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So, what exactly does a firefighter look like? How should they act? What skills should they be able to master? How big and strong should they be? Are firefighters supposed to be more mechanically inclined or fluid with their words? Should they be creative or analytical? Is it essential that they be self-aware or is it more important that they are interpersonal? Are they nimble minded and quick to reply, or do they process information more slowly before providing a response?

Slid in a lower cabinet in my office I have a rather nondescript looking white notebook labeled with a single word hastily written with a black Sharpie: “psychologicals.” In it are several assessments taken over the course of nearly 20 years. Some took hours to complete and have been validated through decades of studies. Others took only a few moments and seem more whimsical, using colors, shapes and objects to come to their eventual conclusions. All provide labels to aid in their descriptions and authenticate the conclusions. And nearly all have pencil scribbles in the margins indicating an attempt to understand, and in some cases, refute the findings. Some generated a smile and a nod; others offered little more than a grimace.

Shame is a Soul Killer

While taking a basic psychology class in college, I learned of a professor named Howard Garner. He developed a theory of multiple intelligences, which basically suggests that the traditional notion of determining how smart a person is by using an IQ test falls short of fully explaining the broader range of potential within each of us. The eight include: 

  • Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
  • Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
  • Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
  • Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
  • Intrapersonal intelligence (“self-smart”)
  • Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)

Don’t stop reading yet! I’m not asking you to agree or disagree with the good doctor or his theories; some actually argue that there are more “intelligences,” while others have claimed that his conclusions lack any empirical evidence. Regardless, a quick scan of the list should get us all thinking.

Consider for a moment that that the norms or labels that we place on ourselves, particularly in professions like the fire service, are often far too restrictive. Firefighters are a wonderful mix of artisans, orators, engineers, thinkers, innovators, and analysts. We sing, we color, we process, and we marvel over our graphs and spreadsheets. And yet, we tend to struggle to understand and ultimately embrace that which makes us complete. Our labels are not always delivered with the intent to provide understanding; instead they can isolate and cause insult to the point of sucking the beauty out of what is unique about each individual.

As a society, we Americans tend to emphasize what we lack in skills and ability, rather than what comes naturally. Aside from the emotional and physical pain that can cause, it also screws with the natural order of things. Consider that to get a quality product to market, a successful company needs designers/innovators, marketers, artists, builders, and accountants. Anything short of that and a business cannot sustain itself.

Sports teams focus on complementary parts in order to be successful; and in today’s environment, profits and legacies are made or lost based on an ability to adapt and maximize the differences. Even our favorite kids’ shows emphasize the value of different shapes, sizes, and even colors of each character.

Then, why hasn’t the fire service fully adopted a similar plan; one that embraces differences as an opportunity to excel? Perhaps it’s because, until recently, departments had rarely been faced with the kind of competition that could lead to decreased funding, a lack of public support, or some form of outsourcing.

Honor Their Legacy by Building on Their Dreams

Since our first day in the academy, we are taught that our fire service traditions and culture are values to be embraced. Over time, we tell wonderful stories about the men that built our halls. We are reminded about the struggles they faced to convert wartime vehicles into fire apparatus and hold annual hometown barbeques to fund uniforms and equipment. Their legacies are secured through old black and white photos and our imaginations.

But time has a tendency to homogenize our perspectives. The qualities that made each of these hometown heroes unique are lost to anyone but the most dedicated researchers. What we do know is that things have changed; otherwise, firefighters would still be wearing day boots, riding tailboards, and using Jet Axes to ventilate a roof.

What we can also logically deduce, is that each of our predecessors were very different. They likely scrapped over the same basic things we do; but if all were to take a personality assessment, they most certainly would be mapped all over the matrix. So, the question begs to be asked: do we honor their legacy by holding fast, or by building on the foundation they laid? If so, the quest starts with the gifts of each employee.

Let Go of the Shiny Object

They say that to catch a raccoon all you have to do is put a shiny object in a h*** in a log. Make the h*** big enough that the coon can get his open hand in and out easily but small enough that if he makes a fist he will be stuck. The story goes that, even though the critter could at any moment choose to let go of the bit of bling and be free, the animal continues clinging to the coveted object. If you can believe the Internet, one tale tells of a raccoon that went as far as gnawing off its arm, rather than let go. My sense is that it is time for some of us to loosen our grip on the shiny objects, and adopt the kind of fresh perspectives that relish the connection each firefighter can have if they can learn to appreciate what makes each other unique.

One assessment stands out among the others in my white notebook. It uses labels like the others; in fact, there are 34 of them. But, while I have learned to appreciate the other personality and leadership tools, this one offers a perspective that taught me to invest in what comes naturally, so that I may maximize my potential, rather than simply shore up those areas that do not come so easily.

The Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment helps identify the areas where a person and/or team have the greatest potential for building strength. It measures recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. The assessment is rooted in and based around neuroscience – “a scientific discipline studying the structure, development, function, and genetics of the brain.”

Truthfully, I do not care much about how it works, just that it does. The book is small; it comes with an online code; and it takes about 30 minutes. What you get are the top five areas outlining your natural abilities. What’s cool is that within a team-building environment, each participant walks in the room feeling good about his or herself, and walks out feeling better about how the group can make a difference, regardless of the challenges that lay ahead.

Notwithstanding the clear value of safety and operational efficiency, perhaps the box from which our firefighters are defined in the future will be expanded a bit to include a more diverse blend of those qualities that transform a team into a dynasty.

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