Firehouse Jerks

By: Mark vonAppen

Every once in a while you come across a boss that you work with who is so completely off that you have to soak it all in to fully appreciate the ridiculousness of how they treat those around them.  I have seen it in my career (and life) often enough to know that it can lay ruin to the team and decimate morale.  

Firehouse Jerks: How megalomaniacs create resentment in the workplace (in no particular order)

How jerks think and act:

  1. I show up late and leave early.
  2. The rules don’t apply to me, I’m the boss.
  3. I enforce the rules, I need not abide by them.  Sometimes out of distinct sense of self-servitude I even fabricate my own set of dogmatic principles independent of the mission statement and organizational values.
  4. Do as I say, not as you witness me do.  See items #2, and #3 if at all confused about this item.
  5. At least once a day I seize the opportunity to humiliate, emasculate, and otherwise eviscerate at least one minion in public per day.  It is an awesome display of power, and damn it feels good to ruin someone’s day. 
  6. At mealtime I am sure to eat first, forsaking the rest of the crew.  Oh, and I don’t clean up either, you have to act like a king if you are to be treated like one.
  7. When a tough decision needs to be made, I vacillate for an inordinately long period of time without making a decision.  After a while, pretending a problem doesn’t exist makes it go away.
  8. When you see something that needs to be done go out of your way to find an underling to do it no matter how long it might take.  Refer to #5 if in doubt.  Do not under any circumstances do it yourself. 
  9. When ever you are in doubt as to the credence of the hyperbole spewing from your mouth, speak loudly, and waive your arms around like a wild man.  True leaders rule with an iron fist. 
  10. Never miss an opportunity to tell someone what to do.   That’s how you lead brother.

Never miss an opportunity to tell someone what to do.  That’s how you lead brother.

Sadly, we all know – or have known – these soulless individuals in our organizations in one form or another.  Very few possess all 10 “qualities,” but they are out there and they are spectacular examples of failure when you see all 10 come together in flesh and bone.  This type of behavior cannot be condoned at any level, but it is especially damaging when people in leadership positions act in such a manner.  The organization’s values are eroded, but the greater damage is done to the psyche of the employees who do right.

How do you deal with the firehouse jerk?

  1. Polite, or not-so-polite confrontation – Most people don’t mean to be jerks, some do.  Either way, they might stop the behavior if you let them know about it.  When subtle hints don’t do the trick, speak in terms everyone can easily understand.
  2. Limit your contact with the jerk – Try not to get too personal with the problem person.  Avoid long interactions – try stand up station meetings, they are proven to work and it limits the amount of time you are exposed to the problem.
  3. Find ways to achieve small wins – If you can’t reform the bully, look for small (legal) ways to fight back.  An example that comes to mind is; an officer I know of was notorious for dumping last minute, urgent work on the station crew that he had avoided for months.  The crew would work all day to complete his work, delivering the completed package to his dormitory with a loud knock on his door at 2am.  When the officer opened the door, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the crew handed him the completed project saying, “You said it was urgent.”  After a few zero-dark-thirty visits the last minute work assignments stopped. 
  4. Learn not to let the jerk affect you – We often talk in terms of passion, commitment, and giving everything you have to the organization.  All of this is fine if you are treated with respect.  If you aren’t getting the results you desire, shrink your attempts at change to your crew and station, the rest will eventually catch on.  

You can learn a lot from watching train wrecks as they unfold.  If you pay attention, you can forecast them well in advance. 

Your job as a true leader, or simply a solid human being, is to intervene when you witness despotism in the workplace at any level and divert the runaway employee to a spur line, thus clearing the way for the positive movers to have a safe route of travel.  Keep the pressure on, eventually they will surrender and get on board with those who do right.  


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Smart A**

As my first official shift as a captain loomed before me, I tossed and turned all night in bed.  The buzzing in my brain as I pondered my ability to perform and lead my brothers and sisters when the call came in rivaled the fluttering in my stomach.  I stared into the darkness and mused, “I have finally made it.  How do I make sure I get this right?”
  

The twist in my stomach was somewhat understandable – I was making the mystical leap into leadership.  No longer could I be the mouthy firefighter in the backseat sarcastically asking his officer, “Do you really want to do that?  Okay, see how that works out for you.”

If I had to supervise the firefighter that I was, I would want to slap the taste out of my own mouth.  It was time for me to put my money where my (smart ass) mouth had always said it should go.  Everybody was about to find out in a hurry whether or not the guy with the big mouth from the ladder company was worth an ounce of the bovine excrement he had been slinging.  With everyone watching, it was time to put up or shut up once and for all.

The buzzing in my brain rivaled the fluttering in my stomach. 

