By Rick Lasky
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a firefighter just like my dad. As I got older, that really didn’t change, even when I was a cop waiting to get hired as a firefighter. I guess I have always just wanted to make a difference. When I finally made it into the firehouse on a full-time basis, I was like a lot of young firefighters—thinking, dreaming a little about where I wanted to go in the fire service, how far I wanted to take this whole “wanting to make a difference” thing.
Every time I moved up, it seemed like there was more responsibility and more to do. But it also hit me that with each step I took, I got to make more of a difference and have more of an impact, often on a lot of good things and once in a while on some not so good things. Being human means making mistakes, and I have made my share. But I decided that if I ever got to sit in the “big” chair (chief), I would do all that I could not to turn out to be the chief I hated working for.
I asked a friend early on how to avoid that trap. He said to take a look at the guy that no one wants to work for and do everything the opposite of what he is doing. So far it has worked!
I was blessed to have worked for several good chiefs early in my career—really good “bosses” like Dick Vachata, Ron Szarzynski, and Bob Rubel. Vachata was easy to figure out. If you loved the job and took care of each other, you were gold in his book. Szarzynski thought along the same lines: If you were good and did your job, he was there for you. You knew all along what lines not to cross, but he was there for you all the time. Rubel was flat-out a good chief, the kind of chief who didn’t mind giving you a kick in your “Sector C” when you were messing up.
I went to a chief’s conference a few years ago and was startled to see how so many had lost their grip on what it’s all about. Many of the chiefs could only talk about how rotten their guys were and how they wished they could get rid of them and privatize and that damn union and blah, blah, blah. I thought to myself, “Where did these guys come from?”
On the other hand, a lot of chiefs at the conference—and nationally—do care, do realize how important their people are, and do support them. I truly believe that there are a whole lot more on the good side than on the “dark side.” Unfortunately, the negative ones tend to stand out.
EGOS EAT BRAINS
My favorite saying is, “Egos eat brains.” It seems like everything is just fine until someone’s ego runs amok. Some chiefs start out with good intentions and then after a few years allow their egos to grow out of control to a size that prohibits good things from happening. It ends up costing them relationships; friends; and, in some cases, their job. I know one individual who could have had the cure for cancer and the city administration would not have listened to him. He had let his ego get so out of whack that the city just didn’t trust him or listen to him.
It is best to stay humble, poke fun at yourself once in a while, and stop taking yourself so seriously. It isn’t about you! Sometimes you’re just not as smart as you think you are!
The only thing in life you have absolute control over is your attitude. Anger, happiness, and sadness are all emotions, but it’s your attitude that can make you or break you. Remember, decisions made based on emotions have hurt and killed people. The decisions made based on good, solid fact and common sense go far.
Previously, I discussed your circle of influence and how it can affect those around you. Remember, it can be good and bad. When your attitude is on the negative side, it can rub off on those around you, especially the newer guys. But when it’s positive, there’s no telling how far you can go with it. With a positive attitude, you can have a tremendous impact on your organization and, more importantly, your own life!
Really place some emphasis on your values. With good, solid core values and reasonable and realistic vision and mission statements, you can create the foundation for success. So many people and organizations struggle because they lack foundation. They forget to establish those values and then, if they do, forget to follow the system. Just take a look at corporate America and all of the CEOs, COOs, and people making a whole lot of money and being fired or going to jail.
There are so many stories about people compromising their integrity or treating others like garbage. Some seem so unbelievable that you start thinking there is no way that someone treated someone like that. Then you find out it’s true.
A lot has to do with accountability. I’m not talking about a “Passport” or a “PAR” but to whom and for whom you are accountable. You’re accountable to your boss, your guys, the public, and your family. You’re accountable to your boss, to do what you’re supposed to do—your job. You’re accountable to your guys, to train them and look after them—most of all, their safety. Before you let them do something you’ll regret later, think about how you’d explain it to their family if they got hurt. And you’re accountable most importantly to your family. It’s like when you tell someone that getting into an accident on the way to a call doesn’t help the victim if you don’t get there. When you don’t take care of yourself emotionally and physically or take the steps necessary to be safe, you’re not doing your family any good.
Think about your decisions and whom and what they affect. At what point in your life do you realize that you need to make decisions that will protect your family and your people first before you decide what’s best for you in the way of a good time?
REMEMBER WHERE YOU CAME FROM
It really helps to have a leader who knows what it’s like to work shifts; to sleep in a firehouse; or, if you volunteer, to get up in the middle of the night knowing that you have to go to your regular job soon—and one who can find the fireground without the use of a compass and a flashlight. Where did it all start for you? Do you remember? Or is it kind of cloudy?
