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‘I know better’: A common but destructive mindset for firefighters

We can gain more influence by becoming a productive follower than a resistant one


“Thinking that we can do a better job than those who lead us is a common but destructive approach to any job and one that is only amplified in a career field full of capable and eager public servants, like firefighting,” writes Hulcy.

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By Michael Hulcy

“Chief doesn’t know anything about this topic. He just sits in his office and is so disconnected from the floor. Why doesn’t he just stick to the admin side of the house? I know better than he does.”

I know better.

“Can you believe captain is making us do this again? It’s a lot of extra work and she just doesn’t get that we did our part already. We don’t need to go above and beyond; we just need to get back to the station. I know better than she does.”

I know better.

How many times have members of the fire service adopted the “I know better” attitude? I admit that I have been a part of the problem on more than a few occasions. I thought I knew better, but in reality, I should have known better. I should have realized that I could gain more influence by becoming a productive follower than a resistant one.

From negative to positive mindset

Thinking that we can do a better job than those who lead us is a common but destructive approach to any job and one that is only amplified in a career field full of capable and eager public servants, like firefighting. If we dislike a decision or task that we have been given, we can easily fall victim to making excuses that justify to ourselves (and anyone in earshot) that we know better than those who have many more years on the job. In this environment, we will find ourselves speaking those heavy words or hearing far too often our colleague’s negative voices from across the kitchen table. We must guard our positive team members against taking that bait, which could lead them down the path to becoming ineffective followers.

As noted, I have been in those negative situations before, thinking I had the solution or knew better on more than a few occasions. And while I haven’t always agreed with the fire officers who have led me, I also have started to realize that even if they weren’t always right in their approach, they weren’t necessarily wrong either. Note: To be clear, I am not advocating that we should just be “yes people.” There is and should always be an avenue to respectfully voice opposing opinions (regardless of rank), especially if safety is involved.

During those times when I allowed frustration to get the best of me, I would put my head down and knock out the task, but not without mumbling to myself. And while my internal revolt wasn’t as pronounced as I wish it could have been, I learned that I could use those feelings of frustration to learn a few important lessons. They are broken down into two categories – lessons for the leaders and lessons for the followers.

3 lessons for leaders

1. Stay grounded: As leaders within the fire service, we are trusted to be the experts. Your positional authority, either by rank or time in grade, allows you the benefit of making decisions that others will follow. Yes, you’ve been doing it for a long time, but don’t forget what it was like to be a follower. Most likely, some things have changed since your time in the backseat and the culture that we were a part of has most likely changed for the better. New approaches of explaining or sharing details (even if limited) might be more beneficial to the current generation.

2. Establish buy-in: If you are a parent and have ever had to convince your kids that they need to do their chores, you may have found it easier by giving them input in their choices. Do you want to clean your room or mow the yard first? I am not saying you should let them decide if they want to work but let them decide from the options you create. For example: “Hey team, gather up. Before we get cut loose, we need to get a few tasks knocked out. What’s the consensus, would you all rather help T-56 reload their hose or take their used bottles back to the station and start getting them refilled?” Having an option to pick one’s pain is always going to be more appealing than being given a single option. When given a choice, it is harder to be mad about the decision you picked for yourself.

3. Get dirty: Don’t ever ask your team to do something that you aren’t willing to do. This goes a long way toward building credibility with your crew and is the single most important piece of advice I learned while in the military. If a leader is next to you loading hose or cleaning equipment, how can a follower complain that their leader is making a bad call? If you are an intimidating leader, this is a way for them to see you as a humble and a hard worker who still understands what it’s like to do the job. It also helps you by tying you back into Lesson 1, staying grounded. It will serve as a reminder of the hardships involved with the task. The effort that you are levying alongside your team isn’t something that you need to do every time. After all, you have different responsibilities than they do, and your job expectations call for you to be effective on a different level, but you should still occasionally show up for the dirty stuff.

3 lessons for followers

1. Focus on the mission: We know that you worked hard to get where you are, but please remember, you are starting at the bottom rung of an amazing job. Being at the bottom levels will at times produce jobs that are not very glamorous. As with any other corporation, stuff normally rolls down hill, and you are bound to be on the receiving end of that. Recognize that it is part of life and don’t take it personally. Many seasoned firefighters reminisce on their early years when they had to do the hard work and realize that it contributed to their character and correlated to the success that they found later down the road. Your mission, which you have chosen to accept, is one that allows you to ride the adrenaline train every shift. Take joy in the fact that you are willing to do a job that many others cannot or will not ever experience in their lifetimes. Regardless of how long you stay in the service, you will always have the memories of serving. When you feel like you are getting the short end of the stick, focus on the mission and the excitement that you get to be a part of. The hard work passes but the memories remain.

2. Build the foundation: Everyone you meet in life will form an impression of you the moment you meet. You want to make sure that you are forming the right impressions and building your foundation, which will be built from how others perceive your work ethic, your attitude, your appearance and a million other things. The good news is that you control all of that. Even in the smallest task, take it on with enthusiasm, and show your leadership that you are there to contribute. Work so hard that others can’t ignore you. This will establish trust and confidence, which in turn will enable your voice to be one that is taken seriously. From that, you will see that you may receive less of the menial tasks and more of those in your comfort zone.

3. Make a list

If despite all your best efforts to be a productive follower, you still find yourself knowing better than your leadership within an organization, then make a list. Make a list of everything that you will do differently when it is your turn to lead. Keep your enthusiasm for the job and get to a new department or promote as quickly as possible. Some of the best leaders were forged by being on the receiving end of poor leadership themselves. There is something to say about those who have had to suffer and find their own way. They tend to think differently and never forget where they came from. When you become a leader, keep that list handy and check yourself against it from time to time to ensure that you are staying on the right path.

Final words of advice

I served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force as a firefighter and retired as an E-8 – Senior Master Sergeant. I absolutely loved my time in service to our great country and am beyond grateful for the relationships that I was able to build. During that time, I saw some pretty bad leaders and some of the best in the history of the Department of Defense and within the Air Force’s Fire Protection. Luckily for me, I have had more positive than poor supervisors, but we can always take from both.

Since retiring from the Air Force, I have been hired on as a civilian fire chief in California. While my daily uniform has changed, the personalities that I work alongside have not. You have the hard-chargers, the slow-rollers and everything in between. I do believe that being a member of the fire service is typically reserved for those who are inherently willing to sacrifice more than most for the greater good and do want to do the best that they can daily. It also draws a lot of similar personalities, which I am sure is a major contributor to our troubles. My best advice is to help in any way you can, give more than you take, and when you get a chance to lead, don’t forget that everyone is hoping that you are thinking of their well being too. Don’t forget it.

About the author

Michael Hulcy has 20 years of experience in the fire service and military that includes a deployment to Afghanistan as the sole Department of Defense advisor to the Afghan Air Force fire chief and minister of defense. Since retiring from the Air Force, Hulcy has served as a civilian fire chief at Fiore Industries/NASA-Ames Fire Department in California. He previously served as a deputy fire chief for the Patrick Space Force Base in Florida and the Beale Air Force Base in California. Hulcy is a certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Inspector III, Fire Instructor III, Fire Department Incident Safety Officer, Driver Operator, Rescue Technician I, Hazmat Incident Commander, among other certifications. Hulcy has a master’s degree in organizational leadership and a bachelor’s degree in fire science management.