Power Goofs


Last month, we talked about the effect of how bosses manage (or don’t manage) their personal and positional power. This month, I am starting with a story that makes the power goof point better than any academic claptrap.

A few years ago, I journeyed to the West Coast to conduct a three-day class on Functional Boss Behaviors for a medium-size fire department. We were going to have the same class for three consecutive days-one for each shift. The chief picked me up at the airport, and we had a very pleasant dinner together. He described the status and details within the organization. He said that he had recently made a number of promotions and he thought it would be productive to have an outside person (me) help balance their inside/outside perspective. His city was very prosperous and well-managed, and his department was well-staffed and well-equipped. He was intelligent and well-spoken, and he had been promoted up through the ranks. He had been the chief for a couple of years, was well-educated (BS and MPA), and was very proud of the organization.

Something Apparently Amiss

The next morning we had our first class; company officers and response chiefs attended. They were all smart, well-dressed, well-mannered, good-natured, and highly conversational. Although they were very responsive to the material we covered and very positive toward me, I began to hear a tiny sharp edge to some of their comments about the relationship inside the department-nothing major, just subtle little jabs at the end of the comment. What I heard was nothing I could really address because everything was going so well. The next two days went exactly the same way-great class, spirited interaction, good mutual understanding, but the same little editorial observations about local inside occurrences.

We finished the third class in the afternoon. The shift commander told me that one of the firefighter cadets would take me to the airport. The cadet was sent from Central Casting: 19 years old, six feet, weighing a buck-eighty, flat belly, friendly/polite, second year in the local fire science program, and articulate. Someone had briefed him about me, and he treated me like his beloved grandfather. The trip to the airport took about 45 minutes in a government-issue fire department van. He told me he had been a cadet for three years, since he was 16. As we visited, I told him how much I enjoyed being with the troops in class, but I detected a little undercurrent of something being out of balance inside the system, and the students were so well behaved that it never became explicit. I just blurted out, “What’s going on?”

He listened to me. I could tell I had put him on the spot. He was quiet for a bit and then asked, “Do you really want to know?” I said, “Absolutely.” He asked me if I had noticed the brand new rescue truck parked in the rear of the apparatus floor in the station where we had conducted the class. I said we had walked by it repeatedly for the three days I had been there. It was a heavy-duty, big, pickup-size chassis with a utility body. It was a rescue-emergency medical service vehicle that is pretty typical on the West Coast. Although I noticed it, I really didn’t think much about it. It looked like a new rig they had just received and hadn’t put in service yet.

He told me that the department had budgeted for the truck as part of its apparatus replacement program and it was a project that was internally high profile and very important to the members because that type of rig was intensely used throughout the department. They felt that the new unit would become the prototype for the future. An apparatus committee made up of those who would use the truck was formed to determine the design details. The group solicited input from every station, held focus groups, and met frequently. They researched the latest in design and vehicle details and visited a number of departments with similar units. All this effort produced a set of specifications that went out to bid. A high-quality fire truck builder won the bid.

I was wondering where my young lad was going with his response. He told me that the committee and the troops were having a victory celebration and waiting to bounce a bottle of champagne off the hood ornament when the truck they collegially designed arrived. He said everyone anxiously waited through the construction period. The new truck finally arrived. The members quickly inspected the vehicle, and it did not match the specifications the committee had developed. The committee chairman met with the chief and indicated that the truck wasn’t built to the committee’s specs. The chief simply told the chairman, “Yeah, I decided to change some stuff on the truck after you guys finished.” The chairman quietly and respectfully excused himself, had a (very painful) meeting with his group, and related what the chief had told him. The committee inventoried the differences, listed them, and communicated the chief-induced changes in the committee’s final report.

The differences between what they thought they ordered and what they received were fairly minor (in detail, not in meaning): different warning lights, tool mountings, paint design and lettering, differences in how electronic equipment in the cab was configured and installed, and (my favorite) changes in the dimensions of the equipment compartments.

He Must Show “He Is the Big Boss”

I asked if the chief had actively interacted with the committee as they proceeded with the project. He said that once the committee was formed, the chief never met with the members. I asked why the chief changed what the committee had decided on. He paused and then said that he had hung out, observed, and mentally took in how the chief operated (read: behaved) ever since he became a cadet. During that time, he had seen and certainly listened (as a “fly on the wall”) to the troops comment on the chief’s behavior. He then delivered the death blow: “I have watched him, and he really can’t control himself!” I asked, “What can’t he control?” He said that the chief must consistently do, say, or cause something to happen below him to show that he is the big boss and that his dysfunctional use of his positional power sends a message that messes up the relationship he has with the troops, who withhold granting him personal power. In one sentence, he described what I had heard for the past three days.

