Full Contact Leadership: Righting a Wrong Morning

By Edward Flood and Anthony Avillo

Twelve-year veteran Firefighter Stew Dent was regarded as an all-around good and dependable firefighter. Dent was the senior firefighter in the house. Cooking, cleaning, routine maintenance, and general all-around station duty were activities that he always found pride and satisfaction in. In homage to the Beatles and Penny Lane, Dent kept his fire engine clean and well detailed (“He liked to keep his fire engine clean. It’s a clean machine,” he would warble at anyone within range.) On the fire/emergency ground, he always pulled his weight and more.

After 12 years on the job, Dent decided it was time to take a shot and study for the captain’s promotional exam. This was to be his first try. Like any serious studier, Dent invested a good deal of time, money, and energy studying for the promotional exam. Post-test, he was confident of his success and happy to tell you that he had done well, certainly well enough to pass the demanding exam and be promoted.

When the promotional list was published, Dent’s grade placed him in the lower 50th percentile; even with his seniority, his chances for promotion were out of reach this time around. Within a week of the list’s publication, Dent’s attitude and approach to the job began to change. He became sullen and withdrawn and not as ready to lend a hand. Along with the attitude change, Dent got involved in a couple of out-of-character, lower-case conflicts with other firefighters in the fire station.

In-house scuttlebutt diagnosed and attributed Dent’s sudden change in attitude and behavior to disappointment in his promotional test results. The firefighters and the company officer didn’t know what to do or what they could do or were just reluctant to get involved. Leadership-driven coaching and counseling (formal or informal) were never considered.

The next “shoe dropped” at a multicompany drill. Dent wasn’t wearing his gloves. His company officer, Captain Jess Fine, asked Dent to put his gloves on. Dent responded, “What difference does it make, not wearing my gloves? I’m only footing the ladder; I’ll be alright.”

Captain Fine reconfigured his “ask” into a clear and unambiguous direct order. Dent countered by pointing out that Captain Fine was “being absurd.” Captain Fine made abundantly clear his absolute disagreement with Dent’s unflattering characterization of the order to don his gloves. The captain introduced a series of well-crafted remarks that crystallized for Dent that his day had no chance of getting any better if he didn’t jump to it and carry out the order to enclose his hands in a pair of National Fire Protection Association-compliant hand protectors.

All of this back-and-forth took place in front of other firefighters and officers. Reports were written, pushed up the chain of command, read, noted, and forwarded to the office of the division commander.

This Dent debacle resulted in division-level discipline. Division Chief Joyce McDonald had a lot on her plate that morning but decided to squeeze the disciplinary meeting in instead of scheduling it when her work load was lighter. McDonald met with the battalion chief and Fine. She listened to her officers’ report on the Firefighter Dent situation. She made a snap decision that Firefighter Stew Dent was to be transferred to another engine company.

What happened here could be characterized as the organization taking a catnap. In this instance, the organization (represented by Division Chief McDonald) could be seen to have given up on Firefighter Stew Dent. The organization also failed at the company, battalion, and division levels.

The Beginning of a Comeback

After the battalion and company officers were dismissed, Deputy Chief McDonald started to review and reevaluate the Firefighter Dent situation as well as her decision to transfer the firefighter. McDonald knew that a transfer was not going to resolve the issue; it was only going to relocate it. To effectively deal with and get at the root of Dent’s behavior, someone needed to go to work in the uncomfortable face-to-face confrontation zone. Someone had to step up and “confront the uncomfortable.”

When leaders are not trained or provided with the appropriate leadership tools and organizational support, officers will rarely be inclined to engage in the emotionally messy and uncomfortable moments that make up much of the day-to-day continuum of leadership.

Human-to-human interaction is complex and sophisticated. Lack of focused, sophisticated human-to-human relationship training leaves leaders (and the organization) defenseless. Leaders need pointed schooling in how humans relate to and react with each other as individuals and as members of a group or team. Without a full portfolio of human relation-based leadership skills, leaders, supervisors, officers, chief officers, and chiefs of department end up trying to lead from behind a big fat curve.

The division chief realized she could have made the situation work in her favor and for the betterment of her command. She failed to turn the situation into a teaching/learning experience and a win-win instead of a loss-loss. Instead of guiding the company officer toward coaching and counseling, she chose a nonaction-action, transferring a firefighter with an unresolved problem to another company.

