Have you ever been questioned by an elected official, fire board member, or the general public about what you do and how you do it? Does this sound familiar in any way…”Why do you need four firefighters on every fire truck?...Where does all that money in your budget go? Why do you need this expensive equipment, apparatus, facility, station, etc? Or, how about this one, “I called 911 for an ambulance and a fire truck with a bunch of firefighters showed up too. What a waste of taxpayer dollars!” It’s almost as if people don’t trust us, or believe what we tell them. That seems strange, after all, aren’t we the subject matter experts?
Leadership author and speaker Simon Sinek says that, “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it” (Sinek, 2009). Think about that for a while. The fire service generally does a great job of explaining to people WHAT we do, we save life and property. We also do a pretty good job of telling people HOW we do it, by putting out their fires or taking them to the hospital utilizing these big red fire trucks, this hose, this ladder, this training, etc. But we probably don’t do as great of a job explaining WHY we do what we do, and I don’t mean to save life and property, that is just the result of WHAT we do, like a private corporation’s WHY is not to make money, that is just a result of what they do. WHY we do what we do is a belief, a feeling. It is our values, and the reason our people get out of bed in the morning, and as a result it is sometimes hard to put into words, so therefore we don’t. The problem with that is exactly what Sinek says, “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it”.
So, how can we help the people who control the funding for staffing and everything we need (elected officials/public) really understand what we do and why we require adequate staffing, equipment, etc? Perhaps it is not about them understanding WHAT we do, but rather WHY we do it. Without understanding our WHY, many people will assume we do what we do for the paycheck, the pension, the benefits, or for the recognition, or the ability to run around town with a red light and siren on our car, or for the power or prestige, or for a hundred other reasons.
"People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it" can be explained by another quote from Simon Sinek...."When people know WHY you do what you do (and it matches their WHY, and they believe what you believe), they are willing to give you credit for everything that could serve as proof of your WHY". In other words, when the people understand WHY you do what you do, and WHAT you do and HOW you do it reflects that WHY, it leads to TRUST of WHAT you do and HOW you do it.
Take a moment to view this short video of Simon Sinek explaining the Golden Circle of WHY, HOW and WHAT to get a better understanding of this concept…
People who question why you need four firefighters on a truck, or why you send a fire truck with an ambulance to medical calls, begin to extend to you, and the organization trust...and when they trust you and trust WHY you do what you do, and your WHY (beliefs and values) matches their WHY, they begin to understand and believe that if you say you need four firefighters or that you need to send a fire truck to medical calls, then those WHATs and HOWs must therefore be the right thing to do. Trust, it's all about trust, and it doesn't happen overnight and it can be lost in a second if the actions (WHATS and HOWs) of the organization or some, or one, of its members doesn’t continue to reflect that WHY. We must still be held accountable and responsible for what and how we do things from how we treat people to how we respond to incidents, to being fiscally responsible for taxpayer funding in our budget. Improper what’s and how’s that don’t reflect our WHY, can destroy what people see as our WHY.
However, this all starts with figuring out what our WHY is? Do we even know WHY we do what we do? What is your organization’s WHY? What does it believe? What are its shared core values? Is everyone in the organization united behind a common WHY? Do we all believe in the same thing?
We spend a lot to time telling elected officials and the public what we do (saving life and property) as well as how we do it (put out your fire and take you to the hospital, with big fire trucks, and air packs, training, etc), but how much time do we spend making sure people understand our WHY? Do we even understand our WHY? And once we figure out what that WHY is, do we hire people, or bring new members into the fire department that believe what the organization believes, and have the same values and the same WHY as everyone else on the department? Do we look for and recruit people whose WHY matches the WHY and culture of the organization? TRUST…it’s all about creating trust.
I am certainly not an expert at any of this. I am just a student, and my goal is to create more students. But there is much more than I can include in a short blog. So, I hope this perks your interest and I encourage you to pick up Simon Sinek’s book, “Start With Why” to get a much more in depth understanding of one of the most powerful and inspiring organizational leadership concepts I have ever come across. "People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it"
Sinek, S. (2009). Start With Why. London: Portfolio Penguin.
CHRIS LANGLOIS, is a Captain with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department and a 28-year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments. He has been with the Omaha Fire Department for the last 15 years, including over 5 years with the OFD Training Division. He currently serves as the captain of an engine company and is a plans team manager with the Nebraska Task Force 1 US&R Team. He was the 2014 Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors- Instructor of the Year and was an FDIC instructor in 2013 and 2014. He holds an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in public fire administration, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership and is pursuing his EFO certification.