Managing Appearance


When you are lucky enough to have the monthly job of writing a column in the hit parade fire service trade journal, you must select something that you hope is relevant; slightly interesting; and, once in a while, entertaining. After you glom onto something to write about, you then think about and pay attention to anything that relates to that topic. It seems I am always doing mental “research” on my most recent topic as I travel about. Currently, this column is looking at the details and dynamics of a vertical list of how bosses define their job and what they do to act out what makes up that definition. We called that up/down list the “Bruno Unplugged Hierarchy”-as you trudge through life, you will never know what will be named after you as you evolve (or devolve?) into advanced seniority. I guess attaching your name to “hierarchy” is okay because the names of all the nifty items are already taken, like “Halligan,” “Stang Gun,” and “Kelly Day.”

Last month, we started the hierarchy discussion with appearance management. We covered the basic philosophy that revolved around the leadership function of understanding, appreciating, and then creating comfort when we deliver service to the customer and balancing that with selecting a uniform (among a lot of other things) that is comfortable to wear and easy to maintain for those who deliver street service. As we have said over and over, what we do on the inside gets delivered on the outside. To do this inside/outside math, effective bosses must develop the consistent approach of “working backward”: Imagine what you as the leader want to happen when your troops walk into Mrs. Smith’s house to help her, and then reproduce that leadership treatment in the fire station from which that crew just responded. Managing both ends of the process requires application of both the art and the science involved in providing the basic care of humans.

Let’s continue our discussion on managing appearance. In our service, there can be a difference of opinion and preference created by bosses concerning the degree of uniform informality that the troops wear every day. In many cases, the firefighters would favor a “softer” more fatigue-type informal uniform. The bosses generally must get up in the morning and put on a white dress uniform shirt decorated with a badge; collar hardware; shoulder patches; and, in some cases, epaulets. Those bosses sometimes are more attracted to a more military-looking outfit for the responders, probably because they wear such an outfit.

As a comparison with other uniformed services, I always notice members of the military when I “people watch” at airports and on airplanes. Their approach to managing appearance is pretty simple: They all wear the same camouflage fatigue uniform. The other day, I saw a very distinguished, older soldier who had on the very same outfit as every other military person I see, and I noticed that he had on very quiet general’s collar hardware. Other than for his salt-and-pepper crewcut, he basically dressed in exactly the same outfit as the many 19-year-olds (who are all well-behaved, polite, and very nice) crewcut military guys/gals I always see. They seem to have figured it out, and it’s odd that they wear a very informal looking action-oriented appearing outfit when they are traveling and interacting with the general public. I think his appearance (to me) was more impressive in the somewhat-understated regular fatigue uniform with stars on his collar (Wow!). I also realize that the military also wears a very distinctive ceremonial uniform for formal events, but riding on an airplane (almost like riding on a fire truck) is physically aggravating enough, and it makes sense to at least wear something that doesn’t add to the confined space comfort insult of flying the friendly skies.

Another ongoing appearance reality is the never-ending interaction between the “mature” folks in charge (bosses) and the young ones (workers) coming into the system. Every successive generation seems to just naturally enjoy shocking their elders with the current pop culture style of how they “decorate” their bodies. I lived through the long-hair period in our service. The kids of that time imitated the hairdo of the Beatles, and their elders attached a whole set of concerns based on their kids’ disappearing under a helmet of hair. Mom and Dad were absolutely certain that their very middle-class kid who was raised in their back bedroom would end up in a hippy enclave, smoking organic material and driving a micro-bus because of the wild hairdo. At that time, the folks in charge of our service were those same parents, and they brought that concern to work with them because their kids who followed in their footsteps brought their long hair with them. At that time (based on our semi-military history), lots of fire departments spent more time on managing hair length, style, and grooming than on developing critical operational skills.

The latest chapter in the ongoing personal style revolution involves body piercing, wild fluorescent hair colors, and tattoos. As all of us go about our daily rounds, we see a variety of people adorned by these body accessories. In the old “Afro days,” it was pretty much young people with just long hair. Now, I see people of all ages sporting tattoos, nontraditional hair styles, earrings, and jewelry attached to their bodies in areas where I assume the attachment ritual must be very painful. Our service in many places is still struggling with developing regulations that manage the current batch of ornamental additions to the on-duty bodies of their firefighters. Every organization must decide how it will regulate and manage this issue based on the history of the organization, the standards of that area, and the preference of leaders on every level.

I think how we look should relate to the effectiveness of our troops going into Mrs. Smith’s bedroom at 3:00 a.m. to help her with a medical problem. Our appearance should send her a visual message that we are a care-giving fire company and not a thrill-seeking motorcycle gang. We should (I believe) look as if we are personally well-maintained; that means we are wearing a sensible uniform and are effectively groomed. We should have hair that is a color that naturally occurs in normal humans. If we have a visible tattoo, it must not be offensive (to your Mom). Every organization must realistically decide for itself how appearance fits into the current (read: “modern”) local standards and the expectation of the community.