Firefighter Dent’s behavior was acknowledged; casually diagnosed; tolerated; ignored; and finally allowed to evolve into a free-range, overflowing problem. The Dent issue was flippantly decided on and destined to be foisted onto another engine company that was unsuspecting, unprepared, unrelated, and undeserving of a “problem the cat dragged in.”

Transfer as punishment often fails to calculate the disruptive impact that a “problem the cat dragged in” can have on the firefighters and officers stationed in the firehouse that the cat drags its problem into. Thus, Captain Fine would go back to his company level leadership responsibilities none the wiser and even less equipped to handle the next uprising.

The Comeback: Righting the Wrong

McDonald didn’t get to be the boss of a division’s worth of firefighters, fire stations, fire apparatus, and firefighting equipment because she had collected the requisite clumps of chief dust. McDonald was one of the sharpest tacks in the firebox. She was usually on top of her game and fully informed on what was going on within her division and the department. Today was an off day. Well, at least the morning was an off morning.

McDonald reviewed what had transpired during the meeting. She was not comfortable with how she handled the situation. She gave herself a failing grade regarding her decision and disposition of the issue. During her personal after-action review, McDonald found herself guilty of lazy leadership.1 She blew it, and she knew it. And then she smiled.

McDonald saw the rarely recognized and the often unappreciated beauty of the “blew it, knew it” aspect of her personal post-bossing-people-around assessment episode. The beauty of “blew it, knew it” is in the gifting of a leader’s mind with the permission and the capacity to change, readdress, teach, learn, start anew, stand up, stand down, give respect, get respect, and grow a command – in other words, the gift of LEADERSHIP.

“Leadership is a series of comebacks interrupted by a competing cavalcade of minor and major problems, tragedies, accidents, incidents, issues, situations, competing interests, and every other possible amalgam of humanly off-gassed flotsam and detritus capable of being ejected from the ever-oscillating fan of life.”2 – Ed Flood

And Leadershipville is exactly where McDonald went. She decided she would change her mind, once again proving that chief officers are equipped with minds designed for change when change is called for.

The first stop on the road to great leadership often starts at a pad of yellow, legal-length paper getting roughed up by a dull pencil outfitted with an industrial-strength eraser. With pencil and paper in hand and a high-quality eraser at the ready, McDonald began to turn bad to good and wrong to right. She began to do a bit of “leadershipping.”

The first thing to do was reset her thinking. She had to reclassify the entire situation and embrace it for what it truly was: a teaching, learning, and growth opportunity. The second thing to do was rescind the order of transfer. All battalions and companies would be briefed regarding the division chief’s revised decision and the alternative actions being taken. (Note: Officers do not need to explain every action they take or order they give, BUT every officer must be able to provide a rational, justifiable, and reasoned need for said action or order.)

McDonald recognized that an early ministration of appropriate doses of leader intervention could have mitigated Dent’s issues before they turned into the series of problems that gave life to this article. However, nobody in a position of authority was equipped to save Dent from himself. McDonald held to a pseudo calculation that estimated 80 percent of leadership is dedicated to protecting and untangling fire operators from the consequences of self-inflicted administrative grief. She determined that her company and battalion commander’s coaching and counseling skills needed to be assessed, enhanced, and then supported.

Expanding the Sphere of Influence

McDonald determined that a crash course focused on the leadership skills required to conduct coaching and counseling would be developed and delivered to units at her division’s battalion and company levels. Each battalion chief would be given a reasonable but abbreviated timeline to create and submit for division approval lesson plans and training materials for conducting assigned classes as directed. Battalion 1 would be responsible for a program on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – understanding the motivation behind a person’s behavior. Battalion 2 would be responsible for a program on Group Dynamics – understanding how people act and react within groups. Battalion 3 would be responsible for a program on Transactional Analysis – how to develop successful and effective communication skills. McDonald would be responsible for tying the whole program together. Her task was to develop a program that could demonstrate how Maslow, Group Dynamics, and Transactional Analysis could be introduced into a real-world situation going bad.

