If you are one of the lucky few to achieve a leadership role in a fire organization, there is a possibility that you may face a challenge or two. Some people avoid challenges; this is because they are concerned about the winning and losing aspect of any problem. Some people seek out challenges as a means of measuring their competency. Regardless of whether you want to fight a battle or would rather avoid it, the outcome may influence the culture and environment of the department for years to come. That is where the third element comes in that you should be concerned about as a leader: experience.
We often use the term experience as a synonym for time on the job. In other words, it is often characterized in the same tone as tenure. To be a successful decision maker, you need to look at experience differently. Experience is what you learn from both winning and losing in dealing with challenges. My friend Tom Scully [San Jose (CA) retired] and I were recently discussing this phenomenon as a part of the learning process that ultimately provides a fire officer with wisdom. In short, when we are confronted with problems and we apply our education and knowledge to that problem, it is not so important whether your win or lose but rather what you learn from the event.
The attitude that one needs to have in entering critical decision-making processes should not be focused on whether or not the outcome is positive or negative. Instead, the focus ought to be on what lessons there are to be learned from the exposure to the challenge. In the case of critical decision making, it is very important that the outcome be assessed from a learning proposition perspective if the experience is to be of any value at all.
In short, sometimes you can win but have negative consequences of the outcome. Other times, you can lose but have positive influence over the outcome. The degree to which you analyze the learning experience is critical to that phenomenon.
When you go to college to get a degree, it should not be regarded as an increase in your knowledge as much as it is an increase in your wisdom. Let’s say that you are confronted with a human resources problem. If you approach that problem as a winning and losing scenario, it definitely limits your options. If you approach it regarding a potential for role clarification and improved performance, it does not become a matter of who wins or who loses but rather how improvement is achieved. Your learning experience is characterized by all the knowledge you gain by researching potential options.
Therefore, your number one priority in entering any conflict must be to know your facts thoroughly. Know what the ground rules are. Know what past practices have been. Compare and contrast your experience with other experiences within the organization on a similar topic. And, be ready to see the other person’s perspective.
Avoid assuming guilt or motives from the other side by remaining open minded for as long as possible. This requires that you listen very intently as opposed to being judgmental at the outset.
Never lose your temper when addressing a challenge. Loss of temper is loss of control. Retaining your temper is then a discipline that makes you seem more stable and less argumentative, especially if the other side gets demonstrative with temper. Remaining calm under stress is difficult at times but reaps great benefits.
Always take a positive approach that the challenge can be resolved in an amicable fashion, even when it is a tough proposition. You need to be able to be optimistic in conflict to mend relationships when the conflict is resolved.
Respect your opponent. As noted by Stanley Fish, degrading or insulting your opponent in a challenge is counterproductive for long-term relationships. “It’s not personal” is one of the watch phrases of resolving conflict with relationships still intact.1
The higher you go in an organization, the more often you are liable to run into challenges. The manner in which you approach them is important in creating the culture of competency in the organization. Following the few simple rules described here is a step in the right direction. Violating any one of them has a very specific outcome. For example, failing to do your homework in knowing your facts can often discredit you at the outset of a debate. Showing disrespect to your opponent can often result in his providing a reciprocal observation denying you respect. The best approach in any problem solving is therefore an opportunity to learn. An opportunity to learn adds to your experience and wisdom.
1. Fish, Stanley, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, The Bedroom, The Courtroom, and the Classroom, Harper, 2016.
Ronny J. Coleman is a retired state fire marshal for the State of California. He has achieved chief officer designation at both the state and national levels. Coleman has a master of arts degree in vocational education, a bachelor of science degree in political science, and an associate of arts degree in fire science. He is president of Fireforceone, a consulting firm in California.