Don’t Pick Up the Rope

Emotional intelligence is a critical concept in leadership

Have you ever met someone who cannot resist the opportunity to get into an argument? If you have been in the fire service for more than approximately one minute, you have already thought of that person. Every organization has at least one, and their impact is relative to your size. Take the number of stations in your department, multiply by the number of shifts, and then add 10 percent for good measure. If you are an all-volunteer agency with one station, the raw number may be low; however, the member’s presence (voice) may be disproportionately loud. In large metropolitan departments, the number can be considerably higher. Of course, the conversation rarely starts out as a verbal battle; such engagements often begin around the coffee table or on the back step of the pumper and, although amusing to observe, they can become divisive and destructive.

An Example

“What is your opinion of quints”? The rope has been thrown down, meaning that an invitation to a tug-of-war has been issued. Now all one has to do is wait for an unsuspecting member of the company to pick it up and then—it is game on! The question appears innocuous, but it is filled with fury. Few topics elicit such emotional response in the modern-day fire service and the real challenge is not whether you believe quints are a functional piece of fire apparatus. In this case, the argument that is about to ensue will have nothing to do with the merits of placing five functions on a single piece of apparatus.

Do not get distracted by the example; it is, after all, an argument that will only produce strong emotions. Emotionally charged discussions cannot be “won” with logic. Once individuals are entrenched in their position, no amount of fact telling or even fact showing will cause them to change their minds. Understanding the challenges of dealing with emotional issues necessitates maturity and self-control, both of which we as firefighters are not particularly adept at. Another term for this is emotional intelligence, which means that to engage in adult conversations, people must first be in control of their own emotions. It also means (and this is particularly critical for a company or chief officer) that an individual who is operating based on emotion cannot be convinced that he is errant in his thinking or position. Attempting to do so only exacerbates an already impenetrable circumstance, much like throwing fuel on a fire.

Don’t Engage

There are instances when it is difficult to avoid such confrontations. You walk into a fire station and ask the on-duty crew what is new, a simple question that can lead to an all-out battle royale. “Chief, why the hell is the department closing that fire station?” While closing the station may be statistically safe with no adverse impact on the community, a rational discussion about response times is only going to yield more anger and frustration. Don’t pick up the rope. In this situation, the best thing that you can do as a leader is listen. Listening does not mean agreeing, nor does it signal an unwillingness to answer questions. However, before you can even begin to formulate a response, the other party has to be similarly ready to listen. Emotions cloud our judgment and prevent us from hearing. It is physically impossible to talk and listen at the same time. Let the emotions play out. One of the most important things to remember is that emotions are intense, requiring a tremendous amount of energy to sustain, which is why they are generally time limited.

There will always be instances when you may be confronted with an emotional issue in a public venue, and it is at that moment that you must exercise the highest level of self-discipline. Often, it is not the initial action that garners the most attention but, ironically, the reaction. If you allow yourself to be drawn into an argument, you run the grave risk of jeopardizing your professional credibility.

As dysfunctional and counterintuitive as it may appear, there will always be individuals who would rather live within their own emotional world than be girded by facts. Picking up the rope that they have laid out for you only pulls you into a spiraling black hole from which there is no escape. It is critically important to remember that in an emotional battle with a fool, there are no victims, only participants. Who is the fool? Look in the mirror.

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By Matthew Tobia

Matthew Tobia is an assistant chief with Loudoun County (VA) Fire and Rescue and is a 29-year veteran of emergency services. He can be reached at