By Ray Gayk
Published Thursday, March 1, 2012
| From the March 2012 Issue of FireRescue
What does it mean to “take care of our people?” Over the years, I’ve found that it means different things to different people. Some believe it’s about providing people with what they need or want to make them successful, while others would say it’s about supporting people, no matter what.
Both of these statements may be true to a certain extent, but we all know that “taking care of our people” involves much more than that. People are our most important asset in the fire service, and we should treat them as such. But how can we do this as company and chief officers when, from time to time, taking care of our people seems to contradict doing the right thing?
Who’s at the Wheel?
Often, officers think they’re letting their team down if they disagree with them, say no to a request or idea, or actually hold someone accountable for doing something wrong. Serious guilt seems to kick in when we’re faced with a decision that feels like it contradicts the traditional definitions of taking care of our people.
To avoid that guilty feeling, or because they think it’s the right thing to do, some company officers have the convoluted idea that taking care of their people means letting their crew do whatever they want. As a result, they instill very little discipline, responsibility or accountability in their team. This leadership style, or lack thereof, allows the crew to treat the officer like their personal vehicle, steering the officer in whichever direction they want to go. Unfortunately, this is an accepted practice with some company officers because they’re afraid to let their crew down and/or not be perceived as the “cool” officer or “one of the guys.”
What Does It Really Mean?
Letting your crew run the show and do whatever they want is a far cry from taking care of your people. Actively ensuring the success and wellbeing of your team members takes a lot of hard work and requires officers to make difficult decisions at times. Specifically, it involves:
- Preparation/Training: Making sure your team is well trained, equipped and prepared to do their job.
- Priorities: Putting your team’s priorities above your own.
- Future Focus: Preparing your team for the future.
- Responsibility: Taking responsibility when the team fails, and giving credit to the team when they’re successful.
To me, this is the most important part of taking care of your people, because if it’s ignored or not done properly, it can cost someone their life. Unfortunately, training seems to fall behind many other so-called priorities of the day, such as cleaning a clean station, washing a clean truck or tending to some other task that we perform out of habit.
But no amount of training will be successful if it’s not done with the proper equipment. Company officers must make sure that their team not only has the right equipment, but also knows how to use it backward and forward, and how to maintain it so it works when they need it. I know that sounds like a simple concept, but being complacent with even the simplest concepts can sometimes bite us in the ass.
We must also be physically and mentally ready to do our job the right way. Company officers are extremely close with their team members and should therefore know when something isn’t right (e.g., a crewmember is physically or mentally not ready to do their job or incapable of doing their job or completing a task) and immediately address the problem. If anyone in a leadership position looks the other way because the problem at hand may be an uncomfortable thing to deal with, they probably shouldn’t be in that position.
When it comes to teams and team leadership, there are two kinds of needs: personal needs and personal-personal needs. Examples of both are as follows:
1. Personal needs (aka, the hierarchy of needs created by American psychologist Abraham Maslow)
- Physiological—health, food, sleep
- Safety—shelter, removal from danger
- Belonging—being part of a team
- Esteem—self-esteem, esteem from others
- Self-Actualization—achieving individual potential
2. Personal-personal needs (aka, perceived personal needs of crewmembers):
- Getting to the bike store to get some parts
- Checking out the “Hobby City”
- Making sure we stop by the tackle shop
- Dropping off the broken boat prop so it gets fixed
- Picking up some ammo for the next hunting trip
It is the mission of the team to meet the personal needs of the team. Therefore, the company officer’s needs and/or priorities should be based around meeting the mission of the team. Note: Every team should have a clear understanding of their mission, which is the same for every fire crew in the world: “Being prepared to effectively mitigate any emergency or non-emergency response.”
As you may have noticed, there’s a significant difference between personal needs and personal-personal needs, and as company officers, it’s imperative that we realize that difference. I’m not saying that you can’t take care of some personal-personal needs, but you must do so only when it’s appropriate.
A good general rule to follow would be to prioritize in this order:
- Mission of the team, which includes the personal needs of the team
- Team’s personal-personal needs
- Leader’s personal-personal needs
If the personal needs of the team are neglected, or the personal-personal needs of the team members are considered a higher priority than the personal needs (the mission), the company officer isn’t doing their job correctly and may instead be putting their crew at risk.
More Than Meets the Eye
There’s much more to “taking care of our people” than what we see on the surface during our daily job. It takes some thought, hard work and a willingness to do the right thing, even if it means disagreeing with or upsetting your team.
In my next column, I’ll tackle the remaining two elements involved in taking care of your people: preparing them for the future, and taking responsibility when the team fails and giving credit to the team when they’re successful.
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