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August 12, 2002

Leadership 101: The Intimidator
By Thomas M. Cunningham
US Naval Academy Fire Department

In the fire service, as in any other occupation, we all have the pleasure or displeasure of experiencing many different types of people. And like the fact that no two fingerprints are the same, the same goes for personalities.

Some people are fun loving, always ready to crack a joke or laugh at something that seems humorous. Some are quiet and reserve, some are Joe cool or fonzie, some are just taking up space, some are studious, and some are just plain nervous. Some are outgoing or athletic, some are withdrawn, some are loud and some are obnoxious. 

We even have people within the fire service who at times appear to be the most disgruntled people on the face of the earth, nothing anyone could ever do or say would please this person. Then there are those who complain constantly about anything and everything possible just to hear themselves complain. Every type of work environment has people just like this, as does every fire station.

The end result is we all seem to still carry out the mission of the fire service, no matter what department you are in or the types of diverse personalities that fill your ranks.

 But there is one type of person who can disrupt the whole nature and aura within our fire service community. This person brings with them hate, trickery, deceitfulness, and can generally disrupt any harmony within the fire company, and will. 

This person can sometimes be classified as the “overbearing bully, ” but for our purposes we will refer to them as “the perpetrator.”  Most firefighters possess a certain amount of aggressiveness (and ego) or else we would not be in this chosen occupation. Firefighters by nature are aggressive, just ask one to take out a window to vent a burning structure and remember to stand back. But what are the signs and symptoms that someone is overly aggressive (bullying), and how do you as the fire officer deal with this individual?

First, you must realize and understand that the perpetrator is very ambitious. The fire officer must understand the reason for such ambitiousness. The perpetrator is also out for their own good and not that of the company. 

The perpetrator will even try to convince everyone that their actions are solely for the good of the company. They will attempt to dominate those who surround them and at some point eventually will succeed to some extent. Domination will usually occur to a new employee by the perpetrator mainly because they will be like “deer in the headlights,” thus making them a vulnerable and an easy target. The attempt to dominate will culminate in the perpetrator becoming the center of attention. This eventually will become an obsession with them if it hasn't already. The perpetrator is the type of person that needs be the center of his or her own universe. 

Why are these individuals deemed “aggressors” in this sense? The perpetrator is the type of person who lacks the self-control needed to keep their impulses intake. This can be behavioral, psychological, or physiological. They have no way to stop themselves or to limit their actions. This is also true about compulsive liars, thieves, or people with obsessive compulsive disorders. In most cases the perpetrator's demeanor can mainly be traced and contributed to their upbringing. 

During the development process from infant to youth to adult they developed pleasure and gratification through the use of aggressive or impulsive behavior. In some cases this could be just a part of their nature handed down through heredity (DNA), and in some cases they may come from households that could be considered dysfunctional. 

Through aggression and impulsiveness they were given what they wanted by adults, teachers, and other children. This includes siblings, other family members, friends and acquaintances with which they have had contact with during their life. In some instances this may have been done just to get the perpetrator out of their hair. This worked well for the perpetrator especially when fear, intimidation, and guilt were used as their primary weapon of choice. The perpetrator learned that these could be valuable and indispensable tools in satisfying their wants and needs. Thus, the perpetrator began to use these weapons more frequently, soon this trait became part of their nature. 

The perpetrator also knows how to manipulate the emotions of others around them with whom the perpetrator considers inferior and weak. The perpetrator discovers fast what buttons need to be pushed and when to push them. Basically the perpetrator considers others who surround them to be lower on the food chain than they are. The perpetrator may do this because they will attempt to hide their own inadequacies and fears through their aggressive and impulsive actions.

 But why would someone threaten, frighten, terrorize, or oppress others within the organization? This comes from feelings of gratification that the perpetrator experiences at the expense of others. Self gratification of ego could easily explain why the perpetrator targets a physically or mentally inferior individual. The perpetrator believes that to dominate someone else can only assist in making the perpetrator successful at what they believe is their goal or an accomplishment that can successfully contributed to them. But in reality, many times the perpetrator has very poor and less fruitful relationships at home, work, and within most any community structure that they belong too. The perpetrator lacks the mutual respect for others with whom they may have contact. 

