Lesson in Discipline
By Captain Michael S. Mayers
Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire/Rescue
Beau was born at our Headquarters station more than ten years ago. For the same liability reasons that Department is experiencing, his mother and all the pups were given to the firefighters to take home. He grew to be a traditional firehouse Dalmatian (fat and happy) despite never having spent a night in a station after that. My wife joked that between my shift work and my travel, she spent more time with Beau than with me. Beau was our constant companion until he passed away unexpectedly a week ago. It was as much of a shock to us as losing a family member and to say that we’re still not over it would be an understatement.
At around nine months, my wife enrolled Beau in obedience school to make him a little more manageable. He was, after all, a young, strong puppy, willful and curious. He was like many of the recent recruits I’ve had the luxury of working with at my department. One night after class Kathleen was practicing what they had learned. I watched her, and noticed something interesting. Just as anyone would give a direct order to a subordinate, she would do the same by looking directly at Beau, getting his attention, then giving him an order. If Beau did not perform the task, Kathleen stopped him immediately and showed him what she wanted done. Success brought a rub of the ears and a biscuit. The drill went on for about a half-hour, and then Kathleen let him play on his own around our apartment. I grabbed a beer and sat down with my wife.
She sat next to me and began to explain. “If you want this dog to listen, there are a couple of things you’re going to have to do...”
First, she had to get Beau’s attention and give a clear and decisive order to him. By doing so, there was no doubt as to the expected outcome nor was there confusion as to who was running the show. Then, Kathleen made sure the dog understood the order by watching his immediate reaction as he hopefully complied. The next item Kathleen emphasized, however, was one of the first things about Beau that made me stop and think.
“Don’t”, she said, “give an order that you aren’t immediately ready to enforce. If you don’t enforce the command, don’t expect compliance the next time you give it. If you say, ‘Come’, and he doesn’t come, you need to go get him immediately and let him know that his behavior will not be tolerated”.
The thought of giving someone an order with the full expectation of compliance made me wonder if maybe there isn’t a problem in our expectations of the “new breed” of firefighter or EMT we see these days. I have actually heard supervisors say, “Well, I gave the order to do this and instead of completing it, they did that.” My immediate questions were: “Was the order clear? Did they know what you expected? Did they have the materials to do the job?” But the big question was, “Did they actually expect you to enforce the order when they failed to complete the task?”
In your own experience, how many times have you seen an order given that wasn’t immediately complied with? Not many, I would hope. If so, you’ve got bigger problems than what we’re going to really address here. The issue I want to discuss is this; do you have company officers (or worse, a Chief Officer) that give a routine order that won’t insist on compliance?
I’m not talking about “I want to see it done now or your dead body where you were trying” orders, but the basic, everyday requests for information, for checking equipment and apparatus, for pre-planning, and other things. How many times does the officer in question keep repeating the order? Does that officer ever enforce the request? Or do they just let it slide? Does the task ever get done? Or even worse, do you have an officer in mind that would rather punish the entire crew (or the department?) for the failure of one person than to take care of the problem at hand? Do you honestly think that the screw-off ever picks up on the fact that they were the one who screwed up?
If you think you’ve got it bad, listen to this. In ancient China lived a legendary general by the name of Sima Rangju. He was a brilliant tactician who rose through the ranks and was appointed by the King one day to oversee the King’s armies. Sima, knowing all too well what happens when “one of the guys” gets placed in charge, asked the King to consider assigning a wealthy landowner to aid in whipping the army into shape. The King designated a grandee and Sima went off to join the troops in the field.
The grandee, upon learning of his appointment, had a large going-away party and didn’t show up for the first day. Sima, on the other hand, went to drill the teams as expected. At the end of that first day, the personnel were exhausted but they had accomplished much. Sima personally saw to it that the soldiers were fed and had decent quarters.