Maybe if a couple of those wearing “5” on their collars remembered where it all started, we wouldn’t have ridiculous rules such as “No loitering or congregating in front of the firehouse.” We’d have decent, comfortable furniture to sit on instead of sandbags. We would no longer have rules that tell you when to turn the television on and off or, one of my favorites, “You can’t go to the grocery store while on-duty.”
What’s funny and amazing is the guys making these rules are the same guys who would have been screaming about them years ago when they were on shift! I’m not saying to give away the store; just try to be a little more understanding and flexible. Maybe if we all worked a little harder on this one, the whole labor relations thing would work better and we could all work together.
Some departments are doing really well in this area already. There are good folks on both sides of the table. Everyone just needs to remember where we all started. Help educate and inform our newer members about what it’s like in the upper ranks. Those in the upper ranks should remember what it was like when they started out. Do whatever you can not to become a “desk commander.”
LEARN ABOUT PEOPLE
Years ago, one of my goals was to teach for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. There were few field staff positions, and getting in the door was tough. I had waited for a few years and had just about given up when Jack MacCastland called me and said, “How do you like the Instructor I program?” I told Mac that it was OK but I really wanted to get into the tactics and strategy program, live burns, and the “fun” stuff. Mac reminded me that this was an opportunity to get in the door and start teaching.
Teaching the Instructor I through IV series had the greatest impact on my career and my life when it came to understanding what made people tick. When you have to teach people how to teach others, how adults learn differently than children, what motivates people, and what is going on in their lives that makes them do the things they do, you become pretty good at “people size-up.”
We talk all the time about reading the smoke and what it tells you. We know how tremendously important that is. Maybe we should read people the same way. Just as the smoke tells us things about itself, so should we look at what people tell us about themselves. Take some time to understand people and where they’re coming from.
My wife gets a little frustrated when we have a bad server in a restaurant. I remind her that maybe our server had a bad day or problems at home, works for a bad boss, or has a couple of bad tables with some nasty people. She’s probably just trying to put food on her family’s table and pay the bills. Maybe if we take a little time to understand what’s going on in our people’s lives, things might make more sense. You definitely become more patient. Read smoke, read people!
TRUST YOUR PEOPLE
This may take some work, but it’s well worth it. Trusting your people goes a long way in the attitude department. It’s when you don’t trust them or you feel you have to micromanage that people lose faith. Train them, give them what they need to do their jobs, and let them go.
A good way to do this is through performance evaluations. Let them know they’re doing a good job. Some officers just leave the comments section blank or keep putting under each category “does a good job” and “OK.” But they could talk for an hour on how great the person is, so you’d think they could put a couple of sentences together.
Nominate your people for an award when they deserve one. Even if they don’t receive one, they’ll have the award nomination in their personnel file. When it’s time for an “atta-boy,” put it in writing. Use a Record of Exceptional Performance form. Again, put it in their file. Post the thank-you’s and place a copy in their file. Why do personnel files have to contain just the negative stuff or “official” stuff? Put some good stuff in.
When it’s promotion time or someone is being considered for an appointment, wouldn’t it be nice to see that kind of stuff in the file you’re reviewing? Trust them, and show them that you have confidence in them. You will be surprised at how far the troops will take you and the department. They’re pretty smart!
FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
Sometimes we get so bogged down with things that went on in the past that we can’t even begin to think about the future or see it. Old grudges, hard feelings, and past bad experiences sometimes need to be let go. Learn from the past; don’t live in it. How many times have you witnessed two people not getting along because of something that happened 20 years ago? If someone outside of the situation explained it, would it seem pretty silly, petty, and insignificant?
When I was a cop (I know; don’t hold it against me), we would respond to a domestic disturbance. When we got things settled down, I would look at the husband and wife and ask them if they really understood what they were arguing about. Was it that big of a deal?
We need to look at some things that bother us and ask ourselves the same question, Is it that big of a deal? Most of the time, it may not seem like much at all.
TOMORROW’S LEADERS AND SUCCESSORS
Build for and set the stage for success and the future. Start a mentoring program, share the knowledge and experiences, and develop your people. Are you getting everyone at one rank or level ready to promote to the next one? Share your successes and your failures so they can learn. Enough with “the school of hard knocks” thinking. Think about how far we could go if we just laid some groundwork for the next guy.
When your department has to go outside to fill every position, that’s usually a bad sign. My department went outside when it hired me as chief. I have told my boss that I should be the last chief they have to hire from the outside—that is, if I’m doing my job. Work toward the future, and build for 20 years from now.
