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While participating in a leadership open forum recently, a fellow panel member told the story of a seminar speaker who engaged him about the responsibilities of his job. After rejecting everything that my friend described as his job as being secondary, the speaker told him that his one job, his sole purpose, was to make the Fire Chief of his department look good.

This statement left me frustrated and in disagreement. Although I understood the speaker’s premise, I found myself asking “how many hours do you think I have in a day?”

The speaker had apparently never had to deal with a modern day Fire Chief who was playing dress up.

My job, as I understood it, always was to excel in public service and to take care of the people providing it. If I applied serving people to everything that I did, brotherhood, teamwork, ownership, pride and yes leadership seemed to flow naturally from that caring, service oriented attitude. My little piece of the pie improved and my department got better because of it.

It wasn’t dress up – it was stand up.

People followed, they joined up, they felt included and needed, they bought in and they were willing to do great things in the neighborhood. It is about the neighborhoods. Out of all of this came improved morale, two–way trust, freedom and empowerment for everyone. The special skill sets of each individual fit into the team and the team moved forward. People liked that.

Our firehouse became a bicycle repair shop, an open house every day and a family reunion with grandma’s fried chicken and homemade ice cream. People came in early, stayed late and they found a belonging that we all hunger for. Neighboring fire stations followed along because they wanted to become a firehouse. They learned to bring their badass to work with them because they knew we brought ours and they tired of second place.  

I enjoyed ignoring fakes and phonies, including Fire Chiefs, who couldn’t figure out the difference between leading successfully and playing dress up. They seemed so confused, so unwelcome, so uncomfortable and out of place around us on the fire scenes and I remember feeling such a lack of compassion for them, these dim light imposters in costume and makeup, playing dress up.

Fire Chiefs will look good only as a consequence of their department looking good.

It has nothing to do with the Fire Chief’s mirror fantasies, the number of worthless meetings they call, the price of their special order hat, how many medals they award themselves or the number of rules they write that they didn’t follow as they crawled up their own narcissistic trail of slime to the top of the inefficient, steaming, foul smelling heap of corruption that is their organization, their failed leadership and undeniably will be their legacy or lack thereof.

Public servants don’t want to hold hands and sing K** Ba Yah as a part of another new initiative and social experiment. Veterans take offense when they are grouped and then called dinosaurs and weeds.   I could care less about your beautiful imaginary garden, but I do sometimes wonder if the garden is where you played midwife to a stray cat, while over two hours late for an important top level meeting that you hastily called on a Friday afternoon or if the special garden is where you hid the alcohol you purchased on duty, while you can’t now grasp and professionally address the fact that substance abuse and compassionate treatment are a real part of the community that you claim to want to mirror.

Measure that.

You go and try to make yourself look good Mr. or Mrs. Fire Chief – the backbone of the department are too busy undoing the knots of separation that you tied among people who prefer to be together. Those who will survive your sad failed existence won’t use the buzz words in conversation that you have abused to the point that they have become meaningless to the brotherhood and just a part of your used car sales pitch, where you continually try to sell a used Volkswagen as a new Cadillac. Have you noticed no one is buying?

Chaos and Havoc are not leadership and personal survival is not a departmental mission.

May I suggest another open forum where I explain leading people and why playing dress up doesn’t work? We can go candidly through our career successes and failures and I’ll speak in simple terms that you can understand if you listen slowly. The folks you disrespected will want to be there as will those whose careers you ended needlessly, so I suggest a large room.

We can talk about how succession training is not surrounding yourself with used tires from head hunter sites and how badly you needed to develop leaders from the inside of a once great department. I’ll ask how you were able to ignore great leadership models in departments next door and explain why my Dad put blinders on his old mule named Red.

Maybe we can talk about genuine and fake as it applies to asking any member “How is your family” and why your lack of sincerity earned you your well-deserved lack of respect. Maybe I’ll get a coffee while you preach and I won’t get in your space, but I will make notes. Maybe we can discuss gadget addiction and how listening leaders, who involve and trust, rarely need consultants.

I’ll discuss common denominators, even though I took Math 8 three times, and why dress up leaders seem to not get along with others or function well in blue collar work forces. Maybe we can discuss the old adage “you can’t fake good kids” and how none of us had a choice of when or where we came from or who our parents were, and how success is a direct result of stepping up and out and making whoever we are – our best. I will try to explain fairness and trust to the audience and why favoritism is neither a parenting nor a leadership skill.

Why did one Fire Chief fail to greet or acknowledge a guest speaker invited to his department while another went out of his way to have enjoyable conversation with me at a retirement party in the Virginia foothills? Why did a retired FDNY BC make lunch so enjoyable after walking through the moving 9-11 Memorial with my wife and me? What did the family of the fallen brother think of the Fire Chief who was texting during the funeral and where in the hell does the arrogance come from when so called national shakers walk the seminar halls too important or too self-consumed to come back down to earth for a young person who only wants a moment of your time. You are not checking light bulbs, lower your head and look at the people who make you possible. Maybe you should come and join in the forum too.

Follow leaders who serve their community and their people – they are easy to spot.

If the boot fits wear it.

Stop playing dress up.

Thanks for reading, caring and sharing.

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

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