The perpetrator may also show signs of real concern about those whom they feel close with. This can be contributed to a sense of ownership or possessive control. The perpetrator believes that they have possessive control over other individuals. In reality the perpetrator is only concerned about how others will reflect upon their position in the organization and their power level within the demographics of their community. 

The perpetrator will show signs of compassion towards the individuals that they control, but this concern is only conditional upon the praise that someone reaps upon them, or that their ego is being fed sufficiently. When one of the perpetrators subordinates does something right, or performs a task to perfection, the perpetrator will be proud. But the pride shown by the perpetrator is only pride in ownership and not pride towards the subordinate. This satisfies and brings to the perpetrator a sense of ego gratification. 

Once a subordinate individual does not praise, feed or meet the perpetrator's needs they will be shunned and lambasted. The former property of the perpetrator is now useless to them and becomes a target for their retaliation. The perpetrator will then attempt to condemn and punish those who fall from their graces. This will be the reason why the perpetrator's personality seems to run hot one day and cold another.

The perpetrator's personality leads them to believe that they should never show signs of ineffectiveness or that they are powerless within their community setting. The mindset of the perpetrator is such that if they appear to be ineffective or powerless among those around them then the opinion among upper level managers will coincide. The perpetrator feels that in order to be considered a strong leader that control and fear expressed by those around them will be enough to sway the thoughts of upper level managers. Those who threaten the control of the perpetrator will ultimately bring out anger and frustration in them, which will likely be brought down upon the person who threatens the perpetrators control.

It is virtually impossible for the perpetrator to have normal relationships outside of the station house as well. Power and control define the perpetrator's relations with other individuals, to the perpetrator people are nothing but things. The perpetrator will never consider your rights as a fellow human being.

Remember, you are dealing with an expert manipulator who has the charm of a snake and also its bite. The perpetrator attracts those who are naive to their charms and self-confidence, and also to those individuals who are emotionally sensitive. The perpetrators charm is given through their attention to you, and by having gained their support. This entices people to gather into their circle like moths to a flame because of promises of reward(s) in the future. Some of these rewards, which are promised by the perpetrator, may never be provided due to the perpetrators position in the workforce. The perpetrator will then exploit this person (thing) for their selfless benefit. 

The perpetrator will also believe that they possess superior intelligence (Mike Tyson Syndrome) and infinite wisdom over those around them. This brings justification to their actions and gives them the feeling that they are honorable and self-confident. Speaking in general terms they are “a hero in their own mind.”

When a perpetrator decides on their target, what can one expect from them? Expect a high degree of aggression and manipulation. Some of the perpetrator's favorite methods of attack are backstopping, along with lying, deceit, and slander. It will become the perpetrators primary mission in life to destroy you, your career, or your character, whichever falls first. In some instances it is not only one individual who they will try to destroy, but in some cases they may attempt to destroy the organization as well. The perpetrator will be vindictive and belligerent, primarily acting out the worst of all human behaviors.

The perpetrator employee will show many traits in their method of madness, some of these traits will be:

  • The test: The aggressor will test the target employee in an attempt to find out weakness and vulnerability within the personality to use against them.
  • Controlling: this person would rather control all functions within the organization as they see themselves to be the only person capable of running the show. When someone or others within the department develop new plans, lessons, or operating procedures the perpetrator will go all out not to partake or comply with any of these. This is mainly due to them having not had their hand in the process and now the work of others shall be ridiculed and thought of as inferior since the perpetrator did not have input into the project.
  • Ambitious: To the point of obsession. The perpetrator will focus on certain objectives such as their success, their power, and their prestige. They will display tremendous amounts of zeal in pursuit of their personal goals. The company goals will only receive “lip service,” from the perpetrator. The company's goals are an excuse for their own selfless goals or advancement. The perpetrator wants to be the only trophy on the mantle.
  • Confidence: Thinks very highly of themselves, exaggerates their own self-importance, and may believe themselves to be legendary (but only in their warped mind). The perpetrator will take everything too seriously, and can never laugh at themselves. They will also never find fault in anything that they do, instead they will attempt to justify any mistakes.
  • Strong willed: Always wants more but is never willing to sacrifice. Demands others to take extreme actions and demands commitments from others. Pushes their own objectives during discussions on major issues, and may be ruthless in seeing these objectives through. They will stop at nothing.
  • Argumentative: May sometimes agree with certain points or opinions, but then will turn around afterwards and argue or plead their point of view. Always challenging and contradicting others point of view.
  • Judgmental: Places blame quickly. Creates scapegoats. Exaggerates problems to the size of disasters (acts of God) no matter how minimal they are. Takes one persons criticism of another employee and reflects this as being the opinion of everyone in the department. That every employee who becomes a target is incompetent, not committed, or lacks qualifying experience. 
  • Critical: Will never acknowledge their role when another employee makes a mistake. If things are not up to their (perfect) standards others will be criticized. The aggressor will always be looking for something or someone to criticize.
  • Assassination: The perpetrator will try to ruin another person's character in many ways. Discrediting their opinions, ideas, or accomplishments. This will imply to others who give credence to the perpetrator that the target employee has a view that is skewed. The perpetrator will then tell others that their judgment is the only one that is correct. The aggressor will always be suspect that there is a motive behind why someone is doing something.
  • Seeks vengeance: Rumors will be spread. The perpetrator will start to bad-mouth the target employee in private, and will attempt to discredit the targets employee's performance to everyone who will listen.
  • Speech: The perpetrator will always come across as demeaning, condescending, and sarcastic.

As a fire officer who may have an individual under their command like this, or who works next to this type of person, ask yourself this question: What do I, as a fire officer do? If the perpetrator's actions disrupt the work environment, the fire officer must take some sort of action. Ignoring this person only leads to others believing that you condone their actions and leads to the perpetrator taking over free-reign, or becoming a loose cannon. In today's politically correct fire service the perpetrators behavior is inexcusable, but if no action is taken to control the behavior, then it may appear to all that the perpetrator has (at least) the superficial support of middle and upper level managers.

Why then is there a need to act? The person who then becomes a target for the perpetrator will first lose their self worth. This will bring on depression and possibly a loss of interest about why they joined the fire service or the company in the first place.

A loss of power, incompetence, and a feeling of being socially isolated will then start to affect the performance of this individual. This person may then experience despair in their situation with the perpetrator, frustration that the perpetrator has now made them the focal point of their anger and retaliation, thus leading to the feeling of hopelessness. 

This type of behavior and reaction will lead to the perpetrators target trying to avoid them. This may be accomplished by seeking to transfer away from them, or in some cases seeking out employment elsewhere. The fire officer must do something to divert this from happening.

The fire officer can opt to do nothing, which will eventually increase this aggressive behavior. By opting to do nothing may in the long-term adversely affect the fire officer. There are actions that can be taken to guarantee that you are dealing with an aggressive employee, these steps are:

Have a sit down with the individual you feel is being targeted. Do not be surprised if this individual denies that they are receiving punishment or retaliation by the suspected perpetrator. If the targeted employee will not talk or avoids any questioning then there are other methods to finding out the truth. These methods are:

1. Observe all interactions between both employees. Determine if this may be a case of firehouse teasing or the pulling of someone's chain that has gotten out of hand and perceived as bullying, or is the victim truly being harassed. 

2. Listen to the station grapevine, in some cases this will be a real good indicator to what is really going on.

3. Look for signs from the target employee such as tardiness lack of incentive or drive, or wanting to leave work once their relief has shown up.

4. Look for target employee to discuss with others transferring, changing shifts, or seeking other employment outside the fire department.

5. Physiological factors such as sweating/shaking, feeling/being sick, sleep deprivation, and loss of appetite.

6. Psychological factor such as anxiety and depression.

7. Behavioral factors such as irritability, withdrawn or aggressive, signs of alcohol abuse.

If the perpetrator is affecting the target employee, as a fire officer you have the duty an obligation to stop whatever negative actions are being taken against other employees under your command. Failure to address these concerns may find you as liable as the perpetrator. 

