A fire chief's big mouth can crush his career

A chief with mouth shut and ears open, especially around the boss, is most likely to avoid a career-crushing verbal suicide


"You are most powerful when you are most silent. People never expect silence. They expect words, motion, defense, offense, back and forth. They expect to leap into the fray. They are ready, fists up, words hanging leaping from their mouths. Silence? No." — Alison McGhee from her book "All Rivers Flow to the Sea"  

Looking back, there are many times in my career that I wish that I had read and learned this passage much sooner in life. Sometimes being silent increases one's personal power, adding years to a career and keeping the promotion option open.

Speaking out at the wrong time and about the wrong topic may feel good for the moment, but it likely will have a price tag that will have to be paid. It is something akin to the adage: If you remain silent you might be viewed as an idiot, but by opening your month you remove all doubt.  

Most fire chiefs have egos and are generally opinionated about a lot of issues. This character trait likely serves the chiefs well. Some of the direct benefits are helping build self-confidence, personal poise and better communication skills on and off the job.

Yet, sometimes, we lose track of time and place and say things publicly that we really wish that we hadn't. Here's one of those times.

Reality check
As I was enjoying lunch at a well-known local establishment, I was focusing on good food, good friends and a good time. The weather was perfect and everyone was having a great time sitting together out in the spring sunshine.

My department-issued cell phone rang, and a quick check of the caller ID revealed that the mayor was calling. I straighten my tie and quickly answered the phone.

I started with the standard pleasantries and tried to socialize a bit, much like how we always started a conversation.

That would not be the case on this glorious day — not a single kind word was spoken. The mayor interrupted me very early into this conversation and asked if I was working on a home radon-detection project with one of our city council members.

Of course I had, and perhaps I was a bit too proud of this fact. I started to explain that it was a recent addition to the ASAP — Smoke/CO Detection Installation Program, as a wide grin, no doubt, filled my face replacing the most recently consumed french fry.

In a few words, the mayor's response to my comment was, “Wrong answer, Cowboy." The desire to stop this project dead in its tracks came across the cell connection, both loud and clear.

Zip it
At first, I was prepared and willing to explain how the radon kits were provided at no cost to the city and were a logical addition to our highly successful Smoke Alarm Blitz Program. Again, some days I needed to take a shut-up pill instead of a speak-up one.

The next voice was the mayor telling me to cancel that portion of the ASAP program immediately. Further, I was told to always check with city hall first before I committed any resources to work on a project that involved any one of the city council members.

Where was the sage advice to keep my mouth shut and stop digging my own hole? Flashing back to my south Alabama roots, sometimes folks would look you in the eye and just say, "Quit!" Of course, they were trying to let you know that you were not helping your case. Shame on me that I didn't take their advice as often as I should.

As I would later learn, the mayor had a long-standing feud with the radon-concerned councilmember. And, to add to my woes, there was no chance they would work together on any project, regardless of how good it was for the residents or the city.

That was another difficult lesson to learn the hard way.

In the final analysis, I was none the worse for the wear. I was able to stop the efforts with the councilmember without a lot of fanfare.

However, this experience provided a new understanding about checking in with the boss (for political purposes) and not making assumptions when the politics of the day might be involved. Also, this case served as a great reminder to sometimes keep my mouth shut and my ears open.

Flaming out
Splashed across the national news recently was a religious freedom case. The mayor suspended the senior emergency services leader for allegedly not obtaining permission to publish his religious book, which struck a nerve in the LGBT community.

The fire exec's suspension turned into termination after he briefed a faith-based group on the case's details at a public church event. The mayor questioned the chief's judgement to make such a speech and distribute the book in the work place.

Of course, the fire chief had a different take on what was said to the congregation and the value of the book. It is hard to say how this will end. It appears this case is headed to trial and a jury will decide who is right based on the rule of law, so stay tuned for the conclusion of this saga.

Regardless of the outcome, one has to ask if it was necessary? Having a public standoff with one's boss (especially when that boss is a high-profile elected official) usually has disastrous results.

What would have happened if the religious book was published with no mention of the fire department? And what would have happened had there been no public augment with the mayor? I would speculate that we would have never read about this situation.

Choose your battles
I am not saying to never stand up for what you believe in. In fact, I have fallen on my sword on a few occasions and that does smart. However, my end game was to protect corporate values like maintaining a specific response capability (staffed hazardous materials company) or for employee fairness (work shift assignments).

If you set out to do verbal battle with your boss, you must be ready for the likely negative results.

Speaking out on just about anything is a right that is provided in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. In fact, there are four other elements that make-up our Bill of Rights that protect for every one in our nation.

However, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and in the wrong place usually has its consequences. It is hardly ever a question of the legal right to do so, but of the follow-up actions taken by the boss.

It may not be a crime to publicly lash out at your boss, your co-workers or even the resident's you serve. But it just might come with a steep price. If you think what you are about to say is harmful, think a little more. Then determine the short-, medium- and long-term impact.

If it is still worth the fall from grace and the likely stress ahead, then go for it. But do think before you act. 

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