Your Passion Is Not The Problem: Confronting the Den of the Complacent
I hate to admit it, but sometimes I'm jealous of complacent people in the fire service. As infuriating as it is to watch their inflated sense of confidence and indifference to those around them, maybe they are actually on to something. For example, do you have in your department the type of officer who enjoys all the status of their rank, but doesn't actually do any of the work that comes with it? Let's call this guy, Jack. Jack only applied to be an officer because he wanted to be his own boss, and then when he got promoted, he fought for a transfer to a slow assignment hoping he wouldn't have to run any calls.
Jack is a master of inventing how to get out of work. It's well-known that any rookie assigned to Jack out of the academy is moved within a year because they fall so far behind in their learning curve due to his legendary lack of engagement, training, and coaching. His crew is terrible when they show up on the fireground, and quite frankly, you hope they get lost on the way to the call because they only serve to get in the way. Jack is a joke. But his complacency seemingly allows for him to be happy at work and home, something I rarely seem to be able to do both of. Honestly, I'm a little jealous of that, if only for a brief moment. But consider this...
Jack doesn't get worked up around the kitchen table when he hears about a proposed change that makes everyone's job more difficult with no benefit to the mission. He doesn't go home frustrated because he disagrees with how his boss handled a situation or because he doesn't like the direction the organization is heading. But, how is it Jack is still in a leadership position when he's clearly lazy, toxic to newer employees, and quite frankly, a danger to those around him?
Jack clearly has a reputation as a slug, but apparently, it turns out your bosses believe there's a bigger problem in your organization than Jack—how to deal with your passion.
Is it Good to Have Passion?
Common feedback I've received over the years includes that my standard is too high, I'm trying too hard, or I care too much. I don't pay much mind to it when folks like Jack deliver that statement. But it does bother me when I hear this from the people in key leadership positions. If I had a dollar for every time I was told Your Passion is Your Problem, my children's college fund would be fully funded by now. So why is it that I feel that my passion is a problem when there is an obvious and more significant threat of complacency and disengagement in the fire service? More importantly, is it possible that my passion is why I'm struggling so much with fitting in with my organization?
People are usually considered passionate when they have strong, even intense feelings for something or someone. Passionate people don't see their work as work. They will often do more than is asked, take on additional tasks voluntarily, spend extra time supporting their co-workers, and in general, are relentless at doing whatever it takes to get the job done. These folks mentor new hires on skills even when they aren't asked to do so. They eagerly consume information because they see obstacles as puzzles to solve rather than challenges to avoid. They can get lost in their work, allotting minutes for a project that turns into hours without them even noticing—a highly researched and desirable state called flow.
Passionate people often become subject matter experts due to their intense curiosity and learning, although many will have enough humility to decline being called as such. In addition, they are highly motivated and enthusiastic about serving as advocates when making recommendations for purchasing or strategy decisions for the organization. Best-selling leadership author Simon Sinek is quoted as saying, "You don't hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills". The examples above all sound like highly desirable traits in an employee to me, but why is it then that the people who are really into this job, the ones with a great attitude and passion, are so often discredited and disparaged by their own leadership? Put more simply, why do passionate people keep finding themselves sent to timeout within their organization?
When your example highlights the trouble areas others have grown comfortable hiding in it's easy to ignite outrage in the den of the complacent. This happens because they have a vested interest in stopping a high standard from catching on and showing up at their door. Rather than choose to step up, it's easier for them to attack and undermine what you're doing. Unfortunately, leaders aren't immune from eating their own, often because someone's ego is threatened.
While you step up thinking your actions don't need explaining because it's beyond apparent that it's the right thing to do, others see their toes stepped on. Instead of being glad to have you on the team, they find your passion unwarranted, intimidating, or even disrespectful. I've worked for a few leaders who have had my back, providing encouragement or even resources to help me do more for others. But in my experience, I've worked for far more that have left me to fend for myself against the onslaught of critics, or worse, ended up piling on with them.
