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How a fire chief’s happiness is contagious

A fire service leader’s positivity or negativity will be passed on to the entire department; it’s up to each leader to choose which it will be


It has become expected of me to have on crazy socks and be a Christmas fanatic.


Bobby McFerrin, an American jazz artist, had a hit song out in 1988 titled “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It became a tune that got stuck in everyone’s head, and most of us could probably still sing the words today as naturally as if it were 1988.

Wouldn’t life be easy if we didn’t worry and could be happy, or at least just be happy?

I’ve had the blessed opportunity to travel this country and speak to a wide array of audiences on everything from leadership to company officer expectations to safety to prevention.

When I ask people to name a challenge they face today, regardless of the presentation topic, it seems more and more I hear the word “negativity.” Whether in the firehouse or the corporate office, individuals are experiencing conflict and unhappiness more frequently.

Where’s this coming from?

It’s easy to point to society in general as a potential cause. Our news outlets are anything but positive these days. The recent Presidential election, with the continued fallout and discontent, has drained many of our emotions, while leading us to speculate about events in lieu of seeking truth.

Social media, which emerged as a source of entertainment, has become the sounding board of negativity; I’m guilty of using it that way in the past.

It seems our lives have turned into the National Enquirer tabloid, which has been one of the top-selling newspapers for decades.

We seem to find something wrong with everything. It’s very easy to do.

My negativity

Then, a couple of months ago, I found that negativity, from both personal and public sources, was driving me into near depression. While I’ve had a series of events this year that could have gone better, I was focusing on the burden of the bad events and not what was going right in my life.

My mother has always told me to stay positive because things happen for a reason. More and more I find that to be true.

But it’s my wife Shannon who is the most positive person I have met. If there was anybody who believes in rainbows and unicorns, it truly is her. The last thing I wanted to do was contaminate her and the rest of my family with my negativity.

A part of The Privilege of Leadership program that my colleague, Ron Dennis, and I present, it asks whether leaders are better prepared and equipped to handle technical or human problems. Most attendees choose technical — but why?

First, technical problems are easier to identify. We are trained to solve technical problems by applying technical solutions. We have training manuals, standard operating procedures and guidelines, and rules and regulations that guide us in how to handle a variety of scenarios we face.

But when it comes to dealing with human problems, often referred to as adaptive challenges, there are fewer, if any, rules or guidelines. Adaptive challenges are not easy to identify and are easy to deny.

They require changes in beliefs, values, roles and relationships, often by the leaders themselves. They also require stakeholder involvement in order to reach positive outcomes.

The human problem

Solving human problems requires time, tolerance, learning, receptiveness to change and self-reflection. We fail when we attempt to apply technical solutions to human problems.

For example, Firefighter Smith has been late to work for the past few shifts, and/or has asked others to hang over for him until he can get to the station. Once there, he isn’t the same, he’s disconnected, his performance as an employee has suffered and his attitude is negative.

Is there a technical response a supervisor or manager can make? Of course there is.

There are policies that provide the framework to take the necessary steps to document, assign discipline, decrease performance appraisals, etc. We have the framework to apply a technical solution to what is a violation of policy, a technical problem.

However, some experience discomfort that comes from applying the technical solution to the underlying human problem. While some bosses can address the issue directly and move on, it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem or identify the root cause.

What could be the root cause of Firefighter Smith’s problems? Could it be personal issues like substance abuse, financial difficulty, marriage troubles, or worse, post-traumatic stress disorder?

The problem is we aren’t programmed or trained to ask about the root cause or apply human solutions. I do believe we care about our brother and sister firefighters. But, because we lack the tools or experience to intervene, it may seem on the surface that we don’t care.

Praise for praise

Another question we ask supervisors and leaders is which are we better prepared to address, poor performance or praise? Many will say praise.

But when I then ask, “Which do you document more of, negative performance issues or above-standard performance, (basically, disciplinary or atta-boy/girl commendation letters),” most always say discipline.

Are there policies for addressing negative performance? Of course there are. But what are your policies for writing the atta-boy/girl letters? Most likely, there aren’t any.

