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Build Safety, Share Vulnerability and Establish Purpose in your Department

Matt Wilson January 15, 2022 156 1 4


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This article is an overview of ‘The Culture Code’ By Daniel Coyle and offers connections between the ideas in the book and fire department culture.

How many books out there claim to have the secrets to success or the secrets of leadership? I imagine there are a lot. Although I haven’t read them all, I can say that The Culture Code certainly had some great and practical advice. Everything the author Daniel Coyle mentioned was based on objective observations while on his pursuit to discover The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. He spent four years researching successful groups including special operations units, inner-city schools, professional sports teams, a comedy troupe, and even a gang of jewel thieves. That seems like a random list of groups but many of them shared commonalities that contributed to their success. Considering their common successes despite a variety of differences, I thought there is no reason that fire departments couldn’t share similar success when they apply the same principles.

Before I summarize the three skills he mentions in the book, I thought it’d be worth defining what exactly success means in a fire department. Of course, there is nothing more important than the service we provide to our customers. If the community is safe and protected, we’re doing our jobs well. More than that though, I think success is defined in the details of our job. How soon are we arriving to the scene? How quick and efficient are we once on the scene? Are firefighters motivated to do well? Do they know their purpose? Are we safe and healthy within the department? Are we taking care of the details that contribute to being the best fire department we can be? These details and more, in my opinion, define success. Although some of them are a bit subjective, we intuitively know the answers. You know the culture in your department. You know if there is room for improvement. We don’t necessarily need to show statistics like a business to demonstrate success (although it does help to show statistics in different circumstances such as demonstrating your reliability to the public or an accreditation agency). All of that aside though, you know where your department culture stands and whether it is as successful as it could be.

If you or your department have some work to do, consider the following skills outlined by Daniel Coyle. I am not claiming to have mastered these skills myself but I have seen them in action. In some cases, I’ve even done them myself although I have also done the opposite and can now see how detrimental that can be. I, like most, am trying to be better as a teammate and a leader. I, like anyone else working to be their best, am striving for the ideal. I believe it would be worth your time to read the book and apply these skills in pursuit of your ideal. I’m confident they will help you and, most importantly, help your team succeed.

Skill 1 – Build Safety

Before you freak out, this doesn’t mean get soft and be passive. It simply means creating an environment in which your people are willing to share important and valuable information with you. This isn’t some skill necessary for “millennials”; everyone thrives in an organization where they can comfortably air their grievances or offer suggestions. To apply this skill is super simple – listen to what people say. When you listen, it sends a signal that you value whatever the person is saying. Daniel Coyle calls these signals belonging cues. When you listen and show you legitimately care, you demonstrate to people that they truly belong to the team and your circle of influence. Whether or not you agree with what they’re saying is irrelevant. You show that you care about what they have to say and will consider it. I’m sure most of us have experienced this and know what he is referring to. It is powerful! Belonging cues will beget loyalty and effort and all those things that make your team, crew, and department better. Doing this consistently builds an environment of safety – an environment in which they can comfortably say what is on their mind and not worry about reprisal.

Skill 2 – Share Vulnerability

Like building safety, a leader sharing vulnerability helps people feel a strong connection to the team. As many of you could probably figure out intuitively, vulnerability is simply admitting (and owning) when you’re wrong or when you don’t know something. Hopefully, not every interaction requires you to explain you don’t know something – if that is the case, maybe you aren’t qualified to be in that leadership position. But it is ok and important that you’re honest when something inevitably surfaces that you know little or nothing about. You’ll sometimes see leaders who don’t know something but decide to not admit it and instead dig in. Not only are you not sharing vulnerability, but you’re also degrading your credibility. People are more intuitive than we think and can see through the BS in most cases. So, if you are that leader, let go of your ego and admit when you don’t know something; share the vulnerability. Not only will that make people respect you, but it will also be a big help for your team’s overall success. 

I think training is a great example to demonstrate sharing vulnerability in the Air Force fire service. It is no secret that most of the Air Force (and DoD) installations do not get nearly the amount calls as our civilian counterparts. This is no fault of our own and a testament to the well-maintained infrastructure and other community risk reduction efforts. However, few calls for firefighters mean a lack of valuable experience. Often, relatively young and inexperienced Officers are responsible for training even younger firefighters how to do the job. How do you deliver quality training if you don’t have valuable experience? In this case, if you’re the Officer, be vulnerable. Admit that you have little experience. Sharing vulnerability builds trust and respect with the young firefighter and the rest of your crew. Of course, a critical follow-up effort to this is to get out there, learn, and train to the best of your ability. Additionally, call on others who may have the experience. Reach out to other Officers or Chief Officers. Collectively, you’ll be much more effective in developing the young firefighter (and yourselves). But that can only happen if you’re first vulnerable.

Skill 3 – Establish Purpose

Without purpose, little else will matter. People must know why they do what they do. In the fire service, this is simple, we respond to emergencies and (hopefully) solve our customer’s problems. I would argue though, it may not be as clear to all firefighters. Considering some departments don’t have a large call volume, it may be hard for firefighters there to understand their purpose. This is where a well-established culture (and purpose statement) should step in to help make things clear. Daniel Coyle mentions that most successful organizations use statements or catchphrases and narratives that drive shared values. For example, the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team motto is “leave the jersey in a better place”, the Air Force Pararescue motto is “That Others May Live”, and Apple’s motto is “Think Different.” Our FireDawg Podcast motto is “Connect, Inform, Inspire.” These short (and simple) phrases may not seem like much on the surface, but they establish a clear purpose. Whenever there is a moment where you lack clarity, you can turn to the purpose statement to steer you in the right direction. In the Air Force fire service, we may not have a large call volume, but we do still respond to significant emergencies, and they are no less important than any other emergency. Our purpose is to be ready to solve their problem no matter how often we’re called. So, every decision made should have that purpose in mind. Simon Sinek also outlines the idea of purpose extensively in his book The Infinite Game. What is it all about for you or your organization? Don’t be distracted by short-term obstacles; let your overall purpose drive your actions. That purpose doesn’t have to be all that complicated. It is better to be simple and clear. With a clearly defined purpose, there is no questioning why we’re here or why we do what we do. All the other important details are built on that foundation. 

If a purpose is something you’re missing, look to your department’s mission statement. If you’re a leader, make sure that the mission statement clearly outlines the purpose and make sure it is visible. Make sure every decision you make is an incremental step toward fulfilling the mission. Put up images or articles within your department that speak to the purpose – visual reminders of why we’re here. Highlight an emergency that your team was on that had a positive outcome. These little steps could make a big difference in defining the purpose and propelling the department’s success.

Conclusion

A drive to be successful is embedded into our DNA and something most of us want; both in our personal and professional lives.  We look up to and celebrate successful people, follow successful sports teams, and remain loyal to successful businesses. They serve as our archetypes, our ideals. These three skills outlined by Daniel Coyle offer us a secret to that success. They’re simple yet effective strategies to get the most out of ourselves and those around us. I know that most Fire Departments are great, and many will continue to be great without the influence of this book. Although, I’d bet that, within their culture, they have elements of these three skills. If you want to make yourself or your department just a little bit better, give the book a read and start practicing these three skills today: build safety, share vulnerability, and establish purpose.

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Matt Wilson

Matt is a Master Sergeant in the US Air Force, currently stationed at Joint-Base Langely-Eustis. He serves as an Assistant Chief, with more than 14 years on the job.

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