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  • Marc Aloan

The Cost of Criticism


(Photo: Firehouse.com)

Humbleness and humility are essential qualities of the modern fire service leader.  It is a shame we don’t touch more on them in leadership courses as they are huge parts of leading a team.  The modern fire officer must have the ability to admit they are wrong, both to administration and subordinates.  It is crucial to gaining the respect of your crew that you are not too arrogant or entitled to use yourself as an example when appropriate.  While your goal should be to not make mistakes, they are going to happen.  Failure is one of the best tools for improvement as it keeps us on our toes and pushes us to train harder and do better.  Humility also lets your crew know that you aren’t full of crap.  The wealth of information at everyone’s fingertips has essentially created the end of the “because I said so” days.  In reality, those days should have been over long ago.  As I have previously discussed there is a time and a place for unwavering orders and training is simply not one of them.  The goal of training should be to hone your team’s skills and grow as a crew.  This is the time for your crew to ask how and why.  This is the time for the officer to answer these questions.  If this is not accomplished during training revolutions, it will spill over to the fireground where there is no time or place for it. 


One of the worst things that can happen to a young officer is harsh criticism of the way he or she is training their crew.  There is a difference between constructive criticism and attempting to belittle someone just to feel superior.  The effects of such actions are negative for both the sender and the receiver of the hostility.  I have been told such reactions to young officers teaching different methods are because older members are threatened.  While I cannot discount this assessment I have to wonder, why someone of equal or greater rank with a significantly longer tenure would possibly be threatened by a junior officer.  Regardless of the reason, the how is more important than the why under these circumstances.  It is the how that can have a seriously detrimental effect on upcoming officers and the department for years to come.  The only things that will occur from such tirades are a crew who does not respect their senior officer and a junior officer who will likely be unconfident in his or her abilities.  We need more mentors to teach our personnel how to operate in their new role rather than the berate them with what they are doing wrong!


(Photo: criticalcommunicationsreview.com)

When I was in my first year as an acting officer in charge I made the mistake of correcting my

subordinate in an embarrassing manner in front of multiple people during a training evolution.  What I did was wrong and something that I had been conditioned to think was normal.  A Lieutenant pulled me aside and explained to me how I was the only one that looked stupid in the situation.  He also asked me how I would feel if he was doing to me what I had just done to my subordinate.  What a huge wakeup call and important lesson!  Mentoring at its finest!  He went on to explain to me that when your subordinates are doing the wrong thing, you are the one who looks bad.  You look even worse when you embarrass them for messing up because you are ultimately responsible for how they operate.  He was absolutely right.  I tell this story to demonstrate my humility which has taken me years to find.  I screw up more often than I would like to admit and have learned that being up front about your shortcomings goes a long way with your crew.  It also puts a quick stop to outside criticism as owning your mistakes leaves nowhere for others to go. 

Where there real issue lies is in situations where you aren’t wrong and have only been perceived by others to have screwed up.  Perhaps it involves a new tactic you learned at a class or you are teaching a method which wasn’t around 20 years ago.  Outsiders will often inject themselves into your training evolution in a negative manner which not only interrupts the training session but also demeans that officer running it.  This is completely UNACCEPTABLE!  The cost of such actions is chipping away at the confidence of new or young officers.  The implications will eventually lead to second guessing and poor decision making out of fear of reprimand or mistreatment.  There is no reason to make anyone feel inferior in front of their crew.  If there is a real or perceived safety issue, it should be discussed to the side and out of earshot from other members of the training session.  Also learn to accept that not everyone will agree on everything and doing something different doesn’t mean it is being done wrong!  Obviously I have been on the wrong end of these situations and I am going to try and use my experiences to stop it from happening to others.  Many new officers are met with harsh criticism which may or may not be accurate.  As a group, the fire service is HORRIBLE about accepting new information or tactics.  As with most things in life, the older we get the more we are set in our ways.  However, that is not an acceptable practice in our trade as it continues to evolve. 

If you are new officer meeting such resistance, just remember to stick to your guns and do what is right.  Attend as many classes and conferences as possible to learn our craft from those who take is seriously rather than from those who take from the job yet never give back.  There will be times those who work against you are right.  You have to be willing to accept and recognize these moments as part of your path to humility.  There will also be many times where they are wrong and this is where you need to prepare to feel lonely and beat up.  Push through, be the wave of change that breaks the sea of content.  Don’t let people put you down or belittle you.  Only you have the power to hold your head up high and push through their nonsense.  I struggle with this on a daily basis.  The main reason I run my page and write these blogs to let others know they are not alone.  While it hurts to be hated, in some cases it means you are winning because they are talking about you and the changes you are trying to make.  The ladder to the top isn’t at an ideal angle, it requires smart and steady climbing.  Pace yourself as you suppress ignorance and better you crew and your department.

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