublemaker, the loudmouth, the know-it-all, the poor performer–the list goes on and on.
But what about the election where you have two or even three good quality candidates vying for one spot? What about the loser or losers in that situation? Why, they are not “losers” at all! Often, they are some of the most valued individuals in your organization, those your organization may have spent considerable time and money grooming for future service to your organization and possibly for higher-level command and management positions. On election night as the vote results roll out, I urge you, especially if you are an officer, to be very mindful of your department’s quality candidates who did not get elected. As the handshakes and slaps on the back get handed out and the celebratory beers start to flow, take a look around the room. Where are your losers? What are they doing? Even more importantly, what are they thinking about?
Everybody wants to be around winners. It is a good feeling, and it is human nature, but if you are an active member of your department or an officer, make sure you take the time to speak to each candidate, win or lose on election night. The candidate who might have lost may be emotional and may want to dive right into the conversation about why he lost or ask for your immediate take on things. Don’t feed him a boatload of warm, fuzzy, company-line drivel in an effort to calm him down and get back to your beer. Immediately tell him that you want him involved in the upcoming year. Make an appointment with him on the spot (time and date) to discuss the election results and his role in the new year. This shows you care and also gives you time to collect your thoughts, do research about the personality and political lay of the land, and look at tasks you might assign to this member to keep him involved before your meeting date. During election night festivities, watch for groups that are forming for negative purposes. They may be found at the end of the day-room bar, the corner of the room, out in the truck house, or in the parking lot. Wander around, work the room, and stick your nose in, say hello, and keep the tone of the conversations positive.
To be actively involved in an organization outside of your home and work takes a great deal of effort these days. Quality people who have lost elections or who have not received firematic advancement or, on the administrative side of the house, social promotion, are going to have a wide range of emotions. Almost immediately, they will question friendships and reassess adversaries or perceived adversaries, loyalties, and their “place” in an organization. They will also try to search for ways in which they have failed the organization. If they have not failed the organization, this will be a tough issue for them to work through in their mind. Most importantly, these quality individuals who have lost elections will begin to question if the time invested in the organization over and above the role of general member was worth it when compared to the available hours in a week and the demands of family and job. People who have taken time from their family or job, or both, and gave  it to the organization only to be “kicked,” in their opinion, may in the short term begin to return that time to their family and job at the expense of the organization.
Some people will say “grow up and deal with it” or “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” It’s true  there is risk in elections and that we have to have some level of tough skin when we toss our hat in that ring; but there are other things to be considered as well. One is a concept called “the completion factor.”
As organization members, we complete certain levels of training or certification. Socially, we do a series of tasks or run large-scale events like the firefighter’s ball, a fund drive, or other important events while at the same time logging hours of time spent for the good of the organization. Although no member should feel “entitled” to a position, through the completion factor where members have completed tasks properly, some members will begin to feel “worthy” of election or promotion. In today’s world where, in some areas, we are literally “begging” for volunteers to join our organizations, members who are performing well and who desire to step up and serve the organization should be welcomed and embraced regardless of any clique-related, personal, or political issues. 
Anybody can wear a white hat, but it is the person who has the knowledge, skills, and abilities and who does the work that we should want wearing the white hat. Our elections should never be about personality or politics. If you notice that one of your best and brightest who has suffered an election-night setback is pulling away, and you truly value his contributions to the department, stay in touch with him, invite him to the firehouse socially and officially, put him on a committee, and give him important tasks that are at or slightly above his training or expertise level that do not require a great deal of time to complete.
The member’s spouse (and family) is a wild card. In addition to the time the member has spent at the firehouse, away from his family, if the spouse/family have also been actively involved in the organization or joins in the social activities, an election defeat may resonate much more deeply. It is possible that the spouse may attack all your efforts to keep the member involved when they arrive home. Since I am not an expert in how to deal with spouses, I will offer no advice here; I simply want to make you aware that those issues may exist and you may have to work to resolve them.
Let’s face it. Some of your good people simply get taken out like an old-school mob hit because of the people with whom they hang or where they stand on department issues.
Members or officers who fly under the radar and slide through their terms in office to past-president, ex-chief, or past commissioner with no waves have probably done their job. But, how have they truly impacted the long-term future of the organization? Maybe they brought stability and nothing more. Fine, but what about the member who served under you if you are in a leadership role or who took a tough stand on an important issue facing the department? Maybe they supported projects not popular with some members, such as your training initiative or a seat belt or drug-testing policy, or promoted the construction of a new firehouse or the purchase of an  apparatus. Maybe this member had your back every step of the way during your term in office and now has been “paid back” simply because of his support of or affiliation with you. In this case, make sure you reciprocate and protect this member’s back. You may be in the safe seat, but your soldiers and lieutenants who marched for you were and still are in a risky position. Be there for them before, during, and after election night.
If you have made every effort to keep your “losers” engaged and one member just needs time away, there is no shame in this. I am not talking about extremes. I have a low tolerance for people who constantly say they are quitting when things do not go their way; however, this is different: The person suffered a personal election defeat for no clear or justifiable reason. We seem to rally around our members who step up and take on committees or run for positions, but the minute those members decide that they need a break, we talk smack about them. A lot can happen over a few years. When you live your life by the election calendar, one-year, two-year, three-year, or even five-year terms, it is perfectly okay to offer your services, and it is also perfectly okay to discontinue your services when it is in the best interests of your job, your family, or your health and well-being.
Leaders need to make sure they facilitate this decision for members and the organization so that there is minimal negative impact on the individual and the organization. Do you really want to push a bruised or unhappy person to do tasks they might not have their heart in? Give them time to heal if they need it. The member may come back later, or, when the time and conditions are right, you may be able to help to facilitate the member’s return to the department.
Your comments or feedback are always welcome to [email protected] or www.respondsmart.com
Michael P. Dallesandro is a 25-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has taught at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers.