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LASTING IMPRESSIONS

I have written previously on Facebook - IN THESE BOOTS about the life lessons learned from athletics and how they can be applied to the Fire Service. Coaching, leadership, teamwork, selflessness, pride, failure, success, attitude, attitude and attitude all apply to success and winning in any field of endeavor.

I wrote about the journeyman pro catcher at an Oakland/Baltimore game who was too arrogant and self consumed to sign a couple of autographs for my children who had waited hours just to watch their heroes board the bus. Contrast that with Yankee Derek Jeter who with a simple nod of his head and a wave acknowledged and made the same children feel so important and lived up to their expectations of a hero. Being nice is free.

I remember writing about a local baseball star, Tinker Fornash, and my asking him about his most memorable game. Of all of his many games, he remembered a game where he smacked what he thought was surely an opposite field home run. He broke in to his home run trot and watched the ball bounce off of the outfield fence and instead of a hustling triple his team got a lazy double. His Dad was the coach and he called time out and he called his son to the third base line. He asked his son three probing and great coaching questions. Are you tired? Are you injured? Why are you on second instead of third? Once the coach determined that his star son was OK and that stardom was his issue, he pulled him out of the game and replaced him on second base with a pinch runner that wanted to run and wanted to play. Tinker told me that he always hustled after that.

Several weeks ago, local athletes Jim Bunch and Wade Hughes got together to settle a friendly bet resulting from the College Football National Championship game. Both of these great athletes graduated from my small high school and Jim was a star blocking guard at Alabama and Wade a great running back at Clemson. They both brought their college helmets and the down to earth attitudes that took them to college success. I’m certain their high school coaches who attended were so proud of them, as is our community.

This morning, I did an internet search on two of the pro quarterbacks who have recently occupied the news, both for bad behavior. Both of their histories reveal early problems that were certain indicators of their behavioral issues today.  Now, they are both neglecting, through behavior, the good fortune and talents that allowed them to achieve their field of dreams. Maybe a little time out on the bench was/is in order.

Jim Bunch, Wade Hughes, Tinker Fornash and Derek Jeter would have been great Firemen. They all understood that their team didn’t NEED them, they NEEDED the team and the team was more important than their individuality and personal talent.

I have had the honor of wearing the leadership hat in the Fire Service since December 26, 1979. Most of the players that I coached signed autographs for children through their exceptional service and the simple understanding of why children waved at them as they drove by or stopped by the fire house to catch a glimpse of their heroes. They were never too busy or too tired or too self consumed to stop and come back to what brought them to such a status.

I am most proud of the unsung, all star, soft spoken and mostly undecorated informal leaders who took the young players aside and did their peer job of discussing bad behavior and professional expectations. “This is our team and this is how you will do things. We don’t need you, you need us.” It is rewarding to a coach to see senior players display pride and to give out some tough love when it is needed.  

Leadership is accepting the responsibility for your team. It is sitting down the stars who forget to hustle, it is the coffee table critique with Bear Bryant and listening as he explains what YOUR Alabama team is and where they came from, it is putting together and training a team of people who understand how a wave or a nod of the head is an acknowledgement that it is because of those who fill the seats that we are allowed to play.

Leaders who cultivate a culture of low expectations should not pretend to be surprised when they achieve them.

If you accept a leadership position in the Fire Service you are supposed to make commitments. You should commit to surround yourself with the best of the best and to hold accountable the journeymen who display arrogance and contempt for the team and the fans. You have to be willing to engage and to demand compliance with best practices that benefit the team and not personal narcissistic dreams or hallucinations. You trade losers and replace them with hungry players who wait in the tunnel. You must commit to being a lasting leader by being a listening leader.

I am forever honored and grateful for my teams and to have served with them in such a noble calling. I stayed with you in the heat and in the cold when I could have retreated to the warmth behind my windshield and left you to learn, to engage, to become injured and to die alone, because I was too big, too pretty, too cold or too damned important to accept my commitment as a Fire Service leader. I took water only after you had been to the well and I never failed to protect you when you were right, when you hustled and when you were done wrong.

If I gave you time out and sat you on the bench you deserved it and you learned to hustle. When I asked you probing questions, it was because I already knew the answers and so did you. If my voice cracked or broke when I praised you, I hope you thought about our crimson tide and how much your hard work really meant to me and to the people who we served, who expected us to bring it, to push, to be prepared, every time, because they were dying to meet us.

I admit my shortcomings in drawing pictures on charts, and engaging in idle dugout conversations with second rate catchers who flocked to the command vehicle during the game. If I was short with them it is because my Tinker Fornash, my Derek Jeter, my Jim Bunch and my Wade Hughes  and many others were in harm’s way and my focus was to see them through to the goal line or to home plate and to celebrate quietly with them and to send them home. That is my only job, and yours.

Is your team stuck on second base or pushing wide open and head first toward home?______________.

Did you commit to lead or was it all about stardom? _________________. 

Are you proud of your helmet, your shield, and what it represents?

Reflect in private on where we are and where we came from and where we want to be.

My career was/is shaped largely by informal leaders.

Are we living up to the expectations set for us by the children?________________.

Attitude, attitude and attitude.

Let’s sit down and talk, I’ll buy the coffee.

Thank you for reading, caring, hustling and sharing.

Have a great day – it’s a GREAT day for it.

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