Properly understood and surgically wielded leadership skills are the safest, most effective path of least resistance to confronting uncomfortable situations and wrongheaded behaviors before the situations or behaviors can metastasize into problems of larger scope. (2)

McDonald was under no illusion that a “crash course” would be the “end all and be all” of the issue. She would use the work the officers and firefighters of her division did as a template and a first step toward enlightened maintenance of the human-type fire equipment. She would run her program idea by the chief of department and chief of the Training Division to get the necessary juice to coordinate with and tap the resources of the Training Division and any administrative entities necessary. If McDonald’s “in-house” program proved successful, she would provide the two chiefs with a full formal report, lesson plans, and the recommendation that a program focused on coaching and counseling skills would be of benefit departmentwide.

Routine Maintenance Required

Firefighters and fire officers are trained at a high level of proficiency to troubleshoot and perform preventive maintenance on a wide variety of tools, equipment, and apparatus. To accommodate this, departments issue equipment maintenance schedules and operator specifications. Further, levels of supervision are in place to monitor and ensure the in-service and ready status of equipment and tools. Routine preventive tool and equipment maintenance exists because it is cost effective and smart and the results are positive and measurable.

When a firefighter finds a self-contained breathing apparatus cylinder low on air, the cylinder will be pulled, charged, and returned to service. Firefighters are trained not only to troubleshoot a problem but also to take specific actions to ensure in-service ready status. No right-minded firefighter would ever consider the transfer of the low-air cylinder to another firehouse to be an acceptable solution.

The scenario presented a well-considered veteran firefighter whose expectations had not been rewarded with great success. Anyone who has gone through the test gristmill understands, and anybody who has been in proximity to a test taker can empathize as well.

Dent was withdrawing, argumentative, and acting out of character. His behavior escalated at the drill site and finally got him what he wanted and needed: attention (not the kind he got). He didn’t know how to ask for help, and his superiors were unable to troubleshoot and then deal with the situation. If Dent was an expensive piece of equipment presenting imminent malfunction, he would have been assessed and action would have been taken to make certain that his in-service status would be certified.

Leaders need be trained and retrained (and then trained again) in the routine maintenance and proactive supervisory practices (supervision) required to troubleshoot, recognize, and address problem issues before they become the purview of a higher authority. Fixing a problem where and when it rears its head creates a perfect venue for on-the-spot teaching/learning opportunities. Effective, engaged leaders are opportunists and mentors always looking to turn a problem into an educational opportunity.

In simple short form, routine preventive human maintenance looks something like the following:

Step 1: Monitor (your people).

Step 2: Assess (in-service ready status of your people).

Step 3: Make ready and certify in-service ready status (of your people).

Firefighters are not only the most valuable asset in an organization, they are also the most expensive asset and represent the department’s best investment. An enormous amount of time, attention, treasure, human effort, and hours are dedicated to ensuring the service dependability of tools, equipment, apparatus, and facilities (as it should be). Serious and committed investment in human maintenance practices needs to be commensurate with the fire service’s investment in its leaders. If success is a goal, it is imperative for a fire department to support and maintain an engaged, effective, and mission-centric leadership corps. The return on a real trained-to-the-bone-type investment in a career-long officer/leader support and development program could be staggering.

Transfer Defined

Transfer is a valuable managerial tool, a requirement in every leadership skill portfolio. Transfer is necessary for the effective and efficient operation of any fire/rescue/emergency organization. Transfers are intended to support and facilitate staffing and coverage requirements. They provide the organization with the necessary flexibility required to meet staffing and coverage needs.

Temporary duty assignments and relocation of units are forms of transfer. A member, by way of formal request for change of assignment, can likewise initiate a transfer. Promotion or change of title can be cause for transfer.

Transfer is also a staffing tool. Transfers (like all management tools) are designed to improve, support, and protect the organization, its membership, and its mission. Using a staffing tool to resolve a behavioral issue is as sophisticated as telling someone to “Go stand in the corner!”

Sometimes a mix of personalities, an unevenness of skill and knowledge levels, personal issues, and other day-to-day complications can make transfer decisions necessary and appropriate. At times, common normal life factors and external forces may find appropriate resolution in a transfer. These types of transfers happen, are acceptable, and are not considered in the same category as transfer as punishment.

