By Jerry Streich
Recently, I was driving down the road and stuck my hand out the window. Initially, I was surprised at how much strength I needed to resist the force of the wind. When I turned my hand to the side and decreased the surface area, I could better control the resistance. I could quickly move my hand up and down in a wave of motion with minimal effort by simply decreasing my hand’s surface area.
In the world of physics, force is the strength or energy needed to create movement. Drag opposes motion as it moves through the air or water. I was driving 60 miles per hour and placed an object (my hand) into the opposite force known as drag. Whether you are riding a bike, driving a car, or trying to win a race, the two forces work against one another.
Experts worldwide work to reduce drag so their machines or people can go faster or at less cost. If you decrease the drag, you get more force or motion.
As I was thinking this through, my mind hung onto the terms force and drag. Because I work so closely on the topic of “Dealing with Difficult People,” my mind wandered to those who were the drag in the organizations I have led. I define a difficult person as “one who repeatedly disrupts the mood of the organization.” These are the people who regularly oppose the positive forces within the fire station.
It’s the keyboard commander who forms group chats and discusses a planned attack before the meeting or the know-it-all who thinks he has all the answers. The negative effect of such people is that they make good people leave organizations they love. They create contention, break up relationships, and ruin the forward motion of people who create the force of our operations.
My question to you is, why? Why do you allow this to happen? When you are on the floor or leading a team, your choices can add to the drag. If you laugh at a racial joke, you support it. If you listen to the negative bantering and participate, you become an ally to it. If you know there was a policy violation but chose to walk away from it, you own it. You have a choice! Are you the force or the drag?
The fire service comprises many traditions and is said to have a “family feel” to it. Although I experienced that feeling as a new firefighter, I have often wondered what family I adopted into as a company officer. My idea of a family is primarily supportive and nonjudgmental. I would have never imagined my first year as a fire chief (hired from the outside) would including harassment, threats, murder, and suicide, but it did. The culture of this organization was allowed to flourish with those who only provided an opposing force to the progress moving forward. That led to complex personnel issues and many open lockers. Everything suffered, including its reputation!
If you have this type of contention within your organization, you can hit the reset button at any time to change it. First, recognize that your best tool for retention is an environment of inclusion. We all have a responsibility to ensure we are engaged in our work and protect the entity’s interests. It is not to create a work environment that leads to complaints, stress, or downgrading those who are part of your “family.” As an officer, you have a responsibility to support the mission and vision of the organization. To provide encouragement, support, and guidance to your firefighters knowing, you report to the fire chief. You will know you are doing a good job when there is a good level of trust in your leadership. If you look around and you see a reality TV show, there might be a problem. You can resolve it by reducing the drag and empowering the force.
In Darrin Hardy’s book The Compound Effect (2019), he talks about how little it takes to make significant impacts in your life if things are done consistently over time. For example, if you do five pushups per day, you may think that has no benefit. However, five pushups per day equal 150 per month and 1,800 per year. The little things add up over time!
The compounding effect of whatever you do changes the game. The same is true of your management and leadership skills. If you continually look away at the fact that your organization is in a negative state of operation, it will continue and even get worse over time. If you have a negative disrupter in your organization and do not change the behavior, others will suffer. As John Maxwell once said, “Bad people make good people leave.”
It is the leader’s role to ensure everyone has a workplace free from hostility and disruption. When firefighters are on the floor, they are expected to stay engaged in what helps their organization’s mission move forward. When leaders are supporting those on the floor, they are expected to deal with the problematic issues that can disrupt the organization’s mood. I can tell you from years of receiving e-mails and phone calls from firefighters across the globe: Your staff wants that level of support.
As I placed my hand outside the window, I knew I could step on the gas to move past the drag with little effort. The wind was calm, and I was driving a vehicle that could provide tremendous force if I wanted to test it. On the contrary, if I moved toward the base of a tornado, the strength of the motor would not matter, as we all know the opposing force will likely win–much like those in our organizations who frequently disrupt our daily mission. So, I will ask again, are you the force or the drag?
JERRY STREICH is the CEO of Capstone LLC and chief/emergency manager (ret.) with the Andover Fire (MN) Department. He has 32 years of service, a BS in organizational development, and an AAS in fire science.