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  • Benjamin Martin

The Importance of Rooting for Underdogs

When you are into this job it's pretty obvious. My Facebook is flooded by videos and pictures by these kinds of folks, always practicing the craft and pursuing a better version of what they know. It's a fun place to work when everyone subscribes to and values training. But I have also read enough posts, combined with my own experience, to know that these folks aren't always welcome by others. When you care about knowing your job, others who don't and are complacent will start to try to deter you. When you are surrounded by negative folks or even critics, it's easy to become an underdog. And while an underdog is a predicted loser in a struggle, it means for an even sweeter victory. Better yet, it's infectious when underdogs win.

Unfortunately, the fire service can at times be its own worst critic and enemy. But, as you see across the country people are stepping up to know their job. The fire service needs and is always auditioning for leaders who are willing to invest and fight for its underdogs. This week’s article highlights the first paradoxical commandment of leadership (Dr. Kent Keith) featuring a discussion about underdogs. Feedback is strongly encouraged and welcome. Please share and enjoy.

Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership:

Rule # 1: “People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs: Fight for a few underdogs anyway”

-Dr. Kent Keith

During the 2000 summer olympic games held in Sydney, Australia, a relatively unknown farm boy by the name of Rulon Gardner would go on to secure one of the largest upsets in olympic wrestling history. His opponent, Aleksandr Karelin (that one gave my spell check a fit), hadn’t lost in over 13 years of international competition. He had three gold medals, and seven consecutive world titles. What’s more, Aleksandr had held his opponents completely scoreless for the last six years leading up to the gold medal match. While an All-American in college, Rulon had never won a championship in his entire NCAA career. The odds-makers clearly favored the top dog Aleksandr, but then the impossible happened. At 3:35 of the second period Gardner would score a single point. After nine minutes of wrestling it remained the single point scored. Gardner threw up his hands in celebration and was quickly embraced by his team of coaches. That day Gardner became a top dog, making room for the next underdog.

Takeaway #1: The fire service needs and is always auditioning coaches who are willing to invest and fight for its underdogs.

Our department lacked a formal acting officer program when it came upon that time in my career. With only a few weeks into my training, my officer threw me up in front of the first arriving engine for a live fire exercise. I don’t know where he got his confidence in me from. But he had enough for both of us, and I was willing to try. He always excelled as a coach for our group, and was willing to fight for opportunities for our people. Looking back I feel guilty that I never fully appreciated what he offered us, until I got a gold badge and leadership perspective of my own. I’ll never forget the smile and excitement of his face like a proud father when the exercise had concluded.

I’ll also never forget when “the Lieutenant”—the one that everyone wanted to work for—slapped me on the back and said “really nice job today”. After that career high would quickly come the bumps and bruises, the mistakes and learning opportunities, and they still do. Mistakes are a necessary fuel for those seeking to do and be more for others. They provide the foundation of creative thinking and problem solving that the top dogs are known for. The problem remains some aspiring and existing leaders can’t stomach the taste of their mistakes, so they avoid them to their detriment.

Takeaway #2: Like children eating vegetables, underdogs can’t grow up healthy into top dogs unless they are willing to eat their share of mistakes.

It’s no secret that fire service culture involves a lot of second guessing others, better known as quarterbacking. As I’ve traveled and talked with firefighters from across the United States, I feel fairly confident that I can say it’s not something limited to just my neck of the woods. Add in a little technology, and anyone can now simply go online and post whatever ridiculous criticism they see fit to at the time. Leaders are often the target of such criticism. Top dogs seemingly are able to generate a reputation based on their success that shields them from criticism, but in reality they aren’t immune to it. They have doubts, and are sensitive to when people are upset with their decisions. In actuality, it can keep them up at night and lead to more serious problems such as depression, marital issues, or even substance abuse. Compacting this problem is when others, fearing the top dog’s disapproval, are reluctant to approach them with opportunities for improvement. Underdogs must lavish feedback, and through humility create an environment where people feel safe to provide it to them.

Takeaway #3: Feedback is a road map in which we can use to find a better version of what we are doing, and how we can better help others.

Call to Action:

1. Create an opportunity within the next 30 days to put an underdog in the game—plan and lead an in-service, encourage them to have a difficult conversation they have been putting off, enter a promotional process, or perhaps table-top a fire. If you are not the officer, pair up with your leadership to see how you can help.

2. Be respectful and honest with leadership. If you constantly complain about everything it dilutes the impact of when you actually have a point worth considering. Pick your battles, and don't create a firehouse table that no top dog wants to sit at, and only serves poison to underdogs.

Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of which features leadership training and support for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at

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