Transfer is change. Change creates stress. Change should not be introduced casually. Managing change requires a real need for change, forethought, empathy, and diplomacy. Most importantly, a rationale for the change must be communicated. A leader does not have to justify every order. However, as stated earlier, a leader must be able to provide a sound, reasonable justification for any order.

Discipline vs. Transfer as Punishment

The prime directive regarding leadership skills/tools states: A leader’s actions and orders must always serve the purpose of supporting and protecting the member and the organization and advancing the mission of the fire service. The word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, which means instruction given, teaching, learning, and knowledge.

Discipline is defined as training that corrects, molds, or perfects behaviors and mental faculties. It is the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using education and progressive forms of censure to correct and redirect errant behavior.

The best discipline policies are front loaded with positive and supportive education; training; guidelines; and clear, unambiguous prescriptions for action. Sanctions should be the option of choice only after the organization and its representatives (officer corps) have explored all available positive discipline alternatives.

Punishment is defined as the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense. Punishment and discipline are not synonymous. Punishment is censure and retribution.

Negative disciplinary action is a censure, an expression of disapproval or a harsh rebuke, designed to teach or realign an employee’s behavior with the goals and responsibilities of the department, not to seek retribution.

All negative forms of discipline should be designed to reeducate the members and dovetail the needs of the members with the goals and objectives of the company, battalion, division, and department. All negative disciplinary action should flow from an informed and thoughtful decision chain. Negative discipline must never be casually meted out or designed to be vengeful.

Negative discipline is the last card a supervisor should play. Positive and negative disciplinary actions are a set of personnel protective devices. Positive discipline is demonstrably more effective and much more cost effective than negative discipline. Punishment should be introduced only after the organization has exhausted all the positive front end alternatives and remedies.

Transfer as Punishment

Transfer as punishment is managerial sleight-of-hand. It only pretends to deal with an issue. This pretense allows leadership to feel like the situation has been dealt with. Feeling like a leader is not the same as actually being a leader.

Transfer as punishment is a failure of leadership, a white flag of surrender. Punishment transfers are often knee-jerk, reactionary, extra disruptive, and almost always ineffectual.

Discipline is a team-building tool. Transfer as punishment is not; it is a form of shunning that runs contrary to the concepts of unit cohesion and team building. It is equivalent to moving the seat of a fire to the basement so you don’t have to look at or deal with it. And while you’re not looking, you are fervently hoping the seat of the fire will just go away.

Transfer as punishment is a disruption. Disruption ripples exponentially in bad ways up, down, and sideways through the chain of command. As the scenario at the beginning of this article illustrates, not much good can be said about transfer as punishment.

Endnotes

1. “Lazy leadership” occurs when a leader rationalizes away or fails to calculate the exponential negative consequences of half-stepping routine and seemingly incipient-sized exercises of managerial muscle or prerogative. Lazy leadership is a subject worthy of much scrutiny. It’s significance, manifestations, and potential for playing havoc within an organization are discussed in Full Contact Leadership (Pennwell Publishing, 2017).

2. See Full Contact Leadership (Pennwell Publishing, 2017).

EDWARD FLOOD, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, retired from North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire & Rescue as chief. He was an instructor in the New Jersey Fire Academy and the Bergen County Fire Academy. He is the co-founder and president of Study Group Inc., a partnership of fire and emergency service training and management experts providing consulting services for corporations and organizations and promotional tutorial services for fire and emergency service professionals. He is a co-author with Anthony Avillo of Full Contact Leadership (Fire Engineering, 2017).

ANTHONY AVILLO, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, is a retired deputy chief from North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire & Rescue. He has a BS degree in fire science and a master’s degree in national security studies from New Jersey City University. Avillo is director and deputy fire marshal at the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy. He is also an adjunct professor at New Jersey City University. Avillo is an FDIC instructor and a member of the FDIC advisory board and the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering. He is the author of Fireground Strategies, 3rd edition (Fire Engineering, 2015) and Fireground Strategies Workbook Volumes I, II, and III (Fire Engineering, 2002, 2010, 2016). He is a co-author with Edward Flood of Full Contact Leadership (Fire Engineering, 2017). He was a contributing author to Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and Firefighter II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is co-author of its Study Guide (Fire Engineering, 2010). Avillo was the recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering/ISFSI George D. Post Instructor of the Year Award.

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