If this scenario were a graduate school case study, there would be enough to discuss for a full semester. Since I have about one page to discuss it, I will just offer some of the “no-brainers.”


Every firefighter on the apparatus committee was extensively tested to get a ticket to be a member of the department. They all knew the identity of the chief. The chief did not have to interfere in a process he approved of, so the committee members would realize he was the boss. All bosses should do their job on the assigned level. Strategic level bosses (like a chief) should establish overall organizational goals, make assignments, allocate resources, and influence the political and administrative levels above them to acquire the resources needed to effectively operate-not mess around with the dimension details of the compartments on an operational vehicle, particularly when the people who designed the truck work on similar units. The local experts in a work-related decision are the workers who know the most about the details because they must contend with the ongoing process of making those details work in the real world.

I asked the cadet why he thought the chief did what he did. He gave me the standard response to how power and abuse are generally joined: “Because he could.”

This little story fits into our looking at the hierarchy of the connection of personal capability to performance. If a boss like this chief cannot effectively handle authority (power), he will generally get paralyzed at the present level and will not move up the scale in rank or function. A very primitive way to express this is that a person who attempts to lead others cannot outperform his basic personality. This guy had been a member of his department for 25 years, had a master’s degree in organizational administration, was well-dressed and well-spoken, and was the CEO of his organization but he could not resist the temptation to put his “fingerprints” on a decision two levels below made by a group of his troops he empowered and who did exactly what they were charged with doing.

Empowerment can create a fundamental and brutal organizational indication of whether the bosses are effectively distributing organizational power as beef or bologna. The basic empowerment test is simple: If you want to know if the empowerment is real or moonshine, JUST DO the task you were empowered to do. Empowerment starts with a set of simple questions the workers should ask themselves: Is what you’re about to do the right thing? Is it legal, ethical, and nice? Is it safe and on your level? Will you be accountable, and is it consistent with the organization’s values? If the answer to all the questions is yes, don’t ask for permission. Just do it. Giving authority to the people to decide how to employ organizational resources right where the work is being done sounds peachy-and it is if the boss has the personal qualities (capability, personal security, and confidence) to handle the back end of the process. My airport chauffeur gave me a perfect bad example.

In this case, the boss should be in a diner buying the committee lunch celebrating the truck’s arriving. When the empowerment process really works, the chief should be very quietly enjoying (call it “his secret”) the fact that empowerment had been encouraged, reinforced, and reflected when the vehicle was built to the specs of the committee. When the system works the way it is supposed to, it involves an interesting contrast in presence: The committee is highly visible as it deliberated and came to a decision. The chief becomes temporarily invisible to the details that the group members were most familiar with (that’s why they were on the committee). It sounds odd, but a cagey boss must somehow figure out the art of when to be visible and when not to be so visible (level of engagement). This all worked up to the point when the obviously insecure big boss expressed insecurity by putting his “signature” on the empowered committee’s specs by changing the details that went to the truck builder. This was a major power goof.

Now, the committee is having lunch in the same diner. Instead of a victory celebration, the members are attending a wake for the death of “their” project. The villain is the chief, who was not on the invitation list. The boss had best understand that there will always be some kind of empowerment lunch at the end of the process. How that boss behaves will be a major factor in determining if it will be a happy or a very sad lunch. In this case, the boss’ behavior will follow him virtually forever. This basic empowerment process does not in any way reduce the authority of the boss. The boss (who is also empowered) has the positional ability to interrupt the group’s work process if necessary and openly and honestly interact with that group to address the concerns. It is a major mistake to change what the group decided on without interacting with that group. The system gives the boss the power and resources to assist, support, and direct the workers to be safe and effective, not to disrupt a group that has taken ownership of its assigned project. We see objective, ongoing evidence that the empowered “owners” consistently will make work in the real world those projects in which they have a stake. In this case, the new truck belongs to the chief, not to the troops who have to use it. In fact, the troops will now attach a name to the vehicle using some adult words. That name (and the related story) will follow that truck as long as it is in the organization.

I reflected that the chief’s catching a ride to the airport with the cadet could be very educational if he put on his big ears.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.


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