Is the president leading? Reflections from a fire officer

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IoSonoUnaFotoCamera / Flickr Trump...
IoSonoUnaFotoCamera / Flickr

It’s an incredibly trying time for me.  I’ve spent my life, 25 years now, saving lives and serving the public as a career firefighter and chief fire officer.  As a chief fire officer my efforts are always to enhance public safety and community well-being.  It’s meant something to me, to be a public servant, to serve the public well.  I’ve learned many leadership lessons the hard way.  I found that it’s always easy to read leadership books, but much more challenging to actually lead and lead well.

During graduate school I also studied leadership.  We were taught that leadership, like so many things in life, is observable.  True leadership is a set of leadership skills that can be measured and observed. I’ve always been fond of the United States Coast Guard 28 Leadership Competencies. During my time in the Army National Guard I was fortunate to work with a several Officers who were more than competent.

I am concerned about our president and his fundamental lack of leadership skill and what it means for our country.  As I was driving home from the grocery store with my wife this evening, I couldn’t help but to reflect upon Trump and think about the fire chiefs I have had the pleasure to serve under during my career.  I cannot imagine a fire chief, police chief, city manager, or any other leader in public office today speaking about others, immigrants, women, foreign leaders, or current leaders in the manner that our current president does and retaining their job.  I imagine that no fire department organization, nor city government nor public would tolerate such observable behavior from a fire chief.

Yet, here we are with Donald Trump.  Whether we like it or not, agree with it or not, it is always true that leaders set the tone and create the climate.  This is most likely the case because we have an open-loop limbic system.  It means that we respond to others and their leadership at a biochemical level. We look to leadership for cues and guidance.  An excellent book on this topic is Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee.

Secondly, it’s sad and unfortunate that many firefighters die in the line of duty each year. Underlying many of these line of duty deaths is failure in human behavior and not failure of equipment.  The airline industry learned this lesson in the 1970s when many airplanes were crashing and in the vast majority of cases the failure was not mechanical, but due to human behavior in the cockpit of the airplane. It went something like this, the captain of the airline was not to be questioned only followed- an authoritarian.  There was little two-way, respectful communication and the flight crew was not working together to achieve the mission of a safe flight.  A co-pilot might notice an oddity in the flight, but not say anything to the captain for fear of being scolded.  The plane crashed.

The aviation industry approached this challenge through Crew Resource Management (CRM) training and the results were spectacular.  There were far fewer airline disasters, as now the entire flight crew were working together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to achieve the mission of safe flight. Open communication was encouraged.

Firefighters are still learning lessons the hard way that it’s not their equipment or operating procedures injuring firefighters, but human behaviors.

In environments that have a tendency toward admiring the leader, but where there is not an atmosphere of mutual respect and open communication, of teaming together and collaborating, it’s easy for organizations to drift into deviance and normalize poor behavior.

This is what I see happening now with the Republican congress.  There is not an atmosphere that allows for divergent thought, contrarian thinking, or differing perspectives.  It’s clear that Trump is an authoritarian- based on observable behavior- and that the Republican-controlled congress is drifting into deviance and boorish behavior is being normalized across our country.  Why?  Because the leader sets the climate.

It’s important for me to express that I still believe in the commons, in public service, in government. Diplomacy, statespersonship, and the public still very much matter.  Most of the people I have worked my entire adult life with in government have tried very hard to deliver exceptional service to the community at as low a tax rate as possible.

Trump may be a savvy business person, but his leadership skills in the public domain are lacking and through his lack of leadership he has established a climate of divisiveness.  Secondly, because he is an authoritarian, he’s created an environment that is prone to drifting into deviance, as was just evidenced by the Republican support of the tax bill without one naysayer.

I have found during my career that when an organization or crew begins to drift toward deviance, it usually only takes one person to say, “this is wrong, we should not be doing this.”  Retrospective analysis of the holocaust confirms this.  If more normal men and women, the shopkeeper, the teacher, the firefighter, would have used their voice to call out the drift, it’s possible that many millions of lives would have been saved.

I am familiar with the story of a crew of firefighters picking up two hookers and taking them back to the station.  Nobody could believe this happened and wondered how it happened.  The leader of that crew, an authoritarian, set the tone for that crew and allowed the crew to drift into deviance and normalize poor behavior.  They got there by slowly moving in this direction unchecked.  Nobody challenged the Captain of the crew.

If the people closest to the president are not checking his behavior or otherwise can’t control it, who is?  How far will we drift, how far will police officers, evangelical Christians, and Republicans go before even they realize they are in too deep?  Will we kill 12 million “others” in the United States because they don’t toe the company line, because they are Muslims or Mexicans?

We all have a voice and we need to use it.  The commons matter.  The people matter.  It’s not the economy stupid, it’s the people.

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