There's a Thin Line Between Having Passion and Having a Tantrum
Before answering that question, consider that one definition of passion is being ruled by emotions. I don't particularly like the suggestion that I can't control my emotions, but if I'm honest, I have lost my cool more than once on issues I felt strongly about. Much of my failure to maintain emotional composure and strategy is the motivation behind developing my Intoxicated Leadership class. Synonyms also paint passion as similar to having tantrums, mania, rage, or a temper. I think we can all picture the people in our organization that these apply to, but hopefully, that isn't the case for us...is it?
Your passion is not the problem, but is it necessarily the solution? Passionate people do the right thing when it's right, not when it's convenient or safe for them to do so. Our tendency to ask for forgiveness instead of permission is only exacerbated if we find ourselves working for bosses who we sense as inept, complacent, or just plain toxic. Our lack of confidence in their abilities results in an increased tendency to try to lead over them in situations that the organization asks or expects us to follow. Conflict ensues, which we are held accountable for, even if we helped prevent a disaster.
Passionate people may also fail to identify the current political currents driving a decision at the top of the food chain, which frustrates us even more. This frustration may lead us to lash out, which looks more like a tantrum for ourselves than advocating for the organization. Too often, passionate people with tremendous knowledge can find themselves isolated by others, unable to seemingly get a foot into the right door to share what they know. And if we find ourselves working for people threatened by us, our passion only serves in their mind to justify passing us over for a promotion, give us a transfer when we didn't ask for one, or label us as a problem child--basically the equivalent of sending us to timeout.
Fire pumps burn up when under pressure but are unable to move their water. The same is true for you. If you are passionate but can't seemingly find an outlet for it, you risk burning up from the inside. Having passion is a solution—a force multiplier that can help inspire others in our agencies to accomplish great things. But it can also be a problem—creating conflict that distracts from the mission, harming our careers and even our families.
How to Stop Your Passion From Derailing Your Career
As you learn more in your career, your appetite to effect change in your organization may increase, especially if the topic is something you have grown passionate about. For me, this is undoubtedly the topic of leadership. You can expect that your curiosity and passion will eventually find critics, resulting in resistance from others, especially if others find your knowledge threatening or intimidating. Many people don't understand the level of criticism that accompanies stepping up and sharing your thoughts or expertise. These critics lack the courage to do the same, so it's just easier for them to attack your credibility than build their own. When folks are willing to share their thoughts and knowledge outside their departments it creates an enriched dialogue that often is the catalyst for the substantial shifts in how the fire service should be doing things.
To prevent you from becoming the fire pump that burned up from having passion but no outlet to flow it from, I need you to know a few things:
Whether the topic is nozzles, engine ops, truck ops, water supply, or leading people, it's okay to love what you do— and in the way that you do. But don't go around creating needless conflict because you fail to realize that it's also okay for others not to love the fire service as much or in the same way as you.
Don't let your ego corrupt your passion. If you take pride in what you do, please know your ego lurks around the corner, ready to defend you if challenged. It's natural, but a daily dose of humility can keep it in check. The fire service's strength has always been that we confront challenges as a team. The real danger of ego isn't that you value your thoughts and ideas too much; it's that admiring yourself in this way results in you valuing the ideas and views of others too little. You weaken your team when you do this, and as such, you deserve and should expect a timeout from your organization or others.
You aren't perfect, but caring as much as you do doesn't mean you are the problem for wanting:
-To train, even if it's on the weekend.
-Co-workers who treat coming to the station like their full-time job instead of a part-time gig.
-To work with a leader that makes you feel like they care about you.
-To understand more about why a decision was made that affects the direction of the organization and your career.
-For getting upset when you're around people who don't take opportunities to get better, preferring to expend their efforts to find ways to get out of work.
Part of the challenge of being into this job as much as you are is not letting the indifference of others discourage you to the point that you give up. So please don't allow the recliner rhinos, those with their feet propped up content to watch others work, to infect you with their complacency and poor attitude. Someone desperately wants or needs your example, whether it is passion, coaching, leadership, mentoring, or even friendship. You may already work with them, but your frustration turns them away from you.
But this person could also be just a station away or down the road at a neighboring department. They could even be in the hiring process and just months away from meeting you. The true tragedy of caring so much is if we let our frustrations eat away at us from the inside to the point that no one wants to be around us, including our families back at home.
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.