Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Leadership

Drive the “Change Bus” or Get Run Over

By David Griffin

Change is difficult; it is also one of the only areas of an organization that’s constant. Why? Because leaders are always looking for new ideas to improve their products and services. Change is here to stay. Fortunately, you have a few choices. You can get on the bus and ride, drive the bus, or get run over. Personally, riding and getting run over do not sound very appealing to me. I played “chicken” with the “change bus” before, and it ran me over pretty quickly. Lesson learned.

We can trace organizational change back to the Old Testament, when Moses had thousands of Israelites as new followers after they escaped the Egyptian pharaoh’s tyranny. Moses was now in charge of a large number of people, and he had to do a better job of organizing during this overwhelming time in his life. It was suggested, by his father-in-law, Jethro, that he reorganize and select some of his best men to be the leaders of these new-found followers. Under Moses’ best men would be lieutenants tasked with this duty. If need be, Moses’ best men would then have direct access to Moses. If a problem arose that the lieutenants couldn’t handle, then it would be taken directly to Moses through the chain of command1. Of course, the aforementioned example was not the first instance that highlighted a structural and operational change following a suggestion, but it was definitely an impactful one.

Do you realize how much easier this change made Moses’ job as the leader of these new followers? This was all started from a suggestion from Jethro, who saw a problem and decided a major overhaul was necessary to fix it. Was it difficult at first? Of course it was. Did they quit and say that wasn’t “the way they use to do it?” No. They pushed through it and made the changes ensured more effective leadership and that their people were taken better care of. It seems pretty simple right. So, why is it so hard for organizations to change even when we don’t have thousands of unknown people entering the equation, as Moses did? People like their routines and what they feel comfortable doing. But if you don’t change, you don’t grow. Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian and the recipient of the 1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom, said, “Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.” You could become something incredible if you stay positive and give the process a chance to work. I have seen this many times in organizations, and the resistance is usually high at first.

Let’s look at my freshman year at The Citadel (the military college in South Carolina) in 1998. For more than 100 years, this institution had been an all-male university. Females were now entering the matriculation process in increasing numbers. I assumed that changes in training were starting to be passed down the pipe because I continued to hear my cadre sergeants grumbling about what needed to be done to uphold the new standards. I was young and didn’t understand what I was hearing at the time. As I look back on it now, it was a simple resistance to organizational change. These changes were being put into place to create a better training environment for all parties involved. I was worried that, because of the new changes, I wouldn’t be a part of the history of the “old corps.” But in essence, I was a part of a bigger time in the history of the “new corps.” We were innovators, some of the first to go through “Hell Week” with females by our side. These dynamics made us a stronger group because of our diversity.

Of course, some of my classmates complained, but I believed in the process and knew that this new dynamic would make our university stronger. I was willing to surrender what I was for what I could become. Four years later, one of my female classmates rose to the rank of company commander and led us courageously during the year that our country lost 343 firefighters and deployed our troops for the war against terrorism. As I stated, I surrendered what I was for what I could become and, in turn, learned from a great leader.

More than a decade later, I found myself in a position of surrender again to allow the change process to work in the city in which I was born and raised and now have the pleasure of protecting: Charleston, South Carolina. We had just lost nine firefighters in a warehouse fire on June 18, 2007. I was the engineer of the first-due engine that day and witnessed first-hand the effects of a lack of organizational change over previous decades. Unfortunately, at the time, I and other department members didn’t realize the organizational changes that were needed. It took some deep self-exploration for all of us to come to terms with the changes, but once we did, the weight of the world was lifted off of our shoulders. We surrendered and gave it a chance. This monumental step dramatically changed all of our lives as well as the direction of our department.

Of course, not everyone embraced the change. However, the ones that were willing to take that step changed their lives and careers. Ask yourself, Are you willing to surrender what you are for what you could become? It’s a tough question that takes some self-exploration. Ponder it, explore it, embrace it, sleep on it. Give it a chance. Don’t resist new ideas that could change your life in a positive manner and make you an innovator in your organization. It’s easy to buck the system and hide under the radar on the change bus, but it’s much more difficult to surrender and make a positive change. Complaining and negativity will snowball. When individuals continue to handle themselves in this manner, they are not only hurting the place for which they work and the people that care about them, but they are making it difficult for the remaining members to move on and take that step to surrender.

History indicates that, in many organizations and professions, not everyone will be able to surrender. However, there are individuals that understand the importance of surrender and the meaning it has in the grand scheme of things. These members will be behind the wheel of the change bus that will continue to move through not only the emergency services but organizations worldwide. Will you be behind the wheel or continually dodging it?  Trust me, the change bus will keep coming and, if you do not take heed, it will eventually run you over. It’s your choice…make the right one.

 

Photos found on Wikimedia Commons. Photo 2 courtesy of Brosen and photo 3 courtesy of Nrbelex.

 

REFERENCES

1. Burke, W. Organization Change: Theory and Practice. Sage Publications, Inc. (2002).

 

DAVID GRIFFIN, a member of the Charleston (SC) Fire Department’s Training Division, has a BS degree in education, a MS degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctorate in organizational leadership and development. He is a certified fire officer and is enrolled in the Executive Fire Office Program. He is the owner of On A Mission, LLC.