More on the Hierarchy


Last month, we started a new chase down the Unplugged rabbit hole that looks at a vertical list of activities that a boss does that defines the level of that person’s capability. We used the system the Peter Principle created that described that a person would work up to his level of personal competence/incompetence; we posed the fairly basic question that asked what that boss actually does (how he performs) when he reaches his individual level. It would seem that how that boss performs where he stops on the scale could be a more important issue, particularly for those who work for that boss, because that level of performance is what those subordinates (and everyone else) have to live with every day. Another part of this process is how that person performs (the Peter Principle score) based on what the requirements of his job/role is in the organization. Many times, it seems that some bosses operate well below the level their job requires based on their own level of capability-the difference between what the job requires and what that boss can do could be called a “gap.”

Many high-powered management theories are applied to “gap management” or “gap analysis.” What the gap means in real simple terms is directed organizationally to where we are and where we want to be. My early connection to the process, even though the “gap” terms had not yet been developed and at that stage I wouldn’t have known about them anyway, was being a very young worker in a department with many bosses then operating up against their personal “gaps.” The system emphasized fire officers focusing on the control-oriented direction (on the bottom of the hierarchy scale) with very little inspired (!) leadership effort or leadership contribution toward organizational excellence. (In fact, the term “organizational excellence” had not yet been developed. Thank you, Peters and Waterman, who wrote In Search of Excellence.) The department I started in was then managed (actually controlled) by bosses who continually reinforced and rewarded obedience and compliance with checklists rather than operational, tactical, or customer-directed performance.

As a young member on the receiving end of that system, my mind became imprinted in an unbalanced way so that you must now endure my monthly rant about organizational behavior that (I believe) should be consciously directed toward customer support and firefighter assistance. In fairness, when I look back on the officers in that older system, they never received any leadership training, were never supported in a way that would develop and expand their skill as a boss, and were led by senior officers who were at exactly the same disadvantage. The descendants of these same officers (who came from the same DNA as their organizational parents) all became exceptional leaders when they received effective organizational selection, attention, and kindness and were personally directed in development (Wow!). It would seem that assisting everyone in reducing the personal “gap” in his career is a critical organizational responsibility.

Last month, the “hierarchy” discussion began with a look at the process of attendance, a very basic and necessary everyday function that gets us going at the beginning of our shift. The boss’s attendance management function was described as being generally simple because our troops are mostly self-motivated to show up okay on their own; the boss’s enforcement function was “just be quietly awake and aware … until there is a problem, and then it is boss involvement time.” Having a member with attendance problems can create huge confusion and disruption inside the work group, and the officer must take control of that disorder and manage. Lots of times when a member is chronically late, it is part of some other personal problem that member is going through and requires the boss to directly engage the person with the problem to find out what is going on in that person’s life and then attempt to provide support to correct what is out of balance. An effective boss must then become a “behavior detective” because how the troops act (in a gazillion ways) many times is the result of the current status of how effectively and happily that person is relating to the persons, places, and things in their lives. Being able to help that person is the result of the boss’s personal skill and the ongoing trust-based relationship he has with the troops. The boss is in a special place to relate to that person and assist based on their relationship. The organization must prepare bosses to be able to act in an effective way in the care of the humans assigned to them.

Speaking of attendance, after I wrote last month’s column, I remembered that at the beginning of my career, the salty, older members typically arrived at work two hours before the shift officially started-shift change was 8:00 a.m.; they got there at 6:00 a.m.-we all called them “paper boys.” They would regard anyone who arrived after about 7:15 as a late “slacker” (along with a lot of other things). I was not an overly smart young man, but I was a good listener. I got the message on my first shift and arrived at 6:00 a.m. on my second shift and every shift thereafter. I think the very early-to-work habit was part of the “old school” mentality when life was a lot simpler than it is today. Most modern firefighters seem to live in compressed time with lots of competing places they must be. When we arrived at 6:00 a.m., the word “multitasking” had not been invented. At the same time the old members were showing up at the crack of dawn (literally), we were also washing tires after every run. Times have certainly changed. Try to explain the clean tire routine to modern firefighters who now go on 15 calls a shift, and see what they say.


The next item in our vertical list, one slot above attendance, is appearance. Managing the condition of our facilities, equipment, and personnel is organizationally connected to the history, culture, and leadership of the individual department. In my travels, I don’t hear much discussion or disagreement about attending to the physical part of the system. We all would pretty much agree that buildings, grounds, and fire trucks should be well maintained and should always look as if we are in business, open for business, know our business, and mean business (I seldom see a dirty fire truck). Most of the maintenance of our physical equipment is outlined on a checklist and is routinely performed. The role of a boss in managing readiness functions is to be aware (awake) that after we finish morning coffee, read the paper, and conversationally solve the global challenges of world hunger and global warming, we pretty much automatically do our morning station- and rig-cleaning chores. Lots of times, the company boss lends a hand, so he is more personally connected to those functions.