If the fire officer determines that a perpetrator is targeting an employee under their command you may want to approach the root cause for the disruption. The fire officer may want to first approach the perpetrator and tell them you would like to talk to them, something that has been brought to your attention. Is the station the best place for this meeting? In most career departments when an employee is called into the office it is for official reasons and a union representative must be offered to sit in, but not so in volunteer companies. As a fire officer, studies show that you should approach the perpetrator concerning this matter outside of the fire station first. This alternative may hold down any tensions that may be running high, and by doing so you will relieve the target from taking some heat. This meeting can occur in the parking lot, across the street, a 7-11 over coffee, or Dunkin’ Donuts. 

While discussing this matter with the perpetrator these simple suggestions may make the meeting fruitful and less pensive: 

1. Look the employee in the eye 
2. Talk slowly to ensure what you are saying is being heard
3. Do not raise your voice or conduct yourself in an aggressive manner
4. Do not allow the aggressor to become loud or let the situation get out of hand. 
5. Take control over the environment

 At the start of this meeting tell the perpetrator what you have observed and heard through the station grapevine, put the ball in play on their field. Let them know were you stand concerning harassment and possibly what might be perceived as violence in the workplace and how their actions fall under these protections. Explain to the perpetrator the punitive actions that can be taken against them, such as suspension, demotion, transfer and removal. 
As a leader you must be straightforward in your approach to this problem. Advice them that you would like to see a resolution to problem or a change in their behavior. You may suggest that the perpetrator may want seek anger management sessions, employee assistance counseling, or other professional services that may be offered. 

  You can also express your belief that their actions do not comply with the mission or goals of the Fire Company or department. Behavior like this will not be condoned and will NOT BE TOLERATED under your command. Remind them that if the aggressive behavior continues then official action will be taken as a result. Point out that they are a professional and so is everyone in the station, and that other officers and employees will not stand for this. Stand firm with this person because to put it simply, firmness may be the only language they speak. The perpetrator will soon realize (hopefully) that you are “for real” and that their actions against other employees will not be tolerated. The perpetrator is smart and if you waver on your stance about aggressive or bullying behavior in your discussion the perpetrator will sense this. As a fire officer you must continually monitor the situation, if modifications are not made and the behavior continues then you are going to be required to act against the perpetrator officially.

As a fire officer you may advice them on how there actions have an effect on the target employee (depression, stress, disenfranchisement, etc.,) but how it affects the fire company's overall atmosphere. There behavior will eventually affect the company in ways such as:

  • Serves no ones best interest.
  • May result in significantly higher sickness rates or absenteeism. 
  • Higher employee turnover with the resultant high cost of training and retraining. 
  • Exceedingly low work force morale. 
  • Expectant higher levels of stress decreased working environment. This is a contributing factor in premature death due to stress related illness such as heart disease and certain forms of cancer, which have been linked to stress. 
  • Even suicide and murder are far from unknown in workplaces, these types of incidents have shown examples of aggressive behavior in the work place.
There are two important facts that the perpetrator should be made aware of:
  • All employees enjoy the freedom that exists and that they have the right to dignity. Employees also have stimulus and principles and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
  • No one shall be subjected to subjective intervention with connection with his or her privacy, family, home or employment. They shall not receive attacks upon their honor and reputation. Every employee has the right to protection under the law against such interference or harassment.
  • Honesty will send a message, and for a while the perpetrators behavior may change but remember, this may already be instilled into their nature and persona. Constant vigilance over the perpetrators behavior will be needed by the fire officer and other officers and senior members to ensure that others do not become targets for the perpetrator. This is especially true if the perpetrator seeks no counseling after your discussion with them.

About the author: 
Thomas M. Cunningham is a 15-year veteran of the United States Naval Academy Fire Department in Annapolis Maryland. He is a NFPA certified Fire Officer IV, Instructor III, Inspector II, Investigator, Safety Officer, and Hazmat IC. He is currently completing Bachelor degree studies in Fire Administration at Western Illinois University. He is currently employed as an instructor with the Command School, Inc. He also serves as the NFAAA MD. state coordinator.