So let's talk about...knowing your job.
I opened the rear compartment of the truck and grabbed a 24 foot ground ladder. I quickly threw it up into a high shoulder position, and carried it over to the building. Without hesitation I spiked the butt of the ladder into the concrete ground, and up it went--smooth and fast. My boss happened to be watching the drill, and after throwing the ladder I glanced over at him expecting to see him nodding in approval. But instead of confirmation instead, he relayed "your ladder is upside down".
Crap, it sure was.
I know my job. I know the details of that ladder. I know it has a working rating of 750 lbs at 75 degrees, 75 lbs carrying weight, and a bed section of 14' in length. I can ramble off a list of other facts about this and our other ladders because knowing the details of your equipment is a well-documented side effect of having pride in this job. I hadn't forgotten any of this on that day. I've thrown that ladder hundreds of times and could list a dozen different ways to throw it. But none of that mattered. When the opportunity came, I didn't get it right. So let me ask you--Do you know your job?
Sounds like a simple question, but what I'm really asking is how long has it been since your last rep where you proved to your team and yourself you could be counted on to get it right? Has it been a few days, weeks, or months since you last pulled that handline? When's the last time you performed SCBA familiarization or conducted a Mayday drill? The fire service is fortunate that some of its most passionate members have embraced technology. On mediums like Facebook, we can see people from all over the world offering tips and tricks, having discussions about leadership and the fire service, and letting us know about all the great training conferences happening.
These folks are choosing to help move the fire service forward. Look at any fireground, and you'll find these same folks getting stuff done, while everyone else waits to be told what to do. It's not uncommon to find these folks "ate" up with this job, sometimes training for hours a day. The fire service wears many hats, and with an "all-hazards" approach combined with a do-more-with-less budget, it's easy to get distracted from our original mission. There's no shortage of information available to help us know our jobs really well. But why is it then that so many people settle for good enough?
When we start to feel busy, it's tempting to look around and set our pace based on the efforts of our peers. Avoid the temptation to justify not training because you think no one else is. Knowing this job requires a commitment to following your values, passion, and heart regardless of what others are or aren't doing. The more time that enters between you and your last repetition, the less you know your job. The fire service will fail its mission if leaders allow the mindset of We don't need to pull hose because we did that in recruit school to exist. Knowing your job involves having a tremendous command of the fundamentals, that without question won't happen without a commitment to constant training, refining, and discussion of skills. Great companies hold each other accountable for what they are expected to know, and as a result, you'll constantly find them training. It's a benchmark we should all be striving to hit.
Does your team know themselves?
In the relentless pursuit of knowing our job, it's paramount that we provide our people opportunities to know themselves. Knowing yourself is often an exercise in being uncomfortable. Sometimes this is a push towards testing for a leadership position, other times sitting on a committee. Most of all it's creating an emphasis on training to help find our strengths and weaknesses. This is exactly what had happened that afternoon to me throwing that ladder. It's also important that leaders model knowing and caring about embracing their strengths and improving their weaknesses.
The difference between being a leader and a manager lies in the ability to inspire your people to care about what they do. Throwing my ladder upside down only becomes a failure if I put it back on the rig without first doing it again right. There is no better time to lead from the front when it comes to training. I cannot expect my team to want to improve if I don't demonstrate humility and a willingness to learn myself. We already have enough leaders in the fire service that lead from the back for fear of having their credibility questioned. The fire service also has entirely too many "nice guys" as leaders, who don't push their people towards knowing themselves and their jobs for fear of becoming unpopular.
What does "knowing your job" look like?
Believe it or not, it knowing your job often involves failing more than it does succeeding. Not in the colossal screw-up way where people get hurt or die, but more so in the constant course corrections that come with dusting off the cobwebs from everything we are asked to remember coupled with the relentless amounts of change we face. Experience is a combination of not only knowing what to do but also knowing exactly what you never want to do again. Too often companies do the wrong thing and get lucky. Good luck reinforces bad habits. Knowing your job involves drilling enough repetitions to sort out not only what works, but to firmly establish what most definitely does not. It involves finding better ways, while also reinforcing the basics. It involves the humble pursuit of leaving it better than we found it, which most of all involves mentoring those coming along after us.