You see, we often set people up to fail. Employees only know what they shouldn’t do wrong, and supervisors and leaders are only provided the tools to address it when they do.

But what happens when it goes right?

Leaders need to celebrate success. While being mindful of deviations and violations, leaders must focus energy and attention on what goes right. Positive energy makes a positive team.

Ever been on a shift where everything is negative? How does that make you feel? Do you enjoy going in? Are you looking forward to work? Does your team communicate, cooperate and execute effectively?

Enjoy the ride

What about when you look forward to going in?

The team is highly effective. Communications flow smoothly. The environment is positive. What makes the difference?

Leaders must celebrate success, no matter how small it may be. Take time to say “thank you.” It goes a long way.

Do you feel awkward when someone is thanking you or praising you? If so, why? The answer is simple.

We are programmed to receive negative feedback, but not trained on how to provide or receive positive feedback. Perhaps it’s why we don’t do it.

Recently, I was speaking at a conference in North Carolina. I woke up from a dead sleep in my hotel room and thought about “The Energy Bus,” a book written by Jon Gordon.

Essentially, the book is about the power of positivity and outlines 10 rules to fuel your life, work and team with positive energy. In fact, not only does it talk about positive energy, but also warns against what he calls, “energy vampires,” those who suck the energy out of you, the team and the organization.

Nonetheless, it was an awakening for me that morning. I reflected on rule Number 1: “You are the driver of your own energy bus,” and then rule Number 10: “Have fun and enjoy the ride.”

Socks and suits

As I met my colleague Ron for breakfast that morning, I threw the idea at him to now include this in the presentation. But where was the connection?

If you know me, you know I love Christmas and crazy socks. I flood my Facebook page with photos of both.

In fact, many know that whenever I conduct a presentation, I’m sure to post which crazy socks I have on. And for the last two years, I’ve let my friends pick crazy Christmas suits for me to wear.

This year, I took it to a whole new level by playing into the presidential election chaos and ended up buying two suits so I could “Make Christmas Great Again!”

Of course, there are those who laugh and poke fun at me. But as my wife recently experienced at a conference, there were many more who inquired which socks I was wearing for my presentation, and even those trying to pry out of me the the Christmas suit winner before my pretend election was over.

Guess what? Everyone who was asking had a smile, was laughing and was positive. I can feel it in the Facebook comments from my friends. Now, it has become expected of me to have on crazy socks and be a Christmas fanatic.

That dancing guy

I could be angry, resentful and miserable about how some have treated me and things that have happened this year. I’ve been there and done that. I’m the driver of my bus and I want to have fun and enjoy the ride.

As I walked into the speaker’s room at the conference, I saw my friend and mentor, Chief John Salka. Shannon and I went over to say hello, and after our greetings Chief Salka put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, you’re one brave son of a … (if you know Chief Salka, you can fill in the rest). You and your crazy Christmas suits. I couldn’t do it.”

We laughed and I was honored to have Chief Salka call me brave.

The encounter reminded me of the video I often show called “Leadership Lessons From the Dancing Guy.” It takes someone to be that shirtless dancing guy who is brave enough to stand ridicule but knows good things will follow.

While I haven’t seen that first follower wearing the Christmas suit just yet, I have seen people beginning to wear crazy socks.

If I can make people happy for just a moment because I’m the dancing guy in the crazy socks and Christmas suits, then I have to wonder — is that what I was meant to do?

With that, turn off the news, put on your most outrageous socks, play some Bobby McFerrin, don’t worry, be happy, dance and lead with happiness and positivity.

This article, originally published Dec. 13, 2016, has been updated.

Billy D. Hayes retired as fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 2020. He previously served as the fire marshal for the University of South Alabama, vice president of university relations for Columbia Southern University, the director of community affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Riverdale, Georgia. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a certificate in local government management from the University of Georgia. Hayes is a past president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and past chairman of the board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. He authored the Public Fire and Life Safety Education chapter of “The Fire Chief’s Handbook” (7th Edition). Hayes is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Hayes on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.