Addressing personal land mines prior to promotion
By Anthony Kastros
Before we embark on a journey to promotion, we must chart our course. One of the very first things to do is identify land mines, whether personal or professional, that are destined to blow us to smithereens before we ever take our first step.
I call these land mines baggage. Baggage can weigh you down, trip you up, hit your head, or be full of explosives that blow up in your face. Baggage is the accumulation of negative experiences, occupational road rash, career broken bones, personal losses, fractured relationships, disappointments, struggles, and any other pejorative factor in your life.
We often don’t realize the presence of, let alone the impact of, these factors in our journey to promotion. Unchecked baggage will hinder you at the most inopportune time. It will blindside you. Symptoms may include, but not be limited to, excess nerves, anger, frustration, doubt, nausea, short tempers, fatigue, lack of confidence, and usually another trip
For example, one captain candidate was upset at the fire chief as he went into his promotional interview. When the oral board asked him to talk about challenges facing the fire department, he proceeded to tell them how the chief was a liar. He scored an impressive 14 percent on his interview. He must have gotten seven percent for his pulse and seven percent for breathing.
A few years later, when he learned to check his bags, he came out high on the list and got promoted to captain. His skill set never changed. He simply learned how to check his baggage at the door.
Another example was an outstanding captain candidate who took five assessment center tests over 10 years and never got promoted. Each test was like putting another rock in his bag. He got so tired of dragging it around, he began to believe he never would get promoted and that it was hopeless.
He learned how to check his baggage through redirecting his self-image and reinforcing his successes. He came out number two on a list of 50!
Baggage can be personal as well. Perhaps you are going through a divorce, personal loss, problem with your kids, financial challenges, or your own health problems. Any one of these things can erode your confidence; your ability to focus; and, ultimately, your performance.
We had a student in an assessment center workshop who was in a role play scenario in which he was a company officer who was conducting a meeting with the crew. During the scenario, we asked one of the “crew” to pretend to be texting on his cell phone while the officer was trying to conduct the meeting. The officer suddenly grabbed the phone out of the crew member’s hand and barked something derogatory at him. He caught himself and said, “I just saw my teenage son in that moment. We have really been struggling lately!” His unchecked baggage came out in the form of an outburst with his crew.
What about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? With so many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans infusing into the fire service, is it any wonder we are having more occurrences of PTSD? Many older members are also experiencing cumulative PTSD, and new kids who are not veterans are experiencing death on the street for the first time. The suicide rate among firefighters is also increasing.
Perhaps you have issues with the chief, the union, your supervisors, the city, the council, or a coworker. Any one of these could weigh you down and increase your load.
Perhaps you are older and feel outgunned by the younger, more educated kids coming up who want to promote. You think to yourself, “You little puke, I have been on more fires than you’ve been days on the job!” Perhaps you are one of the younger members and have been told, “You little puke, I have been on more fires than you’ve been days on the job!” You start to believe that you have no business testing for company officer. Maybe you are considering taking a battalion chief exam but don’t care for the administration, afraid you will “change” or will miss going into fires.
Pillow tossing is a derivative of baggage. This happens when you are considering company officer and tell everyone that you are worried about losing your seniority, love working with your crew, and don’t want to leave what you know. This form of baggage happens when you secretly feel that you will fail the exam, so you begin to convince yourself, and everyone who will listen, “I don’t really want the job, so I’m just going to check out the test for when I really want it someday. I don’t know if I really want to be a captain yet. I love working on the truck and have a great crew.”
This load of garbage is just a way to save face. Your secret concern that you will not make the list is masked with these false statements so that you soften what you perceive to be an inevitable fall. It’s just another form of baggage.
So how do we check our bags at the door of promotion? The first thing is to acknowledge that everyone has baggage in life—and that you have it too. It doesn’t make you weird, a failure, or doomed. It means that you are normal.
Second, find out what your baggage is. Most likely as you’ve read this article, you have at least an idea if not an outright positive identification. If not, ask around. Ask your boss, a trusted coworker, a friend, or a family member. Look at common factors as outlined above in both the personal and professional realm.
Third, realize that most baggage, while negative on its own, can also be a source of strength, growth, and a way to step up to the next level. The most challenging and darkest times in my life have always given way to the greatest growth, learning, and blessings.
If you want to promote, you must check your baggage. Everyone has it and most don’t realize it. If left unchecked, your bags will act like land mines that are buried under the surface of a battlefield. You could be armed for the battle and have the best training, but if you unknowingly step on a land mine that is lurking under the surface, you are doomed. Don’t let this happen to you!
Anthony Kastros is a 31-year veteran of the fire service, battalion chief for Sacramento (CA) Metro Fire, and founder of Trainfirefighters.com. He is author of the Fire Engineering book and video series Mastering the Fire Service Assessment Center and video series Mastering Fireground Command: Calming the Chaos, and Mastering Unified Command: From Hometown to Homeland. Kastros was the FDIC International keynote speaker in 2013. He can be reached at rqbtwxwrdvxfvdredrdfds.