Stuck in School

My time in Battalion 3 B Shift “catapulted” me into a very interesting and steep learning curve as a brand new command-level boss. I have in recent columns described the lifelong lessons I received when I was promoted to battalion chief (BC) when senior officers above me threw me as a brand new boss into a pack (battalion full) of unruly wolves to manage. Then I had to figure out how to first manage myself and then how to somehow deal effectively with a group of very robust and very unusual characters. I quickly learned that although the wolves could be kind of rambunctious, they actually had fun hiding out from the rest of the system and were really operationally skillful and had very accurate (but cynical) organizational insight, which qualified them to coach their new “wolf handler” if he was patient, good natured, and a good listener. The longer we hung out together, I noticed that they became more patient and good natured and listened better themselves.

Perpetual Student in “School without Borders”

This strange beginning caused me to quickly realize that I had an incredible opportunity if I could cram all the lessons that came with my current assignment into my future capability. I quickly realized that my future success was based on my capability to become a serious student of the art and science of bringing out the best in the humans under my care. I also abruptly realized that I was totally responsible for developing my own personal effectiveness. Taking control of that personal responsibility required me to access and take advantage of the many resources (smart, experienced, very vocal troops) that would assist me, but I had to take the first step toward that assistance. No one was going to lead me to boss school by the hand and spoon feed me the education that could serve me for the rest of my career as a boss. My immediate challenge was to go to class, pay attention, listen to the teachers, and learn. Another huge lesson was that teachers came in all sorts of interesting and unusual disguises and the classrooms at that time in my life were mostly in the street and did not in any way look like a school.

This opportunity caused me to consciously try to develop the personal instinct, approach, and habits of being a student. As I have trudged through my career (and life), I realized that I was enrolled as a lifelong student. In fact, this reality occurred whether I liked it or not simply because when I signed up for the job, I also automatically registered in school. It didn’t take long to understand that if I learned the lesson in class, it would be a lot less painful than the educational road rash that the tactical situation inevitably would teach me in the street. Being a serious student did not eliminate street lessons, but it made them a lot less traumatic. As time went by, I also realized that there was another whole educational program directed toward understanding and dealing with the lessons about how people “tick.” The tactical lessons were a lot easier than the human ones-fires don’t have feelings.

Each month, you wade through reading about my latest hallucination about some boss stuff that has marched through my noodle and ends up on my shirt pocket note card and then eventually onto my patient editor. To be a good/better leader necessarily signs you up as a student. In boss school, learning and doing are Siamese twins: Most lousy bosses are also lousy students; most good bosses are really good students. If you are serious about being a good boss, check out the following list of observations about being a student.

Why a Student?

Following are observations I have made about “studentship.”

  • Go to class. Getting to attend and participate in a class creates a huge head start in your learning process. Generally, a class involves a teacher leading students through a set of lessons about a particular subject. A resourceful student takes advantage of participating in a class that is available simply because “the school” has already done the work of creating and connecting a classroom, a teacher, a group of students, and an organized body of study. The role of the student is to show up, pay attention, and try to absorb the material presented. The school/class process is not perfect, but it is a standard way for us to learn within a structured, scheduled educational system that produces student progression through a body of knowledge that leads to a standard certification (graduation). It is difficult for a single person to have the resources, discipline, and capability to recreate the educational capability of the school. A smart student uses school to get smarter.
  • Going to school creates a personal structure that helps you to understand and refine standard student behaviors. If those behaviors become habitual, they will become the basis for lifelong learning. Describing/discussing the school routine is not very exciting; actually, it is pretty dull. This may be relevant in a column that is typically read by firefighters who are basically action-oriented guys/gals who like to operate close to the edge. When we were young and in school, we were typically more attracted to sports, socializing with our buds, and mischief. We take these same characteristics with us to the fire station every day. This is not necessarily a bad thing because those characteristics can become capabilities when we must put water on the fire.
  • I do not mean for this description to be a stereotype that categorizes us as knuckle draggers; the reality of our members is just the opposite. We select new firefighters based on these traits along with being smart, well-behaved, and nice. Those who survive the entry obstacle course are the cream of the crop and generally spend their entire working life in our organization. During that long career (and life), a great deal of our ultimate success and happiness will depend on the habits we developed early in life when we were going to school. The note doesn’t come due for many of the lessons we learn at the time when we learn them. Later, we have a personal/occupational experience that makes us wish we had paid more attention to Mrs. Regensburg (my fourth-grade teacher) when she taught that very thing that I really need to understand: When I was in her class during that lesson, I was daydreaming about riding on Engine One, which is mostly what I did in the fourth grade.

