Alchemy in San Francisco

Last week I posted a piece about Jim Harbaugh and the power of belief in a cause. The week prior to that, a post about Matt Flynn, preparation, and keeping your head in the game.


Smith and the 49ers have a leader they believe in.
I realize that this is a Fire Engineering blog, and not a sports blog, but bearing witness to the transformation of the San Francisco 49ers – and in particular Alex Smith (the starting quarterback) – makes one marvel at how for nearly 10 years an organization got it so wrong in terms of leadership and direction and why now they seem to be getting it right.

Where were the 49ers going wrong and how did they turn it around? They continue to pull things together – pulling out an improbable win in the waning seconds of the divisional playoffs – by rallying around one another. The 49ers and Alex Smith have a leader that believes in them – and a leader that they believe in as a team – this synergy is where the turnaround starts and maybe where it ends.

Can it really be that simple? 


Sometimes it is.

Quality Coaching

Much of Alex Smith’s success this season can be attributed to quality coaching. Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in his career; but overall, due to lack of a solid coaching foundation, he has not been able to perform week-in and week-out with consistency. The pieces were there – the sports pundits could be heard saying that the 49ers were one of the most talented teams in the league – the most talented team that wasn’t winning.

In any endeavor, results are based on high standards and the ability to achieve those standards consistently. Previous years had seen 49ers players subjected to many changes in leadership styles, and they had continually had the carpet pulled from beneath their feet. The only consistency in the organization was inconsistency – and nothing was working.

There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.

The previous two head coaches – Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary – could easily have been described as impatient, irritable, vague, ruthless, egomaniacal bullies. At every opportunity they would publicly chastise players, and routinely threw Smith under the bus, questioning his toughness and his leadership skills.

So much for praising in public and criticizing in private.

The books say leadership is not a mysterious and innate quality that certain individuals are born into. True, some have a tendency toward leadership traits, such as a stalwart personality – but a strong personality on its own does not guarantee that a person will be successful in a leadership role. Sometimes the opposite is true.

Nolan and Singletary both possessed strong leadership characteristics, but couldn’t get their men to respond.

What doesn’t work as a leader:
  • Being ruthless
  • Being a loner
  • Being uncooperative
  • Being ambiguous
  • Being a dictator
Strong personalities, when left unchecked, can lead to a despotic form of leadership. Those who choose to lead by oppression and absolute power are not paying forward positive leadership traits, and often cause those who must follow this positional leader to detach from the organization in order to survive.

Which brings us to the current coaching staff. Harbaugh preaches the team concept and will not disparage his men at any time. Harbaugh has built a solid support system around his quarterback – pledging his allegiance to him even before the season started. 

There has been no ambiguity. Harbaugh saw something in the kid who had been the scapegoat for all of the team’s ills, and knew he could reach him. He has placed people around Smith who touch him in different ways. Smith has lacked quality coaching in the past – now that he has unwavering support and quality instruction there is no telling how far he and his team can go. A group of men once adrift in a sea of uncertainty are now one win away from the Super Bowl.

How many times over the last year have you read articles in fire service publications about the vacuum that exists in our realm as a result of the massive exodus of veterans? We have to constantly move forward and look to the past for guidance.

The key is that we must always move forward.

Many times, all people need to be successful is for someone to believe in them. There are many great brothers and sisters in the fire service today who are working towards leading the profession forward with forethought and insight as great as that of anyone of any generation, past or present.

Like Smith, these “doers” gain confidence if people in leadership positions recognize their drive and support their efforts. If their attempts at positive change are continually cast off or snubbed, their talent will wither and die. It happens all the time.

Alex Smith has the right people leading him.

Frank Gore (the 49ers starting running back) said this of his quarterback, “(Smith) deserves all this. He has had some tough times. We have the right people leading us. And he’s got the right people leading him.”

Egos Checked at the Door

Harbaugh has instilled trust in his men – he motivates them with an unflinching commitment to the team. He does this by defending them from outsiders and constantly supporting their efforts. He is honest with them – but most of all he is a team builder. Harbaugh is a great communicator who relates to his guys as a man who has been there before. He has credibility because he says what he means and means what he says.


