‘Self-licking ice cream cones’: How to deal with leaders with selfish motives

Some members use positions of authority to simply enhance their egos and financial wellbeing


By Allen Lewis

In 1992, Pete Worden, who later became director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, wrote “On Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones,” a paper that addressed the rampant bureaucracy at NASA. In this blistering expose, Worden decries behavior defined as “a process, department, institution or other thing that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify or perpetuate its own existence.”

Unfortunately, the characterization above applies to more than a few fire departments, fire service boards, committees, and organizations, and even to some chief officers in these agencies.

Self-licking ice cream cones do not love the fire service. They only use the firefighter persona, along with the position of authority, to enhance their egos and finances.
Self-licking ice cream cones do not love the fire service. They only use the firefighter persona, along with the position of authority, to enhance their egos and finances. (Photo/Getty Images)

Identifying the self-licking ice cream cones among us

“Self-licking ice cream cones” in the fire service are relatively easy to spot because they place their own interests above those of the community and their fellow firefighters. These are the individuals who love adulation and recognition more than they value the importance of rewarding the outstanding performance of their coworkers and staff or improving health and safety for department membership. They seek committee, council, and commission appointments, not to better the fire service but rather to devise ways to further enrich themselves and their cronies.

The sad reality is that self-licking ice cream cones do not love the fire service. They only use the firefighter persona, along with the position of authority, to enhance their egos and finances.

Challenging the status quo

Challenging one of the “good old boys club” organizations, in which a cabal of self-licking ice cream cones dominates, is a sure-fire way to incur the wrath of the beneficiaries of the status quo system. As Werner Karl Heisenberg, a German theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics, stated, “The very act of observing disturbs the system.”

There are fire department and fire service organizations that hold secret meetings, do not post notices or minutes of their meetings, and at times do not even inform the organization’s membership of decisions or actions. A small group at the top makes all the consequential decisions. This is done, you are told, so that you are not bothered by all the routine and very mundane decisions that must be undertaken in running such a large organization. Some go so far as to flagrantly violate open-meeting laws, while others use their positions to show favoritism to some and discrimination toward others.

If you dare to ask questions about how funds are distributed, appointments are made, or decisions reached, and you will hear responses along the lines of “it is complicated/complex,” “there are a lot of moving parts” or, my favorite, “you do not want to get involved in this.” The arrogance displayed by the self-entitled decision-makers is truly astounding at times. These chief officers insulate themselves with yes-men and enablers who are too timid to oppose the will of the self-licking ice cream cones for fear they will become persona non grata.

Standing up to the bully

What recourse do you have in this situation? The first thing to realize is that you are dealing with a bully or bullies who have maintained their status through coercion and intimidation. Do what bullies are often unprepared for: Stand up to them. Request the meeting minutes and notification of future meetings, request the financial records, place your item on the agenda and gather data to support your position. Build a coalition with others who are also disenfranchised, and together strategically seek to change a system that cannot stand up to the disinfecting light of scrutiny. Commit to following through no matter how the self-licking ice cream cones respond. It will get personal because loss of control, damaged ego and reduced funding are not things the self-serving parties will surrender quietly.

By pursuing the best interests of your community, your fellow firefighters, and the fire service, know that you are inspiring others to do the same. The self-centered paper tigers that roar their displeasure at your progress will not withstand the examination of their actions.

To modify a common saying to apply to self-licking ice cream cones, you can fool some firefighters all of the time, you can fool all firefighters some of the time, but you cannot fool all firefighters all of the time.

Editor’s note: Have you encountered “self-licking ice cream cones” in the fire service? How did you handle the situation? Share in the comments.

About the Author

Allen Lewis is a fire chief and emergency manager in northern Minnesota. He is an EFO graduate, a CPSE credentialed CFO and CEMSO, a paramedic, certified emergency manager (CEM), IFSAC fire officer, instructor, and investigator with the Minnesota Fire Service Certification Board. Chief Lewis has a master’s degree in public administration and is an adjunct professor in the College of Safety and Emergency Services at Columbia Southern University where he teaches multiple courses. Lewis serves on the IAFC's Program Planning Committee, St. Louis County 9-1-1 User Board, St. Louis County Fire Chiefs' Association, Northeast Regional Emergency Communication Board, Minnesota State Fire Chiefs' Association Legislative & EMS Committees, and the regional Mental Health Task Force. As a well-traveled international instructor and consultant in the fire service and EMS profession, Lewis has trained fire and EMS personnel in Afghanistan, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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