Chargers, Coasters, Complainers, and Corner Mutts

Frank Viscuso at FDIC

By Frank Viscuso

Firefighters begin their careers in the academy where they receive both academic and hands-on training. The first thing recruit candidates receive is a book containing more than 1,400 pages of basic skills that every firefighter should know. Recruits are expected to learn about fire behavior, personal protective equipment, general skills, extinguishment and rescue techniques, and the best safety practices. After they receive this foundational knowledge, the hands-on, live fire training begins. This training can be grueling. The curriculum covers everything from fireground strategy and tactics to hazardous materials awareness.

When I served as my department’s training officer, I liked to visit the academy on days when they conducted live fire training evolutions to see how our new recruits were doing. It was a great opportunity to watch them in action but also to get a report from those who had been spending “quality” time with them. During my visits, I would always find time to sit with the lead instructor (LI) for a general assessment of each of our recruits. I vividly remember sitting with the LI one day at lunch as we looked across the room at our eight new recruits and he quickly assessed them.

“The four on the left are hard chargers, those three are coasters, but that one is a complainer.”

No other descriptions were necessary. I knew exactly where he was coming from. In the fire service, much like in law enforcement or the military, being called a hard charger is a tremendous compliment.

Chargers are the people who get things done. If it is true that 10% of the people within any organization do 90% of the work, those 10 percenters are your chargers. They are the backbone of your team. They are the ones you can rely on to do the difficult jobs because they like to work, and they take pride in a job well done. They bring fresh ideas to the table and get excited when you put them on the field during a championship game. 

Coasters are as advertised. They do their job but not much more. There is a job description attached to their paycheck and they fulfill the minimum standard requirements necessary to receive their compensation. They rarely cause problems, but they rarely solve them. They are not your superstars, but the good news is that coasters are easy to influence. The bad news is, if the chargers do not get to them first, the complainers certainly will.

Complainers are a serious problem. They are the people who, even when given ideal working conditions, tend to dwell on the negative. They always seem to find a way to sabotage a good relationship or a thriving team environment. They tend to suck the life out of a room, and they love to make other people miserable. Complainers are toxic, and if you have more of them than you do the other two, your team is on life support. The only thing that can bring you back is a deliberate cultural shift.

Recently, Paul Combs and I released a children’s book titled Sprinkles the Fire Dog (Fire Engineering, 2021). In the book, we use a new term that can be used to describe a fourth type of person, the corner mutts. 

Corner mutts are like complainers, but they also lack competency in skill. The biggest challenge with corner mutts is they love to cut others down and diminish their worth, but they do so without ever leaving the confines of their own corners. They are the equivalent of human lawnmowers. They cut everything down but never leave their own yard. In the fire service, that yard may be their recliner.  

While reading the descriptions above, it is inevitable that you mentally placed certain members of your team into each of those three categories. My question to you is, which category do you fall into? Wait, stop…. I want you to really think about this for a moment. I am sure I know where you would place yourself, but where do you think others would place you? We all judge those around us by their actions, but for some reason we expect others to judge us by our intentions. Forget about intentions for a moment and focus solely on your actions. Do they align with those of a hard charger?

Do you lead by example? Are you the person who never walks past a problem you can solve? Do others look to you for guidance when they are confronted with work-related challenges? Are you so enthusiastic about the job that it rubs off on others around you? Do you encourage your team members to step up and lead? Is your team better because you are on it? Will you leave your organization better than you found it? If you can answer yes to those questions, then others may very well consider you to be a hard charger.

If you currently serve as an officer or in an influential position within your organization, it would benefit you to embrace those team members who exhibit the characteristics of hard chargers. If you cultivate the right relationship with them, they will become the driving force of change. With the right direction, they can also help you influence some of the individuals who fall into thecoasters category and create a strong team-oriented culture.

ALSO

I have been around many talented individuals who clearly had the ability to be hard chargers, but poor leadership and mismanagement frustrated them to the point where they began slipping into the coaster category. This often happens when people in influential positions choose to surround themselves with “yes men.” Because this is all too common, we should take a moment to discuss the difference between frustrated culture creators and the yes men.

Frustrated Culture Creators vs. Yes Men

You would be better off working with one frustrated culture creator in your inner circle than 10 yes men. Yes men tell you what you want to hear. They will make you feel smarter than you actually are because they are either afraid of your response to opposing points of view or they are too insecure in their own abilities to speak up or take a chance.

Frustrated workers are often misunderstood. More times than not, they are the people who care the most. They are change agents who have been beaten down to a point where they say things like, “I just don’t care anymore.” As a change agent myself, it is my job and responsibility to speak up and remind these team members that they must continue to care, even when they are frustrated. They are the most valuable assets you can have on your team because they put their heart into everything they do. You can give people the tools, training, environment, and support they need to succeed, but you cannot give them the heart. So why would you want to hold back the ones who care the most?

It is your job to be the support system they need. You can do this by simply pointing them in the right direction, helping them come up with a game plan, and getting out of their way so they can do what they are here to do–exceed expectations. Or, you can tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it and micromanage their every move until they become so fed up that they leave your team to go excel somewhere else.

The problem with having just one yes man on your team is simple: If both of you agree on everything, one of you is not necessary. Do not make the mistake of surrounding yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear. You will run the risk of turning your most valuable assets–the hard charging culture creators–into coasters, complainers, and possibly even corner mutts.

Hard chargers are often the most passionate people you will have on your team. You may not agree on everything, but that is expected. Embrace them for what they are and keep the lines of communication open. Most importantly, do not ever forget that you are on the same team with the same mission: to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the weak. Coasters, complainers, and yes men do not do those things very well because they tend to put their own needs ahead of the needs of those we have sworn to serve. 

Deputy Chief (Ret.) Frank Viscuso served for 26 years with the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is the author of eight books on leadership and team development, including Step Up and Lead and his newly released children’s book Sprinkles the Fire Dog (illustrated by Paul Combs), available at fireengineeringbooks.com.

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