Some Functional Student Behaviors

Here are some of my thoughts on this topic:

  • You have to show up. We should learn personal arrival discipline in kindergarten. When we are in our seats when the bell rings, we create a standard beginning for effective learning. While showing up seems really simple, it is a basic deal breaker. Our initial presence on the scene is the historic foundation of our protecting the community. Mrs. Smith loves and trusts us because the first critical thing we do is consistently arrive. She remembers the 3 Ps: Prompt. Prepared. Polite. We learn and practice these behaviors as a regular part of attending school and hope they become lifelong behaviors. Punctuality is a really strong performance starting point: We also reinforce this capability collectively within our team, and it is critical that a boss is both an example and the “time keeper” for the team.
  • You have to pay attention: Pay me now or pay me later. Your learning is directly connected to how you pay attention. As firefighters, where we learn it (classroom) and where we do it (street) are completely different. Many very critical lessons are routine, dull, and not at all exciting, but they form the basic foundation for mentally taking in, processing, and retaining the information that is the basis of effective performance. For us, performance often is very exciting and challenging, and it requires great skill and ability. A basic dilemma is that if we do not have the early capability as a student, we will lack the knowledge needed to develop that skill later when we need it to do the job. When performance problems occur, we should go back and find out how that person performed as a student; much of that review would be directed to how well that person paid attention in class. An experienced instructor can pretty well predict how students will perform in the street based on how awake and connected they are in the classroom.
  • You must be literate. This is simple and very profound: Successful students must learn to read and write. You cannot effectively load in brain stuff (information, data, lessons, knowledge, wisdom) without reading. The special educational/awareness capability that reading provides cannot be acquired any other way, even though there are a ton of other necessary ways to facilitate and balance learning. Today, modern folks are very skillful at reading on a computer, whereas some of us “more mature” folks still use hard copy. Every day, I receive and read a physical local newspaper. I seldom see my grandson even looking at such an obsolete object. He reads the news on his phone. He knows 20 times more about current affairs, events, stories, scandals, trends, and predictions than his grandfather. It doesn’t matter what you read it on as long as you effectively load the content into your noodle. This particularly applies to boss students. A smart person once observed that good leaders are good readers.
  • The inclination and ability to write is another student biggie. The personal act of writing necessitates that we “nail down” what is bouncing around in our noggin in a way that clarifies and makes sense of those thoughts, ideas, and concepts. Writing is a definitive process that uses words to create definitive content that is reviewable, editable, arguable, correctable, and a lot of other descriptive words. Firefighters typically send a powerful occupational message by physically taking fast action that solves a problem, not by expressing themselves in writing. We operate a complicated, expensive, high-performance system in an often very dangerous place with very little paperwork compared to other occupations. Effective bosses must have the basic ability to represent themselves by effectively communicating in many ways-among them writing. It is almost impossible to express and represent ourselves if we are crippled by the lack of the ability to write. Writing is like learning to ride a bike: You may fall off, but you have to get back on and pedal.

Beating my chest and hyperventilating about reading and writing to firefighters is a little nutty because we are as literate as (or maybe more literate than) any group. I in no way mean to be disrespectful of the capability of our exceptional humans who keep their promise (to Mrs. Smith) by doing their job and never waving a white flag at a challenge. Let me personalize the point of why most of us became firefighters. My father was a lawyer. I had the genetic opportunity to inherit a very successful law practice. I said, “No thanks, Pop; I’m going to become a fireman.” He said, “Good choice. The paperwork and law books would drive you nuts.” The part of the fire service I was attracted to was tactical, not literary. The luckiest day in my life was the first day I got to ride on the plug position (booter) on the tailboard of Engine One. I happily stayed on that same fire engine for the next 10 years. Then, I got to trudge off to be the boss in Battalion Three. In life, you can run, but you can’t hide. Pretty quickly, I then spent many of my days reading and writing as a student enrolled in boss school for the next 50 years. Looking back, I have had a really happy time doing what I did. I would have made a lousy lawyer.

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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