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Movies celebrating great teams that have overcome adversity to become hugely successful are awesome. Leadership books that summarize their most prominent themes at the end of each chapter are awesome. Guest speakers that tell a story of how they rose from the ashes to become masters of their craft…are awesome. Fire departments that are rich with resources, staff, equipment, and are quick to share their innovative training tools and techniques – you guessed it – they are super awesome!

My question is what about the rest of the departments that do not have a compelling story; those that struggle to stay in the black, whose apparatus feature a few dents and rust spots? What about those agencies that identify more with Mayberry than they do Malibu, Minneapolis, or Miami? Can they be awesome too?

Few would argue against the value of an inspiring story capable of generating hope for the less fortunate. However, one does not have to check the census to know that these tales are special because they are rare and unusual – they represent the minority of the nearly 30,000 fire departments in the US – that’s what makes us pay attention.

The truth is, most fire departments share varying degrees of the same challenges: fluctuations in the economy, competition for funding, challenging labor/management relations, increased demands on time, unrealistic expectations from an uneducated and impatient community, and trouble balancing a fear of change with an equal fear of what will happen if we fail to change.

If these circumstances are indeed normal, then by some definition, they may also seem pretty darn average. But, what we have to understand is that average does not necessarily mean unremarkable. In fact, with a little care and effort, average can be turned into something that can be celebrated. Consider that the nostalgic definition of Americana comes from visions of small-town USA: baseball, friendly people, apple pie, rolled up sleeves, and Old Glory waving on the Fourth of July. The soul of this country is built on the struggles of common men and women blazing trails into a new frontier.

Struggle has become as much a part of our national identity as has success. Struggle is about a declaration to pull together in our journey to overcome obstacles, rather than be crushed by them. Consequently, if average means that most agencies are forced to wade through the same thicket of crap, then I say bring it on…let’s redefine what it means to be awesome!

Before beginning to identify those principles that can lead an average department to the land of awesomeness, we must 1) acknowledge that not all definitions are going to fit snuggly; room should be left to customize that definition based on a healthy needs assessment; and 2) there are a few things that are universally incongruent with being awesome: quitting on your people, entitlement, envy that leads to resentment, intolerance for change, incompetence, and any kind of underhandedness that undermines the mission or those dedicated to its values.

The Pursuit of Awesome

1. Dream big. Paint a colorful vision of what the department could look like within the context of its service area. Let them think that the artist(s) are a little off their rocker, but not so much that the resources would make it seem impossible. A solid vision tends to bond people together - perhaps that whole landing on the moon thing will serve as some inspiration.

2. Stay focused. A mission begins and ends with a department’s customers. Everything else is a distraction.

3. Mirror, mirror… An organization may not always like what they see, but awesome departments have to take stock in both what they do well and where they fall short. You can bet that everyone else probably already knows. Its best to own the gap – only then can you begin slamming it shut. Oh, and take a twisted comfort in knowing that others are in the same place; the only question is whether they are doing something about it.

4. Zip it up. Keep in mind, if an organization is walking around with its collective zipper down, ignoring it certainly won’t make it go way. A safe enough environment has to exist for others to help make a problem go away.

5. Change. Call it a journey; call it a vision quest; call it a spiritual awakening; shoot, wrap it in a tortilla and call it anything you want, but get over the fact that all healthy organizations have to figure out how best to evolve. Hit the word head-on; convince your stakeholders that in order to be awesome, by their own definition, they will have to move on. Organizations can either embrace it, or become a victim of change – the rest of the world is certainly not going to stop and wait.

6. Invest in your people. Meet people, connect with people, be genuine with people, and give your time to people. If the road you are on is difficult, you will need them for support and guidance. Caution: be careful not to wear them out. Even those most dedicated to your department’s cause can get tired of the squeaky wheel. People are your most sustainable resource.

7. Family. Functional families plan, budget, invest, fail, recover, and love. Dysfunctional ones sometimes love.

8. Shop around. So the chief is a genius and his or her people are also geniuses, but someone, somewhere is probably already doing it; whatever “it” is… Look inside and outside of the fire service for cool ideas and opportunities. Give credit when appropriate, modify as necessary, and make it your own.

9. Beat the drums. Poor communication is almost always at the core of any failed attempt to succeed. Use it all: retreats, emails, meetings, phone calls, agendas/minutes, the web, videos and dance recitals. Be sure that your message is meaningful and consistent; otherwise, it will never be enough.

10. Sell, sell, sell. People are busy and there are already a lot of assumptions. Develop a marketing plan that illustrates where you are and incrementally where you are going. Consider that data analysis builds credibility, but a good story reaches the heart, and that a great deal of decisions are made based on how an issue makes us feel, rather than how many peaks and valleys are splashed across a spreadsheet.

11. Fail brilliantly. Let’s face it; both awesome people and awesome organizations have a long history of screwing up before getting it right. So why be shocked when it happens – it generally means that new ground is being churned up from which innovative ideas will soon begin to sprout. Thus, it makes sense that if you are going to fail, we should do so brilliantly! Meaning, act with good intent, learn, flub it up and then take as many stabs at it as necessary to get it right.

12. Take time to celebrate. This Little Engine That Could stuff is hard. Stop long enough to share a genuine “thank you” for being awesome!

13. Avoid mission creep. Committees and work groups should manage their objectives through a work plan founded on the department’s strategic plan. It’s important to provide regular check-ins within the system to ensure that the current activities are consistent with the chartered goals.

14. Stay in touch with what got you here. The previous 12 points are not worth much if it appears that the culture, history, and traditions of the past are tread upon. Build on the foundation that has been laid, keep what is cool, but do not use it as an excuse to avoid growing as an organization – that would be in insult to the architects that set the first stone.

So, the bottom line is that maybe being average is not so bad. Certainly, an organization does not have to have a soda shop and an old hitching post outside the local post office to embrace homegrown values. And, while it would be cool to make the list of the 100 Most Noteworthy Fire Departments, maybe the rest of us can embrace our inner Mayberry, cut ourselves a slice of apple pie, and add our name to the list of 100 Most Average Departments – now that would be AWESOME!


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