It shouldn’t have been a big change, I had been working as a relief officer for years before I finally strung together enough of the right answers on the captain’s exam to earn a badge.  I had been doing the job as a sheriff without bullets for a long time, yet somehow things were different.  There was a sense of finality to it.  I needed to get it right.  From Barney Fife to Andy Griffith overnight.  Take a test and voila, you’re a leader.  God help us all.

The officer owns the family.
I wondered if I could remain humble and not let ego dominate me as a new officer.  My mentors told me to be wary of my ego, that selfish portion of me that had gotten my punk-ass in so much trouble since I was in grammar school, or more correctly, all of my life.  Mom and dad were right.  So were my teachers, principals, deans, and football coaches.  I was (and still am) the sarcastic guy who’s superiority affliction could only be cured by the honesty of my mentors and peers, through introspection and humility.

I learned from some of the captains I admired that to truly excel as a leader you must surrender to the notion that the job is no longer about you.  The job is about your people, and that I now owned not only their safety, but that of their loved ones.  I was told to sit back and observe.  I was told to listen.  Sitting back and listening is hard to do when you think you’re the smartest person in the room.  Most of the time you’re not.  I never am.

In observing my mentors I deduced that there wasn’t some complicated formula that they came up with to reinvent leadership.  There was no Theory X, Y, or Z of leadership.  It was really simple – be a stand up leader, have your crews best interest at the heart of all that you do, say what you mean, and mean what you say.  It is a team sport and everything is done with the best interest of the team in mind.  Individuals need not apply.

People only need a few things from their leader:

  • Be forthright
  • Have vision
  • Give direction
  • Have a game plan that works

Take in everything you are witness to.  If we are keen observers of our surroundings the learning never stops.  I am constantly humbled by interactions with my peers, by the outstanding people that they are, and in their ability to lead from anywhere.  Greatness is rarely achieved by individual means, it is achieved through the collective vision and efforts of many.  

Listen more than you talk.  Good listeners are not only respected everywhere, but most importantly, through listening eventually they learn something.  They learn who they really are. 
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Lead From Anywhere

By Mark vonAppen

Sitting in the office entering training hours and occupancy inspections in the computer isn’t anywhere near my favorite thing to do during my tour, its not even on my top 10 list.  My stoic posture reflects an absence of enthusiasm for these administrative chores.  My eyelids are heavy, and I slouch in the office chair as the monitor blinks before me.  I take pause from my check-box bacchanalian – I see box- checking as a narrow unit of measure used by administrators to gauge performance – and stare silently at steam as it rises from the cup of coffee I swill to power through the monotony. 

Yawn, stretch, blink, repeat.  

This is lame.

I continue with my reports as a firefighter passes the office door on his way to the apparatus bay, one firefighter follows, then another, and another.  Distant voices muscle through the heavy steel door separating the bay from the living quarters. Music booms over the hand-me-down sound system that adorns the work bench.  Muffled laughter and shouts of encouragement can be heard over a mix of speed-metal and gangster rap.

Leadership isn’t defined by how well you tell others what to do, often it is defined by how well you stand back and allow others to lead in their way.

The unmistakable sound of ladder beams sliding from their mounts and the clatter of ladder locks against rungs cause me to sit bolt upright.  I spin in the chair and squint against the afternoon sun as I look out the window to see 4 firefighters surrounding a 24′ ladder in full PPE, SCBA, tools secured in axe belts, one by one they shoulder the ladder and raise it with a surgeon’s precision.

Click, click, click, click, click, bang!  The ladder clanks to rest against the corner of the station.

I gulp the last of my coffee and finish my report as fast as possible, the rest of the “measurables” will have to wait until after dinner.  Control+Alt+Delete, the screen goes black and I’m out the door.  I scramble to the engine and don my gear as though headed for a fire, overjoyed at my reprieve from paperwork purgatory and anxious to get in on the action.  I join the group as the Rescue Company pulls in from an afternoon of inspections. The crew dons their gear and filters in, the intimate group of 4 has swollen to 8.

Sometimes the best way to build the team is to allow your people to lead from any position, including entry-level firefighters.  Give your people as much responsibility as they can handle.  Teamwork isn’t a lot of people doing what the officer says, teamwork is everyone learning, sweating, and laughing together.  From time to time let your people initiate training, it shows humility if you join in – not take over – and participate.  Leadership isn’t measured by how well you tell others what to do, often it is defined by how well you stand back and allow others to lead the way.  When the day is done everyone will say, “Look at what we accomplished together.”

Fewer things are more inspiring to me than seeing young people getting things started on their own and leading from the backseat.  When they kick things off their energy can reinvigorate an entire battalion.  Hard work, laughter, and learning can sweep through the firehouse like a contagion.  Hold tight to the enthusiasm and watch them lead.

  

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