President`s Letter: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

One of the benefits of being the IAFC president is having fire service friends throughout the country and around the world. Through the miracle of Google Alerts, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, I have the opportunity to observe fire service leaders from afar.

One of the most difficult things for me to do is to watch bad things happen to good people—and it seems to be an epidemic these days.

While I'm aware of and have personally known some bad people in our profession, the vast majority of fire service leaders I know are good people. They get up in the morning and go out the door to work with every intention of doing the very best that they can to carry out their duties and responsibilities that day.

The challenge occurs in that we're all human—flawed and imperfect. Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions and efforts, things don't go well.

For me, it isn't an issue that mistakes are made—they're inevitable. For me the important issue is what we do about them when they happen and what we learn to avoid a repeat in the future.

Unfortunately, the all-too-common result of things going badly is that the good person who had a bad day or made a bad decision is personally attacked and publicly humiliated and often has their career ended in a very ugly way.

It seems like more often than not lately I find myself sadly reading about a good fire service leader whose personal and professional life has been ruined. I'm not sad because of their mistake—as I said above, those things happen.

Instead, I'm sad that we—the public-safety community—feel that it's somehow OK to treat people this way. My observation is that a couple of factors lead to this situation.

First, I believe we set our standards far too high for personal performance. While I understand we're in a business where there's little tolerance for risk, I think it's completely unrealistic to expect perfect performance every time from human beings. No matter how good we are or how much we try, mistakes will happen in action, thought or decision-making.

Yes, we should be held accountable, but should the first reaction be to take off the person's head? To publicly and professionally embarrass them? To ruin a 20-, 30- or 40-year career? I think not.

Second, we tend to treat fire service leaders as disposable. Many chiefs work in an at-will employment relationship where they can be discharged at any time and without cause or explanation. Much like society's attitude about marriage these days—where it's simpler to get a divorce than work through challenges—I think many fire departments use the termination option (or resignation/retirement in lieu of termination) too soon and too easily rather than working through the performance issue and helping leaders to grow and learn from the experience.

At a time when it's becoming harder and harder to find good candidates for leadership positions, when fewer and fewer folks are willing to step up, I believe we need to take a different approach. Some of the most powerful lessons are learned through mistakes; some of the most effective leaders have gotten to where they are by experiencing and working through difficult times.

If we truly want to address the leadership crisis facing the fire service and encourage future leaders to step forward, we need to become more realistic about our expectations and be more tolerant of the errors that even good people will make.

Let's commit to not letting bad things happen to good people, especially when the bad things are done by us—their professional brothers and sisters. Let's learn from our own mistakes and help others through theirs.

Good leaders should not be disposable or discarded too quickly. There aren't enough to go around as it is.

Chief William R. Metcalf, EFO, CFO
President and Chairman of the Board

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