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To Be or to Do? Your Fork In the Road

by David Rhodes

This Hump Day SOS was first published last year. Based on a conversation with a friend this week it seemed like a good time to run again for those who missed it or for those who just needed to read it again.

Here you are in the middle (or later) of your career in the ole’ fire department. You grew up with an understanding from your parents and grandparents that the harder you work and more you accomplish the more successful you will be. Then the unthinkable happens! It’s the first time that you’ve been passed over for promotion. You have diversified your work experience between operations, training and even a few stints in administration. You have contributed to the organization at every turn. But your hard work and contributions are no longer considered. A pencil pusher that has not been a contributor nor had the accomplishments gets the promotion. You know, the guy that was always at the right places being seen and worked on doing things that would look good on his resume’. The one that doesn’t really take a stand on anything. While you were developing programs, training members, working on policy and gaining expertise in your craft, this person was showing up for work and spending his/her time looking good and hanging out with “right” people.

You are devastated and you wonder how this could happen. You have trouble sleeping. For the first time in your career you think about calling in sick. You see the organization in a completely different light and you struggle to put things in perspective. After all, hard work and accomplishment are the keys to success, right? You are now at your crossroad………..

This scenario plays out in fire departments, corporations and the military every day. It has been the ruin of many good man/woman (More so than that house in New Orleans…for you Animals fans) who until that point saw themselves as the doers who would be rewarded by advancement. After all isn’t rank equated with success in most organizations? There have always and will always be politics involved in the advancement and promotion of individuals within organizations. Each new leader pledges “fair and equitable, transparent opportunity” but when it comes right down to it, people (who have the ability of discretional promotions) promote who they are comfortable with. This can be masked by cursory “processes” that are mostly subjective interviews, resume’ reviews or sometimes just plain popularity contest. These processes are implemented in the attempt to create the outward appearance of “fair, equitable and transparent” however the employees pretty much know how these list will play out before the process is even held. Some even make wagers and partake in free fire house dinners for their accurate predictions. The older and wiser fire department stewards with great situational awareness do often take advantage of the young gung ho hard worker who swear the other hard workers will get the promotion. Shame on us from taking candy from the babies!!

So now that you are at your crossroad you have a decision to make. Your anger and disappointment tell you that, that is it. It is time to shut down and spend the rest of your time just getting by. You are not appreciated so you will just become “retired on duty” on “auto pilot”, “shut down”. All these terms ring in familiar faces of people who you said you would never be like and couldn’t figure out how they got that way. This is a very normal and somewhat cultivated stance that sweeps through the minds of everyone experiencing this level of disappointment. DO NOT LET ANYONE STEAL YOUR PASSION! One of the most significant problems in the fire service is that so many of our best gave up, caved in to the disappointment all because of a false notion that rank was a measure of success. “Badges we don’t need no stinking badges” is an old movie line that should be adopted as a fire service mantra for the doers, the subject matter experts, the talent, the professionals that find themselves “passed over”.

Nothing sums this up like the story of John Boyd. An Air Force pilot that worked his way up to Colonel. Despite his contributions to the Air Force that included changing air combat tactics, aircraft design for maneuverability and being assigned to the Pentagon to work on aircraft design, he was passed over for promotion. He had not conformed to the status quo, he had challenged authority, he challenged doctrine and would often say, You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.” Boyd had a much bigger purpose than accumulating collar brass he wanted to make contributions that made things better. He accepted the cost of this and would not compromise his character as a tradeoff for an organizational perception of success.

His tenacity and brilliance got him mixed evaluations. Some superiors hated him while others loved him. Some fought to get rid of him while other fought to keep him. He attracted some very talented associates that jumped at the chance to work with him on any project. He would warn them of the dangers of their association with him and he would tell them:

(From Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram)

 “Tiger”, he would say, “one day you will come to a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

 So which way are you going? I urge you not to give up on our fire service and remember you can only make lasting organizational change from the inside of your organization. Rank does not equal success and your success will be measured by the guys that do the job day in and day out. Not the guys that compromise and play the game for a few dollars and a staff car……… for their success is fleeting. Serve those that serve and make a difference in their lives by teaching them the job, building competence and trust. As a result you will have improved the fire service. Leave the rest to those who want to “be somebody”.  

Note: If you are thinking, “Who is this Boyd guy? I think I’ve heard of him.” Well you might be familiar with Boyd’s OODA Loop. “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act”. Yep he is the one who came up with this mental process. He was also a major contributor to the design of the F15, F16 and A10 Warthog. As a pilot he developed the “slam on the brakes” maneuver made famous to the civilian world in the movie Top Gun.

Special thanks to Col. Chet Richards USAF ret (longtime Boyd associate) for our many conversations about all things Boyd over the years. Chet took the right fork and continues to make a difference. He continues to help organizations apply Boyd principles to modern business practices. He also helped this dumb fireman see things through a different lens. Keep up the great work, Tiger! Chet Richards Twitter: @FuentesDeOnoro


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