Harbaugh knows what it means to be the underdog. Harbaugh was himself an NFL quarterback who was never the most gifted athletically and played with a chip on his shoulder the size of an aircraft carrier. He excelled because of a relentless pursuit of perfection and by getting his teammates to believe in him. He coaches the same way. Our job as leaders is to believe in our people and give them the opportunity to go wherever they want to go.


Give them the credit when they have earned it.
  • Be trustworthy
  • Make decisions
  • Have foresight
  • Encourage the team concept

Harbaugh has cultivated the same strong leadership qualities that he possesses in his contemporary, Alex Smith. In all likelihood, if Harbaugh had not landed the head job in San Francisco, Smith might have bounced around the league for a few more years and not amounted to much. This would not have been for lack of talent, but rather due to the fact that he had been so beaten down by the previous coaching staffs and the national media.

After a while, when people say enough bad things about you, you start to believe it.

Harbaugh gives all the credit to his guys. He once told the media, “Don’t talk to me, talk to the guys. They’re the ones that won the game.”

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain when your people succeed. Everybody wins because you got there together. Their growth and success is your legacy. If you can look down the line at all of the people who came through your firehouse that went on to be successful, charismatic, and understanding leaders, then you can be proud of the rich heritage that you helped to create.

It doesn’t just come from you, we are compilation pieces; collages made from everyone we have ever known. Pieces of our every contact mold us into who we are today. Today’s interactions change what we will be tomorrow. We are the result of a lifetime’s worth of input from all the leadership we have observed, be it positive or negative. Take in everything you are witness to. If we are keen observers of those around us, the learning never stops.


Outstanding coaches are often great simplifiers who can cut through nonsense and doubt to create a solution that everyone can rally around.


The 49ers and their coaching staff in particular are true alchemists. They have taken largely unappreciated talent and transformed it into something extraordinary. There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.



















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The Jackhammer

Harbaugh is an inspirer of men.
With the Superbowl fast approaching and the San Francisco 49ers in the big game for the first time since the 1994 season, one cannot bear witness to the turn around in the Bay Area and not ponder how it came to be.

The power of belief in a cause, in a person, and in each other cannot be overstated when you look at what coach Jim Harbaugh has brought to every coaching post he has held since becoming a head coach at the University of San Diego (USD) in 2004.

An enthusiasm unknown to mankind

Harbaugh has brought a winning angle with him wherever he has traveled.  From a small school with no scholarships – USD, to a PAC 12 school with lofty academic standards – Stanford – that makes winning difficult year in and year out, to a moribund franchise in the NFL that had lost its way almost entirely – the 49ers – foundering in search of an identity in the shadow of what once was.
Jim Harbaugh (center) at Stanford


“What Jim Harbaugh has done with the 49ers is really remarkable, because people didn’t think this was a good team.  He’s a very smart coach, and a very good inspirer of men.”
-NPR

Harbaugh has a personality that some would call difficult. Acerbic by some standards he says of himself, “I know, I’m moody and complicated.”  Stubborn and persistent, he is not one to mince words or indulge in undue pleasantries.  Jim Harbaugh is not going to change who he is for anybody – cowards do that.

“We ask no quarter.  We give no quarter.”

“I’m not going to apologize for being fired up.  If that offends you or anybody else then so be it.”

Harbaugh isn’t afraid to lead.  Sometimes being a leader means making other people angry.
Harbaugh goes further,  “I don’t take vacations, I don’t get sick.  I don’t observe major holidays.  I’m a jackhammer.”  All you have to do is look back at the footage of Harbaugh and coach Jim Schwartz (Detroit Lions) at the mid-field stripe after the 49ers last minute win at Detroit on October 16, 2011 and you’ll see it, the exuberance of a wild man, and a passion for his craft that inspires an almost religious devotion from those in his charge.

Who has it better than us?  Nobody.

By all accounts there isn’t some complicated formula that Harbaugh and his staff have come up with to almost instantly turn around their work place wherever they go – its not Theory X, Y, or Z of leadership.  It’s simple really – be a stand up guy, say what you mean, and mean what you say.  All decisions are based on what is in the best interest of the collective, not the individual.  If you want to be an individual you need to find someplace else to work.

