I arrived as the first engine officer and established command. A single vehicle over the interstate guardrail into a steel traffic pole--triage red, extrication required for the driver. I watched the truck company start cutting on the car. As crews worked together to lift the unconscious body onto the waiting stretcher, I couldn’t help but take the situation in. Attempting to thwart the success of the extrication were mixed crews working together due to the on-going shift change, and an early morning interstate traffic commute not paying any attention to their surroundings. As the ambulance set off towards the local trauma center I centered on the thought--that went really well.
Later, everyone else agreed around the kitchen table that it did go well. Well, everyone except that one guy. I’m sure as you read this you are already picturing that same type of guy in your department. The guy who always thinks and lets you know—you could have done this better; he could have done this better; and you really screwed that up. He’s the same guy that was there when I arrived in command of a house fire where we burnt the roof off because we couldn’t hook the lath and plaster ceiling fast enough. We encountered plywood flooring in the attic space which delayed us further. He was there too, providing his opinion that someone else could have stopped the fire sooner, and my tactics were just bad. I swear that guy is always gunning to undermine my credibility. And I realize I really have come to hate this guy, this critic.
It doesn’t matter where I go, he senses and feeds off my doubts and insecurities. He loves to parade around critiquing and throwing my failures in my face. It's like he has a published list of my weaknesses. The only problem is, I can’t get rid of him…because he’s me.
I am by far my own largest critic.
As a leader there are and always will be, people who are waiting in line to see me fail, or to talk negatively about what I’m doing. But, what I’ve come to know is you can start to weaken their voices if you can acknowledge out loud to others that you are your own largest critic. This is one of the first step towards leading with humility. I don’t need anyone to point out what I don’t do well, because I’m smart enough to already know my weaknesses. I don’t hide from them, rather I embrace any opportunity to turn them into strengths. I am a better leader, because I can acknowledge I don’t know everything about the fire service-and quite frankly who does?? While my critics are focused on what I did, I’m busy focusing and preparing for what I am going to do better next.
The reality of leadership is it is more about change than it is maintaining status quo. When a leader empowers a group, this creates a space where change and innovation can occur. But change always has a tendency of leaving some folks behind. If we can’t reengage them, which above all means genuinely listening to their concerns, they can become critics of what our fire service is doing, who we are as leaders, and where our departments are headed. Change is inevitable. But, if we start ignoring our seasoned members, just because we think that they don’t know the greatest and latest trend, we risk loosing the common sense, historical perspective, and value they offer our organization and teams. Even worse, we are inviting them to become toxic and disengage from our progress.
Notice how I said our progress—because its collective and shared by fire departments all over the world. As the fire service evolves, it’s scary moving past traditions that don’t make sense anymore (such as turning out in a moving apparatus), and embracing ones that do (such as acknowledging this job kills us more than it should i.e cancer and by not opening the nozzle enough on fires). If people feel threatened by your leadership vision, they will talk poorly about you, whether the threat is real or not. So what can you do as a leader to tune out the critics, and not let yourself stand in the way of realizing a better version of yourself?
"Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution."
Call to action
1. Don't be arrogant. Understand that seasons change for folks. Just because the senior man or woman doesn’t sign up for every fire conference offered, doesn’t mean firefighting is still not a passion in their hearts. This diversity helps to make good teams great. Don’t extinguish what they are passionate about, or how they celebrate it, because it isn’t how you would do it. Too many young leaders, including myself, have made this mistake.
2. In our rush to pay it forward, make sure we aren’t walking overtop of those who came before us. We are far too easily pressed to throw away the respect people have earned over their careers because they stand in opposition of what we might want to do or change. Embrace that resistance. It’s the same type of back pressure a nozzle creates that ultimately gives a stream it’s reach and impact, rather than a puddle at our feet.
3. Don't participate in character assassination of others, especially leaders. Firefighters love to gossip, but rarely do we communicate with 100% accuracy the story, especially the context. This isn’t an original thought, but the importance of this one bears repeating.
4. If you find yourself constantly in a group that complains about everything and everyone, congratulations you are a whiner! This lot of misfits and bums see you as someone who thinks what they think— otherwise they wouldn’t waste their time talking to you. My wife will always love to talk shopping with her girlfriends not me. It’s because they love talking about shopping, and I don’t. Get the metaphor?? Always remember, birds of a feather flock together.
5. Surround yourself with great and honest people, and make them who you turn to when you have moments of doubt. These conversations will bear infinitely more fruit than the ones you have critiquing yourself, or anything that comes from the flock of birds who care nothing about you.