REMEMBER THE TROOPS’ BEST INTERESTS
Keep the members’ best interests at heart, always. You can ask anyone in a white shirt in my department what the number one rule is; they’ll tell you that the guys come first. Period! They come first with our decisions, our budget (budget for what’s really needed and for what’s best), and our programs. Sometimes the troops have a hard time understanding that. I didn’t understand it earlier in my career, but it has to be that way if you want things to go smoothly. It’s kind of hard to go wrong if you have your people’s best interest at heart.
I used to have a hard time understanding where one of my bosses was coming from and how he could always be so suspicious of his guys. He would say things like “They’re just going to do this” or “They’re just going to do that” and “If this were the private sector, I’d fire half of them.” If he were in the private sector, someone would have clobbered him or he’d be in jail. Also, the things he was talking about, like how they would cheat the system, were all things he would do.
One of my earlier company officers, Lieutenant Bill Allen, called it “a thief marking his own tools first.” The reason that it’s so easy for them to come up with all of that nonsense is because that’s their “M.O.”
BE CAREFUL OF WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Often, the troops will ask management for a new chief who knows the operational side of things as well as the administrative side. They want one who will communicate and be available for the guys, who shows up in the stations once in awhile and shows up at calls. But when they get such a chief, they change their minds or have second thoughts.
I used to show up at some minor calls or first reports of structure fires that really weren’t much. The question was raised about trust, that maybe I was there to watch every detail or didn’t trust them. It couldn’t be further from the truth! My wife would ask me, “Why are you going on that call? It’s just a sparking electrical outlet.” I would explain that I hadn’t seen “C” shift in awhile and that it was a great time to visit with the troops. They have our trust and then some. They don’t need a babysitter. It was just a great way to see some of the guys. That’s all.
A department nearby is looking for a new chief. Some of the guys say that they aren’t looking for a new chief who is young and going to try and make a name for himself and come in and change a whole lot. Others say they don’t want an old chief who is coming there just to retire. They want someone kind of like their old chief who, coincidentally, from time to time they disagreed with. And he was a pretty progressive guy who loved the job. I wish them the best!
The following are some suggestions and advice I’ve gotten from some of my mentors over the years. They are very good roadmaps to follow and might help you sidestep some land mines.
1 Whatever you do, whatever you say, make sure that it all starts with the safety of your people. This is for both inside and outside the firehouse. Provide the safest operation that you can.
2 Don’t let tradition hinder change, and remember that there is a whole lot of tradition in the fire service that is great and should be carried on!
3 Be a good leader first. Be a buddy second. The troops really want someone to lead them. Have the courage to lead. It takes a strong person to make tough decisions and to stand up for what is right. Don’t confuse what you think is right for what is really right.
4 Surround yourself with good people. No one can do it alone. Find good people, and bring them into your camp. Find people with your core values and foundation. It’s easy to do good things with great people. Just remember the best thing about having great people is that they’re great. The worst thing is that everyone else wants to steal them away from you. That’s why your mentoring program and your ability to build tomorrow’s leaders are so important. Start filling your “people staging area” now. Get them ready to move up to the next alarm. You owe it to them.
5 Keep it simple. Try not to make things so complicated that no one can figure it out. Sometimes the best way to get it done is right in front of your nose.
6 Lead by example—with your day-to-day activities, your uniform, your tactics, and your personal life. Set a good example for others to follow.
7 Give credit where credit is due. Even when it’s your idea and it goes well, say it came from the troops. A lot of chiefs think they’re the reason their department is successful, when really it is because of their firefighters. They’re the ones making it happen. They’re the ones out doing the work. Spread the wealth. It looks good on everybody. Bang on a drum for the troops, don’t bang on the troops. Go out and say good things. BRAG ABOUT THEM!
8 Focus on what’s going right, how good they are, and their accomplishments. A good example comes from one of Notre Dame’s great football coaches, Lou Holtz. Before some of their toughest games he would get in front of his team in the locker room and ask each player why they were going to win the game. He would write down the reasons given by the players until the board was filled up. All he did was remind them—actually they reminded themselves—that they were good and they could win. Sometimes we need to remind our people of how good and how special they really are.
9 What kind of a chief would you want to work for? Remember what it was like to work for a bad boss. Stay current, stay in touch, constantly reevaluate how you’re doing, look for ways to improve, and remember what “open door” really means. Your idea isn’t always the best one.
10 When you can’t figure out why the troops feel a certain way, why they are saying what they are saying, or why they seem to not understand what you’re trying to do—especially with the budget—remember: You were there once and probably yelling the loudest!
Always keep in mind that “leaders enforce values, managers enforce rules.” Good chiefs will support their people and let them go. Do this, and good things are sure to happen.
RICK LASKY, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC and FDIC West advisory committees.