Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Jeff Buchanan
Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
Just like the fireground, your education is constantly changing. Don't wait until you are on the scene to admit you don't know something. ( Filippelli photo)

From the time my daughter entered school she had been coming to me when she had troubles with Math. Beginning in first grade I was impressed with what she was learning, but more impressively, was what I had forgotten how to do. I trudged along and struggled mightily. On one hand I looked forward to the challenge that lied ahead as I came home from work (my daughter’s Math homework), but on the other hand I dreaded the very same thing. Basic concepts of arithmetic were intimidating. Of course I could do a long division problem and explain it to a grade schooler, right?  I did not want to come to realization with the fact I might not only not be able to help, but I might actually contaminate and worsen her understanding (or lack of) with my pathetic recollection and poor mechanics of computation. Please Lord, let not all of my academics be wasted (including the completion of Math classes through Calculus III), and allow me the ability (and simple responsibility) of helping my daughter with her (what should be basic) Math homework through the end of the Fifth Grade.

In the early days of Fifth Grade my daughter came to me with her usual questions about the day’s assignment. What for a while had become a continuing saga of slow struggling progress (in previous school years) to get to an answer was now to a point where I could no longer even “fake it”. I had no idea where to begin. My daughter, son, and wife thought it was hilarious (because it was); however, I was devastated. Really? I can’t figure this (beginning) grade school math problem out? That answer was no. My lack of self-awareness had finally caught up with me.

Traditionally, intellectual capacity has been perceived as the primary indicator to one’s professional success. While there is little argument success has a relationship to intellect, research has been established that there are (arguably) more significant markers that determine professional achievement.  Emotional intelligence is now considered to be a crucial element in both individual and professional success. Emotional intelligence can be “simply” defined as the emotion management of self and others (Cross, 2003). It can be further broken down into five domains consisting of self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy, and relationship management (Goleman, 1995).

Incorrectly, emotional intelligence has been perceived as a description or an inclination for one who is overly sensitive; however, (and in actuality) this is exactly the opposite of the meaning. Those with high emotional intelligence (EQ) are adept at fully understanding their limitations, the moment they are in, restraining (what most might say are) natural tendencies of emotional outburst, and demonstrating appropriateness of emotions; neither too much, nor too little. Emotional intelligence is not a manifestation of over emotion, at its apex, it is the ability to recognize explosive situations and apply the right emotion, in the right amount, at the right time.

Self-awareness is (perhaps) the first step and the underpinning to the development and success of individuals in leadership roles.  It is a crucial facet of the five domains (that describe EQ) and is a hallmark of one with Emotional Intelligence. Knowing one’s emotional “hot” button and his/her limitations is imperative, and without this awareness, individuals can find themselves in volatile and even routine situations that can decimate their credibility and effectiveness. Some have said, “I do not know, what I do not know”. This a great start, but the simplification might be each of us (in the grand scheme) know very little, and it is those that fail to recognize this truth that have the most difficulties once given the opportunity to lead.

Building this trait requires relentless self-reflection and an attitude to perpetually learn. Continually looking at each situation we find ourselves in, trying to be in tuned to what we “don’t know” and potentially that “we don’t know, what we don’t know”, and ultimately remembering humility can be an approach worth remembering. It was once said, “Humility is the best defense against humiliation”, and this tenet also applies to those who find themselves in leadership roles.

Company officers are the first line of supervisors on the fire ground. For some, it is the culmination of career long preparation to reach that position. For others, the position is the result of being able to “knock one out of the park” on game day, and in this case, game day is the date of examination. Either way, what is not included on either track to becoming a company officer, is a tell all, know all, book providing omniscience to the world of fire. Some from both tracks miss this memo and unfortunately believe (and act out) a scenario where since they have now been “knighted” as a company officer, they believe they have also been bestowed with the ability to know all things about all incidents relating to fire.

While (at times) fire departments tend to focus on company officers (as being the only leaders), leadership roles come in many shapes and sizes. Emergency Medical Supervisors, Training officers, (myriad others) and yes (maybe the biggest culprits), chief officers fall prey to the same folly of thinking they know everything once they are promoted. This critical error is an opportunity missed. Certainly in leadership roles there is an expectation of bringing a level of expertise to one’s position. We all would like to believe we are competent, and competency comes with knowing one’s job and being able answer questions. I like to say if you have many of the answers to many of the questions, you are full of knowledge, but if you have all the answers to all of the questions you are full of “other things”. Being able to tell a peer, a colleague, subordinate, or a citizen “I don’t’ know” is not a fault, weakness, or admission of guilt. While these words need to be followed up with, “I will find the answer and get back to you”, it is an opportunity to express honesty and sincerity and to show vulnerability. All three of these are key stones in building a strong relationship with one’s subordinates (and others), establishing self –awareness, gaining credibility, and demonstrating leadership. It has been seen many times in the fire service where this opportunity is lost, the person in the leadership role “fakes it” and then ultimately gets caught “lying”. Not only can this be a potential safety issue (depending on the situation that “faking it” took place), but can cause a complete destruction of trust and a created reputation of one “who does not know what they are talking about”. Keen self-awareness (in addition to self-confidence) must be present to accomplish this task. Sometimes we gain the most credibility by not telling people what we know, but from admitting to others that we don’t.

It has only been a couple of years since I faced the demons within myself and (finally) admitted to my inability to assist my grade school daughter with her Math homework. This recognition (I would point to) has a direct correlation to my daughter now being an “A” student in Math. While my daughter still seems (I emphasize seems) to believe I have something to bring to the table from the area of intelligence, I can’t help but to think (actually know) some of her math struggles were made worse by my own lack of self-awareness. Recognition and application of Emotional Intelligence could have assisted greatly with this situation. How could I have not admitted my inability sooner? My ego? Something else? Maybe I should have just looked back at my past and come to grips with it…oh yeah, now I remember, I failed calculus in college twice.


Cross, B., Travaglione, A (2003). The Untold Story: Is the Entrepreneur of the 21st Century Defined by Emotional Intelligence? International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 11(3), 221-228.

Goleman, Daniel,(1995). Emotional Intelligence.


Jeff Buchanan has been a Deputy Fire Chief for the Clark County Fire Department (CCFD) since 2014. Previously, Jeff was with the City of North Las Vegas for 13 years where he last served as both the fire chief and interim city manager. He is an EFO (executive fire officer) and teaches at the College of Southern Nevada, Neumann University, University of Nevada Las Vegas, and the National Fire Academy. Jeff holds a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Public Administration. He is the first Vice President of the Nevada Fire Chiefs Association (NFCA) and a member of the governor appointed Fire Services Board for the State of Nevada.  



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