Leaders in the department must come up with an effective way to develop the appearance standards and create an ongoing update process that keeps that standard connected to what is going in the outside world in a variety of ways that relate to style, safety, and current developments in uniform technology. As an example of this process, I currently watch fire service organizations struggle with developing tattoo standards. There could be a challenge in absolutely prohibiting any tattoo when Mrs. Smith is more and more likely to be sporting body ink herself. We are more effective and relevant if we reflect the composition of the community we protect. I wonder how we will deal with the absolute tattoo prohibition issue I see in some public safety organizations when a majority of the community has essentially the same tattoo we prohibit. I (mischievously) imagine in the future we will go out in the community and actively recruit for race, ethnicity, gender, and if the person has an appropriate tattoo so that we can reflect the actual composition of the community. (Personal declaration: I have no business or personal interest whatsoever in the tattoo industry.)

Last month, we talked about gap management that involves a boss helping the organization move from where it is to where it needs to go to be more effective and safer. Doing this requires a boss to manage the connection between the ends of the gap. Although the objective of this leadership process is pretty simple, we all struggle to accomplish creating that connection so that we can get our organization across the gap. I guess getting from where we are to where we want to be is what being a boss really means, and it also must be what an effective boss actually does. A big part of this connecting effort is developing the ability to understand the outcome of the management/leadership effort and what it takes to effectively get to the other side of the gap-the finish line. A very practical and sometimes painful example of this process is the appearance issue. When our appearance management system is effective, what it achieves is a workforce with a standard appearance. Sometimes we attach some unrealistic assumptions about how that very positive outcome actually influences us in achieving our performance goal. Let me try to make the point with a sports example.

As I occasionally watch basketball on television, all the players (talk about tattoos!) show up on the court in a regular uniform that is distinctive enough that you can quickly tell which “side” the player is on. Basically, when I look at how they are dressed, they all look like standard basketball players. What they wear is part of how they identify themselves (with their own number and the colors of their team). They dress the team so they can go out and play. If you asked a successful coach how much time he spent dressing his players, he would think you were nuts. If you asked him how much time he spent arguing about the design of the uniform, same thing. At some point, he would interrupt you and quickly say, “We win if we shoot more baskets. The uniform serves to get us out on the court so the fans know who we are and so we don’t throw the ball to someone on the other team. When we put on the uniform, it means that we are ready to play, which really is a team function. The uniform is necessary, but in and of itself, it only creates that readiness.”

Imagine if someone asked the coach: “What is your plan to create a winning season?” and he answered, “I am going to better manage our appearance.” I predict that he soon would be looking for a new team to coach. The point of all this is that the team members should decide how they are going to look and then actually look that way. They should not assume that their appearance is going to get them to the other side of the gap (winning). When we look at appearance management as a boss function, although it is absolutely necessary, it is toward the bottom of the hierarchy scale as a leadership function. Sometimes a boss who is not very effective stops at a place on the scale that matches his skill level. If the boss stops off at appearance, that is basically how the boss will spend his time. In basketball, they do what it takes to “make baskets” by doing what is located way up the scale. An officer does not have to be very capable to identify if someone has on the appropriate shirt. If a member of the team is out of the proper uniform, get him in it and then get on with the game. Effective coaches win because they recruit good players, develop effective plays, practice those plays continually, scout the opposing team, care about the players, and never give up. They do all this in the right uniform.

I mentioned earlier that early imprints on my mind have created my “unbalanced” approach to the appearance process. I am going (as usual) to tell a story that might describe why this is so. When I was an engine company officer in an earlier life, my company attended a middle-of-the-night, downtown structure fire. The fire building was in an area with closely spaced large buildings. The fire building was well involved. The fireground commander (FGC) was a deputy chief/shift commander. In those preincident command system days, on the fireground, we physically reported directly to the FGC for instructions. We were not yet into radio-based communications. As a company office ready to go to work, I got in the back of the instruction line leading to the Fire Boss. The officer ahead of me told the chief in a very animated way, “Chief, the fire is about to extend to the exposure in the rear!” The chief looked at him and quickly replied, “You need a haircut.” I got out of line so I would not strangle him, I found my company, and we disappeared into the smoke. Before dawn, we eventually turned most of the zip code into cinders.

I realize this is an unusual story, but I worked for this guy for a long time. Unless we could put the fire out before he got there, we created an open space that was available for redevelopment. He taught me the effect of working for a fashion-over-function boss who is more interested in looking good than doing good. (Fashion is easy to manage when the chips are down.) When he got to appearance on the scale, he stopped right there and then spent his time checking the length of firefighters’ hair. Once we do what it takes to create a standard level of appearance, declare a victory and move on up the scale.

Sometimes a boss who is not very effective stops at a place on the scale that matches his skill level … that is basically how the boss will spend his time.

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

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