People only ask a few things of a leader – and it’s not too much to ask:
  • Be forthright
  • Have vision
  • Give clear direction
  • Have a game plan that works

Harbaugh’s commitment to his team and his way – the concept of one team working together toward the ultimate goal are uncompromising.  That’s what his guys love about him – that’s why they would follow him anywhere and through anything.  This belief – this collective soul – that Harbaugh inspires in his men wherever he goes is what drives his success.  The belief in the team concept is so strong and in turn the players belief in the leader so fervent, that success – while not assured – is made much more possible.  Harbaugh’s players go hard for him because he believes in them.

Harbaugh makes people believe.
Harbaugh’s leadership is effective because it is relentless.  He works his craft and his guys hard.  If people don’t like him he doesn’t seem to care.

Harbaugh is real.  “I’m not going to apologize for being fired up.  Apologies always sound like excuses to me.  If it offends you or anybody else then so be it.”

Harbaugh doesn’t need to be a media darling.  He is not about saying the right thing or being liked – his leadership will be defined by his results and how much his players revere him – not by how he is judged by outsiders.  Jim Harbaugh has that something – that God given talent that transcendent leaders have – he makes people believe.








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Trouble Maker

By: Mark vonAppen

What makes a good probationary firefighter?

You might answer any of a number of things.   Words like diligent, considerate, quiet, and obedient come to mind.  Certainly these are some desirable attributes for a new firefighter to possess but it begs the question; are the traits that we romanticize in the ideal probationary firefighter stifling critical thinking and stunting the development of the individual and in turn the growth of the organization?

Are these the traits of a leader?

New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety in order to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems.  If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharp-shooters they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and perhaps the fire service as a whole.

Be seen and not heard

Cultural mores in the fire service often dictate that new firefighters follow orders and established traditions without question.  The (flawed) theory is that the new firefighter lacks any experience base to draw from and is totally reliant on the officer and other crew-members to achieve the goal, whatever it may be.

Respect for the officer, senior members of the department and for the scalar organization within the fire service is important so that the machine runs efficiently.  This piece is not meant to confront the fire service org chart but rather to challenge the way that new employees are sometimes treated.

Do we teach our new firefighters to be irrationally acquiescent?

The parochial nature of our profession sometimes passes on toxic traditions.  A distinct problem potentially arises in the fire service when firefighters experience a lack of psychological safety and a marked fear of authority.  This fear of authority can manifest itself either from the formal leader,the officer, or the informal leader, the station bully.

Stand still and look pretty.

Heard it before?

How about this one?

You’ve got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk. Right, now stand there and look stupid.

Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one that is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and doesn’t ask a lot of questions.  Everybody loves the new firefighter who performs his / her duties without question.  They’re easy to deal with.

Are these firefighters always your strongest fire ground performers?  Are they innovators?  Are there times where it is appropriate to question how and why things are done?

Certainly.

Everyone is a safety officer, right?  Irreverent statements such as, “Probies should be seen and not heard,” are completely contrary to telling everyone to be a safety officer.

If you see something important speak up.

Followed soon after by, “Don’t speak your mind until you’ve been here at least ten years.”

In other words, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Hmmm.  What to do?

If a new firefighter is constantly told that their opinion is not valued at any time they will be less likely to speak up at a critical moment on the fire ground.  Research in the airline industry has shown that new co-pilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot has become incapacitated either in simulations or during in-flight emergencies.  These co-pilots failed to act because on some level they feared that they would upset their boss by speaking up or attempting to take control of a situation.

Deference shown at the wrong time can have catastrophic results.  In 1979, a commuter jet crashed, in whole or in part, because the co-pilot (still on probation) failed to take over for the captain (known for his abrasive style) who became incapacitated.

Who’s calling the MAYDAY when the middle-aged (and grossly overweight) captain has a heart attack 100 feet in on the hose line?  It could be the nozzle firefighter, perhaps a probie at their first fire, they had better be up to the task and know when to speak up.  We need to teach our new people to be part of a team while at the same time teaching them to be self-assured, inquisitive, problem solvers.

Questions affect learning

It is interesting, to me anyway,that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders.  In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. 

Here are some examples:
  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.
Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how new firefighters are sometimes treated.  We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. 

