Ruthless Repetitions

Every high-performance organization strives for continuous improvement


Personnel involved in a “hot wash.” (Photo by author.)

Personnel involved in a “hot wash.” (Photo by author.)

Imagine you could be a fly on the wall when an Army colonel speaks to new company commanders at the Infantry and Armor School in Fort Benning about the importance of establishing a proper command climate and enhancing a team’s ability to perform effectively when confronted with challenging situations. What do you think he would say? Perhaps he would explain why they should harshly discipline soldiers who make mistakes in such a way that they would be afraid to step outside the established action plan. Maybe he would tell them that they absolutely must obey every single order they are given regardless of what their personal experience, training, and instincts are telling them. Or would he empower them to make educated decisions, take deliberate action, adapt when necessary, and train the men and women they are leading to do the same?

Colonel Thomas M. Feltey would know exactly what that man would say because he is the person who gives that talk every year. Feltey enlisted in the New Jersey Army National Guard in February 1988 and served as an infantryman in C/2-113 Infantry (Mechanized), 50th Armored Division. He is a graduate of Rutgers University, where he earned his distinguished military degree before being assigned with the 1st Brigade, 2nd Armored Division/4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. Feltey ‘s deployments include Cuba, Germany, and Afghanistan. Most recently, he served as the senior advisor to the Ministry of Peshmerga for the Office of Security Assistance-Iraq at the United Consulate General Erbil (July 2015 to June 2016).

Leadership Principles

I recently sat down with Colonel Feltey to discuss the techniques he uses to establish, prepare, and lead effective teams. During our conversation, I mentioned the late Harold Gregory “Hal” Moore, Jr., who was a United States Army lieutenant general; a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross; and the first of his West Point class to be promoted to brigadier general, major general, and lieutenant general. The movie “We Were Soldiers,” which was based on his combat experience in Vietnam, starts off with Moore moving his family to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he takes command of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd infantry out of 2nd infantry division. It was a new battalion designated as an experimental unit for our Army. Their intent was to use enhanced air tactics to achieve success. The plan was to use helicopters to move infantrymen from one place to a point of advantage over the enemy.

Years later, that same battalion would be commanded by Feltey, which inevitably led us into a discussion about Moore’s four principles for leaders conduct in battle (see sidebar), which I often reference during my leadership seminars.

Hal Moore’s Four Principles for Leaders’ Conduct in Battle

1. Three strikes and you’re not out.

2. There is always one more thing you can do to influence the situation in your favor; and after that, one more thing; and after that, one more thing, etc.

3. When there is nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong—except that there’s
nothing wrong.

4. Trust your instincts.

The last of the four principles—trust your instincts—is the one I wanted to explore with the colonel. Our instincts are the product of our education, reading, personality, and experience. Since people come from different backgrounds that provide them with a variety of life experiences that shape who they have become, it’s obvious that no two people will have the same level of awareness. Firefighters, like soldiers, need to enhance their situational awareness so they can identify bad things before they happen. With that thought in mind, I asked Feltey to talk about how the Army helps soldiers develop their instincts, and this is what he said:

“There is a methodology to it. We develop our subordinates through ruthless repetitions under varying conditions. That’s what ultimately builds proficiency. Especially when you come into close contact with the enemy (which in a firefighter’s case could be a structure fire). It’s really pattern recognition. Over time, experience allows you to see a lot of different patterns. These are complex patterns. These aren’t simple patterns.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

When a firefighter walks into a room, for example, he will immediately recognize things like smoke, heat, and the glow of an incipient fire the same way a soldier would walk into a certain area and recognize where the enemy’s machine or rifle is. These are simple patterns to recognize; however, with continuous training and experience, we can begin to recognize more complex patterns in varying conditions of terrain that will help enhance our ability to recognize bad things before they happen.

By using the term varying conditions in terrain, Feltey explained, the Army wants its soldiers to be able to recognize patterns in a wooded area, in the nighttime, in a wide-open area, in an urban area, in the summer, in the winter, in high visibility on a clear day, and in low visibility because of fog. To get soldiers to perform effectively, regardless of their environment, the key is exposing them to different conditions and constantly getting in their repetitions during training. If training is done correctly, when the time comes that a soldier must perform, he will think, “Hey, wait a minute, I recognize this pattern.” The question I pose to you is, Is your team training this way?

In a recent self-study program, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation provided a list of contributing factors to firefighter fatalities. The five reasons listed included the following:

1. Culture and peer pressure.

2. Complacency.

3. Insufficient safety policies and protocols.

4. Acceptability of “accidental success” and behaviors.

5. Situational awareness/curiosity.

How many times after a multiple-alarm structure fire have you heard a group of firefighters defend poor performance by saying something like, “What’s the big deal? The fire went out and nobody was hurt”? This mindset does nothing to help a team improve. All it does is lead to complacency and the acceptance of accidental success. As leaders in the fire service, we need to adopt the ruthless repetition philosophy described above, analyzing our performance and focusing on ways we can make progress by talking about how we can achieve a higher level of success.


Another method Feltey uses to help do this comes in the form of the after-action review (AAR). The AAR is a structured review or debriefing method for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how things can be done better. The basic idea of the AAR is to discuss what happened. The objective is to determine what the team was supposed to do and compare that to what ended up happening. During the AAR, Feltey says it’s important to talk about what you did well during the planning, preparation, and execution phases of the operation so you can talk about how to sustain the correct activity. Then move into areas where the team can make improvements.

The formal AAR was originally developed by the United States Army and is an extension of the “hot wash,” which is a brief discussion that occurs immediately after a significant action. The concept works and has been adapted by many nonmilitary organizations, both domestic and international. The fire service has also come to know the AAR by another term, the post incident analysis (PIA), which we typically conduct after each significant incident. The PIA can be done simply by asking these four questions:

1. What was our overall mission?

2. What did we do well?

3. What could we have done better or differently?

4. Who do we need to inform?

The fact that both the AAR and the PIA are remarkably similar is no coincidence. Many of the leadership and team development methods we use in the fire service are modeled after those that our military institutions have been using for years; however, Feltey’s perspective on the AAR helped me have a greater understanding of the purpose. For example, if you discover a problem with the technique, systems, or performance of your team during an AAR or PIA, you need to pin that rose on someone to fix the issue of concern; otherwise, you are just admiring the problem. Therefore, he believes there needs to be an emphasis on who, how, and when to fix the problem.

Take Responsibility

“You have to assign responsibility,” he said, before adding, “We also need to focus on what went right. If something good happened, how do we sustain that? What actions do we need to take? What training did what to drive that positive outcome? If you don’t take steps to nurture, continue to grow that, we can move in the wrong direction.”

Ultimately, it’s all about finding better ways to improve. If you are not discussing ways to improve, you are not leading a team. In fact, if you are not focused on finding ways to prepare and improve, you are failing in the role as a team leader. Continuous improvement is what every high-performance organization strives for.

By Frank Viscuso

Frank Viscuso is a deputy fire chief, an international speaker, a podcast host, and the bestselling author of Step Up and Lead and Step Up Your Teamwork.