In the pursuit of knowing our job mistakes happen, and that's a good thing--especially when it happens in training. Someone thinks outside the box, we try something we learned at a conference, or we are curious if something new will work. Mistakes are a natural by-product of the practice and work that becoming better requires. Don't make the mistake of not knowing your job because you are afraid to make an error and risk looking foolish. There is far more credibility lost lost when leaders refuse to get their hands dirty working and training alongside their groups. A cautionary tale on mistakes: When it comes to making mistakes, there are red flags to keep an eye out for. If the same ones, especially if by the same folks, keep getting made then a learning issue is occurring and needs to be addressed.
The Danger of "That's Good Enough"
When knowledge sits on the shelf and isn't applied or shared, complacency begins to take root. Rather than striving for excellence, our mindsets shift to "good enough". We start hoping that previous experience is enough to get us through. We start hoping we remember how to use a tool, or perform a high-risk skill. If enough time passes, we can even lose confidence in how to perform fundamentals. We've all seen the "senior" firefighter who has to ask how the hose gets packed back on their rig because they don't know.
Unfortunately with competing training agendas, EMS calls, and the ever-increasing pile of administrative initiatives we are tempted to surrender knowing, and accept hoping. We lose sight of the mission and start rearranging our priorities and what we will and won't do for THEM. When the time comes that you need that low frequency and high-risk skill you are left hoping you can still do it, as opposed to knowing you can. It's a wager complacent people make and unfortunately, few get called on.
I struggled early on as a leader, and at times I still do, because it's hard for me to wrap my head around people's resistance to training. You would think in a job as dangerous as ours, people would come to work expecting to train. But sadly that's not the case. The reality is many are into this job for the celebrity status, the fireman t-shirts, or even the benefits and pension. And the numbers don't lie--across America, regardless of the profession when polled only 1/3 of the workforce is actively engaged, while 1/3 is neutral and will go most ways leadership influences them. The last 1/3 is the most dangerous group. These folks are considered actively disengaged, which means they are the ones actually generating the resistance to the first 1/3 trying to move the fire service forward.
As our name suggests, it's important to embrace the resistance. I call these unengaged or complacent folks the "friction loss" group. Leaders can plan on and account for their drag and lack of productivity. Leaders can also still achieve team objectives successfully in spite of them, especially if they can create a culture that values "knowing their job". As a result, you'll probably develop a reputation as someone who trains too much or cares too much about this job. Perfect. This kind of reputation is slug repellant. You don't have to worry about transfer requests coming across your desk from people who inevitably would make your team worse.
What the slugs don't seem to realize is when they complain about "how into the job you are", what it really screams is how much they aren't. While they think they are tearing down who you are, they are actually the best form of advertising and building your leadership brand faster than you ever could. Don't be threatened by these folks. They are the same ones who will stand around on the fire ground because they are hoping someone will tell or show them what to do.
At the end of the day, remember that leadership has an obligation to the fire service, their teams, and themselves to provide their folks experience by getting them as many reps as possible. Don't betray the public, this job, or our mission by accepting "Good enough". Now go prove to your community that you KNOW YOUR JOB!
About the Author:
Benjamin Martin provides leadership training workshops and keynotes internationally and throughout the United States. He blends over 18 years of public safety experience with his ongoing Ph.D. study of human behavior and motivation to provide an entertaining and unfiltered view on a variety of leadership topics such as communication, command and control strategies, conflict management, and emotional intelligence. He is the founder of the popular website and leadership movement EmbraceTheResistance.com, which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders.
In addition to his leadership blogs, he is a contributing author to several leadership books and has published articles in Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.