Fire service leaders must avoid the trap of the generational argument

Resorting to generational biases prevents leaders from connecting with members and building their trust


Imagine a leader in your organization making the following statement to members: “Firefighter Smith is a [fill in the blank with sex/race/sexual orientation] and because of that, Firefighter Smith is [fill in the blank with any derogatory adjective].”

Would there be outrage at this leader, a representative of your organization, espousing what appear to be racist/sexist/xenophobic/homophobic views? You would assume there would be; in fact, you should hope there would be. Why? Because that leader allowed bias to inform their view of the people for whom they are responsible.

Bias can prove to be the downfall of anyone trying to establish trust, and trust is the ultimate currency for any leader. Without it, leaders will find themselves unable to connect with their team members. After all, from the members’ perspective, the leader does not value them as individuals. Members will view the leader as willing to discount what they could offer the team because of the leader’s inability to judge them uniquely, instead lumping them into a broad group. This makes the leader look weak and diminishes their credibility.

Let’s now change the statement to the following: “Because Firefighter Smith was born in [pick a year], Firefighter Smith will be [pick a characteristic that you would normally ascribe to a concussed koala].”

Many of us would likely smirk, nodding in agreement and feeling comfortable with the idea that being born in a specific year grants certain inherent traits.

What we have here is what I see as the only socially acceptable way to exhibit bias in today’s society – and these views of generational differences permeate the fire service.

It seems at times that you can’t be at any firehouse kitchen table without the discussion devolving to “this generation sucks” and “we never had these problems in my day.” Really? Think of the level of ego that comes with those words and the assumption that everyone else is the problem. The citizens can thank all that is holy that “the older generation” is here because they’re the last backstop to utter chaos. Sure. You can make jokes about it, brand someone with it, and put people in a box of predisposed behaviors that you watch for them to exhibit, all with the tacit permission of those in leadership positions.

In 1992, as I was preparing to leave my last line of work, I read a letter to the editor in a well-respected fire trade journal. The writer’s bottom line was that the generation entering the fire service (us nasty Gen Xers, a team I made the cut for by one year) were going to be the ruination of all that had come before. We clearly were entitled, lazy, unable to learn and had no loyalty to the job. Sound familiar? I had spent the last eight years traveling over hill and dale, doing my very small part to protect the might and awe of the U.S. military, doing fun and exciting things, and without even knowing me, this writer had already decided who I was because of when I was born.

The importance of connections

The point of this is not to discuss hurt feelings. It’s not to protect Gen X, Y (millennials), Z (Zeds), or baby boomers from the slings and arrows of outrageous ignorance. They can all move beyond the words. Quite simply, the words won’t hurt them; however, ineffective leadership will.

How?

An ineffective leader is too lazy to do one simple, yet critical, thing – get to know their people. It is much easier to just look at a person and, based on the color of their skin, their gender, who they share their life with, where they were born or even when they were born, make a decision on who they are. Hell, that can be done in 3 seconds.

The alternative? Hours, days, weeks, months, years of listening, talking, asking questions, getting to know who that one person is as an individual. Learning about their perspective, what they bring to the table, what they need to grow further, their life experiences. And damn, that’s only one person on the team. They may have two, five, 10 more members for whom they would have to repeat “the process.” Nah … it’s much easier to invest the 3 seconds per person and move on to more important things, you know, like the football game or TikTok.

To make matters worse, it’s not that categorizing people based on when they were born is just an acceptable punchline to a joke, it’s that it has been formalized and entrenched in the psyche of our leaders because it’s actually in the textbooks and taught at fire service conferences. There are courses and classes dedicated to parsing out why being born one year apart from the firefighter you’re riding with is going to make them a different person. Supervisors and managers spend good money attending sessions describing what defines a human being born in a certain era.

Data vs. individual generalizations

To be clear, I’m not going to go toe-to-toe with the legions of sociologists who make a living on this. I’m not going to argue with a Ph.D. who has collected a broad dataset that allows them to pick cutoff dates and then ascribe traits and characteristics to a large cohort. They have time on their hands to do that very thing and the statistical method they apply would be inarguable. What I am saying is that as a leadership issue, to apply the idea of generational differences to your team and use it as a basis for understanding who they are makes you an ineffective leader in your organization.

Further, I’m not suggesting that any person’s experiences don’t inform who they are; that would obtuse in the extreme. My grandmother lived through the Great Depression, which helped form the person she was. Someone else, who, at 14 years of age had the ability to access all the knowledge (and some of the ignorance) of the world, quite literally at their fingertips, will obviously have a different point of view than my grandma.

The point? If I assumed that everyone born in the same era as my grandma was going to act the same as her, think the same as her, learn the same as her, then how in the world do I explain my other grandmother who was the polar opposite of her in every respect? How do I explain that 14-year-old who should be able to reprogram an iPhone, swap SIM cards and create funny videos on the fly, because his generation has all the best electronic wizardry, and yet shows more interest in hiking mountain trails?

Another way to look at this: In your crew, have you ever had a 21-year-old who was mature beyond their years, and a 42-year-old going on 17? Have you worked with two members who are both 32 years old, and yet light years apart in their personal growth?

Neither fires nor people are cookie-cutter

Bottom line: Effective leaders understand that bias in any form creates the potential for dysfunction. That bias applies to people, buildings and fires. If they assume that the fire they’re on today is the same as the fire they went to last week or the one the instructor told them about in their Firefighter or Officer I class, they have the potential to make bad decisions.

High-performing fireground officers know that each one is unique; they don’t like cookie-cutter approaches and textbook answers. They can be informed by previous experience, but they know the pitfalls of assuming because it’s a fire on number two, alpha quadrant in a single-family dwelling, that it will be exactly like the last fire on number two, alpha quadrant in a single-family dwelling.

It’s the same with the people we work with. They are all unique.

Effective leaders do the work. They know they need to learn how to reach and teach that member who they work for and who works for them. The leader needs to find out what that individual brings to the team, identifying their strengths and weaknesses. That’s a leader’s job.

The trap that’s been set is to assume you know who that person is – don’t fall into that trap.

Editor’s note: Do you agree with the author that fire service leaders can use generational designations as a crutch for real leadership? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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