The Human Condition and the Hierarchy

We have discussed in past columns the stages up the vertical scale of what we have called the leadership capability “hierarchy.” The scale describes some of the details and dynamics of how the basic personal profile of the boss will determine how high the boss will get up the scale. The basic idea of connecting what an effective boss does at each stop along the scale (based on capability) starts at the bottom, which is pretty straightforward and progresses up to where it is more difficult to execute and requires more skill, practice, and refinement. The categories on the bottom of the scale are no less critical or necessary than the ones farther up that are more difficult for a boss to do effectively. In fact, those on the bottom create a solid launching pad to create a higher level of internal and external service. It is very difficult to deliver high-quality life safety protection and fire control if the rig is out of fuel and the firefighters are wearing their self-contained breathing apparatus upside down. I have seen and watched the effect of both.

I have discovered as our monthly leadership hierarchy adventure has evolved that it is also more challenging to write about the topics as we go up the scale. It is a lot easier to describe routine maintenance functions than how to create a positive human-centered internal organizational environment. We are now at the place on the scale that must address human behavior. The topics, issues, and challenges for the boss can become overwhelming when the behaviors of department members are out of balance (sometimes way out of balance) because they can and routinely do produce juicy, sensational stories in the news. Public safety workers (police/firefighters) receive an elevated status from the public and are expected to meet a higher behavior standard than regular workers. When heroes behave badly, it becomes a big media festival. Although behavior mistakes can become very high-profile news stories, there is not much (or any) conversation, direction, or guidance on how bosses can effectively prevent them before they occur (prehab) and then somehow manage them once they do occur (rehab). Out-of-balance behavior situations and the stories that come with them happen with an organization where there is (or should be) a boss present who now must represent the organization; the major mess doesn’t come with an instruction manual for the boss.

From Task Level to Boss Level

A major challenge for a fire service boss is typically starting on the bottom of the organization in the beginning of his career. In our service, we all pretty much begin as entering firefighters. Our initial focus involves a task level understanding of using tools and equipment to do our part within the fire company team. Because we are young (all our body parts work), it is our job to do the heavy lifting-grunt work (very fun). We are evaluated and accepted if we can handle playing our role on the applied tactical/manual labor level to do the work that physically converts out-of-control conditions to under-control and if your personality fits within fire company life.

If we become capable, well-adjusted members of a tactical team (fire company), we can successfully get in the promotional “line.” Our promotional potential is mostly evaluated based on how we performed in our last position; this is logical and appropriate. As we keep going up through the promotional process and become a company boss, we now become responsible for both leading humans and managing hardware. A smart old guy told me when I became a captain that I didn’t get a new job; I got a new career. This “new career” process (buddy to boss) contains its own dilemma: Most who are upwardly mobile have a better understanding of the details and dynamics of the “hard” tactical part of what we do, which to us is rational tactical action rather than the “soft” human part that to us is mostly emotional. This is nutty and completely out of balance when we examine what a boss does and how bosses are typically prepared.

Ask a room full of fire officers the composition of how they actually allocate their company-command officer time; they will pretty consistently respond five percent tactical/95 percent human relations. Then, ask them how they were trained, prepared, and prepackaged by the organization; they will consistently respond 95 percent tactical/five percent human relations. (My reaction = Wow!) Being able to effectively manage both the tactical part along with leading the troops is absolutely critical; but, in reality, most of us are much better prepared to handle a full range of fire conditions rather than effectively deal with a full range of human behaviors.

Boss Level: Human Engagement

This is the place on the vertical boss potential scale where trying to make sense of the capability/performance connection gets tricky. When we look at our service delivery system, it is essentially human driven. All the trucks, tools, and technology (not moody) are basically inanimate objects until a human (very moody) hits the start button. Transmissions are the only things in our business that are automated. Mrs. Smith does not have an electronic, online relationship with us beyond making the initial 911 call. After the call, nothing happens until a real live person shows up and physically performs.

When she needs us, there is a very simple relationship beauty in what she does and what we typically do: She has a problem/she calls 911/we ask her: “Where are you, and what’s the matter?” She tells us/we hop on Big Red/we quickly show up/we physically solve the problem. When there is no more problem, we go home. Our basic product is retail service delivery (one call at a time) directly performed by real live crews of firefighters whose most critical initial capability is the power of their presence. At “Zero Dark 30,” who else can she call who will even answer her call, show up, and go to work on the problem almost instantly? We are the very best example of government. We are easy to get in the beginning and easy to get rid of in the end. Most forms of government are just the opposite: almost impossible to get in the beginning and very hard to get rid of at the end.