What I do hear is a lot of energetic discussion about uniforms and personal appearance-many times, the uniform conversation can be more than somewhat emotional. How we look is managed in many places in a very local and sometimes historic way. Every department must decide its own appearance standard. How it manages appearance issues can define the leadership style of the bosses and the relationship process among the levels in that system. We are a uniformed service made up of teams, and what we wear identifies us as firefighters. When Mrs. Smith calls us and we show up on her front porch, our uniform sends a message of who we are and serves as a ticket for us to get in. We should dress in a fire department uniform that creates a feeling of community trust and confidence. In most departments, our uniform ranges from formal to fatigue; we select the type based on what we are doing and where we are going.

I believe that firefighters should be well-groomed and must wear a well-maintained uniform; let me disclose also that I am on the informal end of the uniform spectrum. Having said that, I believe that what we wear should in a major way relate to and connect to the customer. What I mean is that bosses should continually manage in a way that how we treat our members on the inside is logically connected to what we expect our troops to do on the outside. It is dysfunctional, to say the least, when the workers cannot instinctively make that inside/outside connection. Many times, the problem Mrs. Smith called us to correct has caused her to be uncomfortable. When the incident problem has caused her comfort to be out of balance, as it generally does in some way, we have directed our troops to make her comfortable. Given this outside customer connection, it seems logical that the department should deliberately and consciously make Firefighter Smith comfortable as an inside customer. This is not complicated, but the leadership in many systems has not embraced this very simple inside/outside relationship.

The effective utility of our uniform must also connect somehow to where we wear it. I was a member of a western fire department located in the hottest, driest, most arid place in North America (desert). Early in my career as a chief, I asked the members what kind of uniform they wanted. They said shorts/T-shirt. I said okay and then didn’t spend 10 minutes a year for the next 28 years dealing with uniforms. The uniform was a T-shirt and uniform shorts (“postal”-mid-thigh) for regular wear; long pants for emergency medical service (EMS); full personal protective equipment for hazard zones; and a dress uniform for formal events. I have eavesdropped on a ton of conversations, discussions, and internal organizational wars about firefighters wearing T-shirts and shorts. In some of those cases, what I heard was the firefighters lobbying for T-shirts and shorts while their bosses required them to wear uniform shirts with shoulder patches and a badge. I sincerely believe that everyone should do what the boss tells them, but it seems that we can (and do) expend a ton of energy processing the T-shirt vs. uniform-shirt disagreement.

Historic note: As I have reflected on the development of what we now wear, I have been reminded of the development of uniform T-shirts in my department. In the early 1970s, we became involved in delivering EMS. To publicize that new service, we hired a public information officer who was a very popular local TV guy (Steve Jensen). His job was to tell the community that we would now quickly respond to medical emergencies. As he started managing that publicity process, he noticed that the view the public saw of us helping a customer typically showed firefighters from the back. Based on that rear view, he recognized the opportunity to print our department name on the back of the shirts. We did that. I believe we were among the pioneers of creating a little department “billboard” on the backs of all our members; those practices (the delivery of EMS and department-marked T-shirts) are very common.

Another confusing uniform issue was summer and winter versions of the uniform based on the date. We solved that by wearing the same uniform all year long. What we told the troops was the following: If you are hot, wear the T-shirt/shorts; if you get chilly, put on long pants and a sweatshirt; and if you get really chilly, put on a jacket. I could never figure out how a boss could legislate uniform personal thermodynamics for a very large workforce. I could not tell everyone when (what date) to all get hot and when to get cold. I figured out if they were smart enough to deliver advanced life support and drive 30-ton trucks through traffic, they were smart enough to effectively dress themselves.

Going through the huge amount of feedback we received from the customers thanking us for helping them, I never saw comments about our uniforms. Mrs. Smith was eloquent in describing her experience with our members and went into great detail about the kindness she received, but she never commented on our appearance.

I believe how we look is important. It seems that she felt our appearance was standard and acceptable (even positive). But, she remembers mostly how she was treated.

It was always interesting to me that we would routinely dispatch a company returning from a fire event to an EMS call, and the firefighters were in turnouts covered in fire debris, and we never received a negative response.

Another point I find puzzling is now that we have a large number of customers we gently load into an ambulance and transport them to a hospital and turn them over to someone wearing scrubs with little teddy bears and sailboats on them, and they never sent us a complaint. We now happily identify an on-duty medical helper dressed in the most informal uniform anyone could wear. It’s amazing that our life is routinely saved by someone wearing pajamas.

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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