How fire chiefs can push past mistakes to grow as an individual and advance their organization

Overcoming key personal battles will ultimately serve the entire department.

The battlefields of history are riddled with memories, all on the winds of wartime strategies. But imagine if military battles were won or lost based on one person’s view or solely on linear decisions.

While some within our ranks are proponents of doing away with the paramilitary connections that are part of our roots, I suggest that we strengthen those roots by following a similar battlefield approach to learning, where stories were told, actions captured, and general after general learned from those who came before them – learning from not only the successes but also the mistakes and failures.

Here we’ll review the foundation of decision-making. Whether a wartime battlefield or a civilian fireground, that foundation is rooted in a simple word: facts. And those facts help us in our personal battles to recognize and own our mistakes – and not repeat them.

FACTS: THE FOUNDATION OF DECISION-MAKING

Facts are rooted in vetted theory, science and street reality. For example, if we consider the science of flow paths, the facts are undeniable: Heat, and the products of combustion carried in that heat, will find the path of least resistance to travel until the temperature is lowered to that equal of the environment around it. That path is created by the difference between high pressure and low pressure, primarily influenced by combustibles, openings and wind. Whether or not you are a believer in the concept of flow path management, the above description of heat travel is a fact.

I’ve heard firefighters micro-analyze scenarios, trumpeting against flow path management and advocating for aggressive front door push, come hell or high water. News flash: Heat travels the same in my community as it does in yours. There are no “alternative facts” to explain that away, only variables that impact how it occurs.

So, is it possible you – or any of us – are wrong about fire service tactics or strategies? Of course! Here’s how you can use a series of internal and external “battles” to address these moments.

BATTLE 1: RECOGNIZING FACTS AND MISTAKES

If you’ve made a mistake or misjudgment and have the capacity to recognize it as such, then you’ve won the first ownership battle. Holding onto that hell-or-high-water approach, even after you recognize your mistake, will only dig a deeper hole from which it will take longer to emerge. 

Recognizing that we see and experience horrific things and that people in general may not be forthcoming, a lack of candor does not alter the facts as we find them; it just alters our beliefs based on the variable outcomes. Dig into the abyss of the issue, and I assure you the root facts will remain the same.

BATTLE 2: OWNING UP TO OUR MISTAKES

After “winning” the first battle of recognizing the mistake, the second (and likely more difficult) battle is owning up to the mistake.

Is there the potential for embarrassment in admitting your mistakes? Sure. But one mistake does not necessarily equate to failure, particularly as complex issues involve myriad variables. Giving up is the surest way to failure, yet there are times when failure simply is the end game. The good news is that all of your training and career development is to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities that will help you make sound decisions and avoid making mistakes when it matters most.

These concepts should have you recalling John Boyd’s OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). Many a strategist, whether military or not, has adapted the OODA loop as the emergent brother to the venerable “Planning P.”

It is critical to recognize that simple (or complex) miscalculations are indeed typically cited by regulatory agencies in the analysis of disaster responses. It is also imperative that we, as leaders of response agencies, we recognize and admit the errors while charting the correct path forward. With the right balance of training and experience, that will be a constant OODA loop experience.

BATTLE 3: NOT REPEATING THE MISTAKE

What’s next in the overall war is probably the most critical learning objective in your career development – not repeating the mistake. The OODA loop and the Planning P together are models for emergent success and long-term development success. If you’re not learning and improving from the analysis of events (including your own and others’ mistakes), then you’re setting yourself up to be the definition of insanity – repeating the same mistake while expecting different results.

Of course, it’s also important to accept that none of us are perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

FORWARD PROGRESS

As individualistic as we profess to be, human beings typically have an inherent desire to fit in, impress, succeed and to be remembered for something bigger than who we are on the outside. It is somewhat unfortunate that we tend to evaluate another human being’s reputation based on individual acts. To be clear, I am not defending the defenseless or barbaric; I am supporting the basic human act of forgiveness, the tenets of growth, and the traits of integrity and professionalism.

What are your objectives? Who or what is measuring your success? Do you regularly (or even irregularly) evaluate yourself and your organization’s performance – more often than the evaluations driven by a news story?

Setting objectives and benchmarks for success is like your internal rain gauge. The gauge fills up and gets emptied for the next fill of objectives. When objectives are not completed, the gauge overflows and begins to blur the measures of success in totality. You’ll never know how much rain has fallen if the gauge never gets emptied! Note: I am not talking about the 1980s Management by Objective (MBO) or 1990s Total Quality Management (TQM) concepts. I’m simply talking about common sense, the common good, and the reality of fire prevention and fire protection. As I’ve said before, it’s not rocket science!

History will not be measured on the merits of individual mistakes or individual objectives not met but rather on the patterns of performance that, over time, lead to overcoming adversity and showing organizational improvement.

Each learning opportunity reminds us that it won’t matter how many friends you have, how many toys you have, or have many contests you’ve won. A basic but critical concept to understand as you lead through adversity is that you won’t make everyone happy with every action. It has been my observation that some will never be happy. You want to develop and succeed? Stop making friendship your No. 1 objective.

Retired General Colin Powell, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sums up my rally cry here: “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off. Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions.”

It is important for us to recognize that while success may be in the eye of the beholder, individual and organizational growth and development will be key to your overall success. Career development doesn’t stop at a particular level, rank or pay status. Career development never stops. Ideally as individuals, but definitely as public safety officials, every one of us not only has the responsibility, but also the capacity of leadership to own and learn from our mistakes, build on our knowledge, improve our skills and abilities, and move forward without making the same mistake.

That is improvement, and that is a definition of success.

 

Chief Marc S. Bashoor has served 37 years in emergency services, and is currently the Highlands County, Florida, public safety director. Chief Bashoor also spent six years as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department and five years as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.

This article originally appeared in FireRescue1 on January 11, 2021.

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