The next day, the grandee showed up with his assistants and entourage. Sima marshaled the troops onto the parade ground and explained that this new arrival was the appointee of the King. This grandee was supposed to help him lead the army, yet he had not reported as was instructed. Sima turned to the Disciplinary Officer (how would you like that job?) and asked what the codebook said about tardiness. The punishment for tardiness, answered the officer, was execution. The grandee’s assistants were astounded. They mounted their horses and raced off to the King to tell him what was about to happen and to beg for their master’s life.
In the meanwhile, Sima executed the grandee. The troops, seeing this, trembled because they knew that Sima meant business. Returning to the drill grounds, the soldiers trained even harder than before.
The King, upon learning what was going to happen, expressed his dissatisfaction with this situation and quickly sent the assistants back to tell Sima to hold off on executing the grandee. On the third day, the assistants and entourage galloped onto the drill ground, disrupting the exercises and scattering the massed troops. Sima went to the dais and met with the freshly arrived group.
Before they could say anything about the King’s message, Sima began by motioning to the Disciplinary Officer. “What,” Sima asked his disciplinarian, “is the punishment for disrupting training?” The answer was (you saw this coming) execution. Sima, however, announced to all that he could not execute messengers of the King, so he killed all of their entourage instead.
The moral of this story is that Sima Rangju went on to lead some of the most successful armies in the long history of China. The troops knew not to disobey an order, but they also saw Sima sharing their same hardships. He never ate before they ate and he never sought shade if his troops were in the sun. As a result, his soldiers testified (in several texts) that they would willingly die for him.
If you read any military history, especially some of the accounts of leadership in the Civil War of the United States, you would see roughly similar stories of officers who expected much, but were beloved by their men. These leaders were firm, fair, and decisive, but they also shared a common concern for the welfare of their subordinates.
How many of us then just fire a command off over the heads of our subordinates and hope someone actually performs the task? Should we be surprised when the task never gets done? Why is discipline such a dirty word around the station? I don’t mean to suggest that we go out and make our personnel do push-ups in the rain, but really, what is so bad about setting goals and objectives with our subordinates and insisting that they be done in a timely and proficient manner? Where is the harm in expecting your team to perform like a well-oiled machine in the station and the training ground, as well as on the emergency scene? I tell the people that I lead, “You practice like you play.” Insist on commitment and skill in more than just the emergency duties and as a result, you will get immediate and competent compliance.
After all, the discipline in being able to smoothly and efficiently handle tasks in an emergency makes our customer, the taxpayer, a little happier. To paraphrase Steve Martin’s character in the movie Roxanne; “If there is a fire in the community, we want the citizens to say, ‘It was a good idea to call the fire department, don’t you think?’”
Believe it our not, our subordinates want to succeed. They want to be part of a winning team. They want discipline. They want boundaries and fair rules. All of the “feel-good, huggy-kissy" stuff that we had to endure in the 70’s and 80’s has come back to haunt us. When I see an officer wrestling to get someone’s hair cut or their shoes shined or a report correctly completed, I know that I can check with that same subordinate later and they’ll relate how much they detest the lack of structure and the wishy-washy leadership they have to work under. Now people realize that they want strong and disciplined leadership.
The key in this whole lesson is that although personnel want discipline, it has to be fair. I joke with my crews that I don’t care if they like me, so long as they fear me, since fear lasts longer than love. The truth be known though, I love my crew like they are my own children. I would gladly put my life in their hands as easily as they in mine. I treat them fairly; no one child is more favorite to me than another. Some are a little easier to get along with, but they are all still my direct responsibility. As their leader, it is my responsibility to coach them. My charge is to guide their direction and motivate them. If they aren’t able to do the job, I must determine if it is an issue of commitment or competence. If they aren’t competent, I have to train them. If they aren’t committed, well, that’s where the motivation begins. Reward them for failure, like so many officers do these days by not taking care of the problem, and failure is what you’ll get.
If you are
the leader, act like one. Someone has to be the grown-up, and in
this case it’s either you or someone else. If you can’t accept that,
then maybe you need to let someone else do the job. Your subordinates
will learn to be strong leaders by watching your example.