The reality is that the service we deliver is effective only when our humans are effective, and this awareness requires the boss to understand how humans “tick.” Although this very important understanding sounds pretty simple, it can be the most critical roadblock on the leadership capability/performance hierarchy. Consistent, long-term, authentic organizational service delivery capability, both inside and outside, requires effective human engagement and execution. The lack of understanding of how workers (on every level) feel about what they do, what motivates them, and what is required for the system to bring out the best in them is directly connected to functional boss behaviors. When we hear fire service members describe the past, current, and future state of their being part of an organization, they consistently describe how directly connected they are to their boss. What you consistently hear about the worker-boss relationship is: good boss > happy worker/bad boss > you had better sit down because you are going to hear a generally long sad story. If the boss does not have a basic understanding of how humans behave, the boss will be stuck on the capability scale and sadly will consistently mess up every effectiveness stage starting on the very bottom simply because he cannot effectively relate, connect, and support other humans above, below, and across from him.

I am writing about this human behavior stop on our vertical journey not because I understand any more about human behavior than you. I am a very old student of human behavior whose only qualification is that I have been a very interested observer of humans for a long time. Even on the rare day when all my mental connections are tightened up, I am only about a first semester sophomore. The human behavior school I attended has been inside the American fire service, which is a very special place that has very special humans who are our most valuable (and fun) asset.

Our service has been around a long time. Firefighters have the rare reputation of being smart, tough, and nice. Some young people want to be part of a smart, tough, and nice organization. Many others (very normal) don’t want to do that, so our reputation can be the beginning of a very effective self-selection process. Based on the things that make up our reputation, highly motivated, young candidates show up in the employment line and must go through an extensive process that tests their physical ability, mental capacity, emotional profile, and personal behavior background. If they pass all these capability entrance tests ahead of their competitors, they can become a firefighter recruit who gets a ticket into a very robust initial recruit training program. At the successful end of that training process, the recruit should have the basic training and skill to become a beginning member of a fire company and serve on probation for some time period.

The point of my boring you by describing what you already know (and have gone through yourself) is that we are very selective of our humans. The reason we establish and then continually patrol the perimeter around these high standards is that in our jobs we have exceptional access to virtually everything, everywhere, and everybody in the community. We have this access because our customers trust us. A very powerful reflection of that community trust is that we are the only agency in our form of government that does not require a search warrant to enter and operate in (protect) any piece of property; even at three o’clock in the morning, Mrs. Smith will happily let us in her front door so we can solve her problem (big deal). Bosses must understand that this community trust is the result of the tradition and practice of maintaining high human standards. This requires bosses to have a basic understanding of how (even exceptional) humans come from the human assembly plant because even though our high-quality members are thoroughly tested, trained, and managed, they are still human.

Behavior’s Effects on the Organization

Humans all have a fairly standard set of personal characteristics (loaded in at the factory) that influence their behavior. I am going to use a very traditional list to describe the negative end of the very timeless scale. Like a lot of other scales, this one ranges from negative at one end to positive at the opposite end, with a big range of normal in the middle. I am using the list of negative natural potential traits to describe only the category of behavior (mostly as it affects the organization where it occurs) and not any kind of spiritual connection or explanation. The list includes the timeless deadly seven characteristics (notice I did not say “sins”): lust, greed, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, and pride. They all exist on the negative end of the behavior scale. There is another set of positive and very opposite virtues at the other end: chastity, charity, diligence, temperance, patience, kindness, and humility. For the purpose of this discussion, we use the behavior categories to describe the very practical negative/positive results of their effect in the workplace. The characteristics describe functional/dysfunctional organizational behaviors, and although the words that describe them are very classic, the behaviors are still very current. It’s a shame that a boss does not have a cellphone human behavior “app” to identify the behavior and coach the boss in how to expand the positive and eliminate the negative.

A functional boss must understand that every person (including the boss) has the inherent, built-in personal capability and potential to exhibit and practice the seven human characteristics anywhere along the standard positive to negative scale (more need for the app). What the initial fire service selection process and the ongoing management system attempts is to evaluate if the candidate/member has a set of self-disciplined personal values and historic and current habits that cause that person to naturally operate on the positive end of the scale. If the evaluators doubt the natural ability of the candidate to be a mature, well-adjusted, socially appropriate adult, they hit the no-go grading button and define the candidate as maladaptive and select him out of the process. The evaluators understand that whomever they accept as a department member will very probably be a life-long, very permanent human part of their department, and virtually everyone in the organization must somehow live with the positive or negative traits the person brings. This selection process provides a huge head start for our service because our standards start way up the qualification scale.

Even though we are able to select individuals with a very positive profile, they all were assembled at the human assembly plant, and each of us comes with a special standard set of personal traits including the seven “characteristics” mentioned earlier. The selection process is where the organization places an “employment bet” that that person will be able to complete an entire career with those positive traits still intact (or hopefully even enhanced). The challenge is that although we all start out with bright shiny faces, once we get going in our job, “life” sets in, and a career as a firefighter involves a lot of really happy moments and some very sad ones that come along with a lot of wear and tear.

A major element in boss effectiveness is a basic understanding (why/where/when/what) of human behavior and how to effectively use personal and positional resources to continually create an organizational environment that supports the workers living on the positive end of the behavior scale. A lack of understanding of how humans behave and of the skill to lead them will create a serious barrier to that boss’ effectively operating even on the very bottom of the vertical capability hierarchy, much less progressing up the scale.

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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