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The Art of Accountability: Sometimes You Just Have to Cut Off the Head of a Concubine

One of the more difficult challenges a firehouse leader is faced with, is dealing with an employee that has seemingly replaced their passion, motivation, and commitment to serve, with an equal commitment to be a royal pain in the buttocks. You know who I’m referring to: it is the person that, as a recruit, once sat across an oral board panel with a suit, tie, and twinkle in their eye, promising to embrace “the mission.” They were the candidate that once practiced for hours to parrot the perfect definition of integrity, and had an answer for every “what if…” question the panel could possibly pose. They invested weeks in college fire academies, EMT or paramedic school, and attending seminars on how to defeat the exam.

These folks were dreamers, idealists, and optimists; but, somewhere along the way, they fell off the wagon and became disengaged. The spark that once inspired them has since faded, and has been replaced by something else. Oh, most will claim that they are still doing the job; and it may be true that – technically – they meet the minimum qualifications to drive the apparatus, pull hose, start a line, or do the dishes. But, by most definitions, they have long since given up on whatever it was that once drove them to be a positive role model.

These firefighters may not be fully aware of what people really think. Our “culture” has a tendency to feed the grouches enough scraps of information about lousy policies, contract issues, poor leadership, and overtime to fuel his or her disdain for the organization they once loved. From the comfort of their favorite station chair, they are the first to complain about being stagnant; they are the first to complain about change; and they are the first to complain about others’ lack of involvement; but, they are the last to volunteer to share the load, offer a productive suggestion, or provide a calming influence.

Let’s be clear, what is not being defined here is a firefighter that has tried and failed, or a person that disagrees with the organization’s current course; that is, as long as they have demonstrated the nerve to ask good questions and engage constructively to influence the outcome. Those people are awesome (Riegelman). By getting involved, even on bad days, those employees are staying true to their commitment by living the answers once offered to an oral board.

Fortunately, there are a lot of “experts” that are making some serious cash writing books, drafting strategies, and offering seminars on how to deal with the names and faces that have, by now, begun creeping into your mind. Some would argue that these literary efforts are nothing more than the flavor-of-the-day; others would counter that, while the outcomes may be packaged differently, the fundamental principles are the same: listen well, have a plan, fail brilliantly, recover, try again, and be nice.

Another principle often written about, but difficult to fully embrace, particularly in public safety, is that of holding people accountable. It can be a challenge because, while you can create a healthy work environment, leaders cannot exactly legislate an employee’s attitude; leaving only a small margin for sharing a list of expected outcomes.

Some cite the family atmosphere as a reason we struggle; others distill it into simpler terms, defined only by those words outlined within a job announcement. Neither can be assessed in a vacuum, but there is no doubt we have both functional and dysfunctional fire department families. And, few would question that those that are underperforming often suffer from failing to address those employees prominently featured within the first few paragraphs of this article.

The challenge, of course, is that some firefighters lack the training, abilities, and/or courage to hold those within their charge accountable for their actions. One ancient author would offer the following solution: Sometimes you just have to cut off the head of a concubine to get their attention.

Inscribed on bamboo strips around 25 centuries ago, The Art of War may very well be the oldest military strategy book ever written. It’s author, Sun Tzu composed 13 chapters, each of which has since had a profound influence on military thinking, business tactics, legal strategy, and leadership. The General’s principles proclaim that a leader’s success is dependent on their ability to be courageous, maintain discipline, act decisively and behave in an upright and just manner. But, it is a story attributed to Su-ma Ch’ien in 100 BC, which provides context to the challenge of accountability.

The story goes that the success of Sun Tzu’s chapters had at some point reached the attention of Ho Lu, King of Wu. As a challenge, King Wu asked if the General’s theories could be applied to women; at which point Sun Tzu said yes, and 180 females were summoned from the palace. Sun Tzu divided them into two battalions, and placed one of the King’s favorite concubines at the head of each.

In preparation for the exercise, Sun Tzu provided basic training on what he expected. Once complete, he set the stage in order to begin the drill. Then, to the sound of drums, he gave the order “right turn,” but the girls only burst out laughing. Sun Tzu said: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.” So he started drilling them again, and this time gave the order “left turn,” whereupon the girls once more burst into fits of laughter.

Once again Sun Tzu said “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” So after saying this, he ordered the leaders of the two battalions to be beheaded.

Now, that did not sit well with the King. So, he sent word from his luxury box that he was quite satisfied with the general’s abilities to handle the troops, and that losing the services of his concubines would make life a little duller around the palace. Still, Sun Tzu was not having it: “Having once received His Majesty’s commission to be the general of his forces, there are certain commands of His Majesty which, acting in that capacity, I am unable to accept.” At which time, the general severed the heads of the lovely ladies, and provided a field promotion to the next two in line.

Not surprisingly, once the drum began beating to signify the beginning of the next drill, each of the battalions went through all the evolutions with perfect accuracy and precision, without uttering a sound. Subsequently, Sun Tzu announced to the King that the troops were now properly drilled, disciplined, and ready for inspection. “They can be put to any use that their sovereign may desire; bid them to go through fire and water, and they will not disobey.” The King then appointed Sun Tzu as his general.

Some readers are rolling their eyes right now, but the moral of this story easily applied without the actual harming of any concubines. There is a new buzz phrase out there called Normalization of Deviance, and it has a companion practice called Group Think. Together they illustrate how easy it is for our firefighters to slowly creep from a point once thought as unacceptable to a new standard considered acceptable by all but those still looking in from the outside.

One reason for this shift in environment is a failure of our leaders to take full ownership in their responsibilities. Sun Tzu would have us believe that we owe our crews the benefit of clear direction, follow-up and retraining when necessary, and some form of appropriate accountability (something short of decapitation).

What is not said, but implied in this story, is that Sun Tzu may not have always been the most popular guy around the campfire. Leaders are often tasked with making tough decisions that may not always go over well with the troops. But, if communication is good, training is offered, and second chances are embraced as part of conducting good business, the odds are good that Sun Tzu was respected; a trait most officers would take over an even trade for being “liked.”


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Comment by Matt Beakas on June 4, 2018 at 12:54pm

Awesome post!

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