“That’s how it is done here.  We’ve always done it that way.”

Be a “yes” man and you’ll go far my son.  Challenge the conventional and you’re in for a bumpy ride.  Fasten your seat-belt.  In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”

Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are.  If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?  Remember, these are considered leadership traits.  Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere (let’s be real) in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass.  Once again, fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction.  As a whole we encourage new people to maintain, not innovate.

Psychological safety for these individuals who exhibit critical thinking is crucial in developing self-reliance in new firefighters.  Firefighters who are noisy complainers and considered troublemakers are often the ones who inspire the greatest learning.  They are the ones who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge.  They are the ones who constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy officers and their peers but are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.  These questions can cause others to be introspective, sometimes reflecting on past practices is painful.

We must not crush an individual’s will to learn and innovate.  The ability to trust in the leader to allow for mistakes and even failure in training situations is central to cultivating the spirit of learning and innovation.

Question your answers

Creation of a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the most important part of getting the most out of people.

A safe work environment involves the following:
  • Suspending judgement
  • Avoiding cynicism
  • Encouraging others

Firefighters are especially vulnerable to making mistakes when things appear to be progressing according to routine.  When we don’t notice things are amiss we mindlessly apply SOG’s and go along with the program and may miss menacing warning signs from the environment.  All firefighters must be able to think beyond the linear and think with anticipation.

To guard against complacency we must constantly ask, “What’s up?”  We must be wary of success and suspicious of quiet periods.  We must teach and encourage firefighters to act with anticipation, to guard against complacency.  Teach firefighters to ask questions and plan for potential problems no matter how normal things appear. 

When a nuisance fire alarm is received, in a building that you have been to a number of times without incident, you must be doubly cautious (see “Tragedy in a Residential High Rise, Memphis, Tennessee,” Fire Engineering March 1995).

Remember, pride makes us fake, being humble keeps us real.  We must maintain a beginner’s attitude in order to keep learning and maintain awareness.  Beginners question everything, they should, in doing so their minds remain open to new information.  As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes.

If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge the notion. We must allow new information to reshape our mental models.  Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.  We must allow new firefighters to ask questions.  Some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you and ask a lot of questions of the veterans- they are a plentiful source of knowledge- all you have to do is ask.

Listen a little more

Cooperation is central to the function of a team.  We must cooperate on all levels with our coworkers.  If you want to be heard as a boss you have to listen.  We must be interested in finding the best way of delivering service.  The best way might not always be the old way.

It is all too easy to crush a new persons spirit.  Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard.  To continually engage those we work with we must listen to what people have to say.  It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.

There is a firefighter in my department who started an Internet sales company in his dorm room in college. He and some of his classmates, a euphemism for drinking buddies, at The University of California, Berkeley thought it would be cool to start an on-line shoe company; it’s called Zappos (you may have heard of it).  He grew tired of the dotcom life and put himself through paramedic school so he could become a firefighter, his life-long dream.  I’m sure the fire service could benefit from listening to a guy like that.  He’s smart, innovative, and he brings a wealth of customer service and business savvy to the department.

When he was the new guy do you think anyone listened to him about his areas of expertise?  Developing business models that work and the selection of quality employees might be something the fire service should explore.

It is a travesty that for years his ideas and enthusiasm were largely ignored.  We run the risk of having much of our young talent die on the vine if their efforts a consistently disregarded.  Times have changed immeasurably in recent years.  The fire service can no longer afford to have all ideas come from a central point at the top of the organization.  We must regain the spirit of innovation that has propelled the fire service forward in days past and buoyed it in difficult times.

Don’t be so quick to silence those who raise questions.  Are they really trouble-makers?  Don’t be so sure.

Good listeners are not only popular everywhere but eventually they learn something.  The next great idea could come from your firehouse, it might be trapped inside of the timid new firefighter who has been told to keep their mouth shut and mop the floor.


MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the suppression division where he holds the rank of captain. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

Bibliography:
Sutton, Robert I., “Good Boss, Bad Boss” 2010 Business Plus
Allyn, Dr. Kimberly, “Rising to Real Leadership” 2011 Fire Presentations
IFSTA Company Officer 4th Edition
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