Right now there is an interesting discussion on Dave Statter’s blog, STATter911 (in the comments) on orders given by a commissioner to remove a flag sticker from a locker. Despite the conversation outlining the age-old struggle between being too harsh and too lenient, the underlying issue is one of conflict: the escalation of events to the point in which the conflict is intractable and neither side is willing to give in.
The leadership in this case appears to have been addressing a critical issue (the issue of racially charged material on a locker). The firefighter is interested in leaving an icon of his beliefs and values in place. Both sides have a point and both sides can be seen as being right. Both sides have issues that can be argued as being uncooperative and counterproductive. So who is right?
In emergency services, those who have power have a need to maintain discipline for a number of reasons. I’m assuming anyone reading this understands that. Likewise, individuals have a need to be individuals, and even the most uniform of organizations can’t hope to suppress individuality. From the soldier who keeps a religious medal tucked under his helmet to the police officer with a picture of her family in her protective vest, people will find ways to insert their individual values into whatever it is they do.
The most effective way to handle the problem of the offensive material on the locker would be to reason with the individual as to why the offensive material should be removed. Barring that, punishment of the individual who is operating contrary to the desired values of the organization seems to be the appropriate move. Unfortunately, the easy way (and the wrong way, and also the way it seems that discipline is most commonly utilized) is to punish everyone for the poor judgement of a few.
As a chief officer, I know as well as anyone that discipline is essential to the effective delivery of service, given the type of service we are providing. And while I insist on a certain degree of uniformity, the best way to handle that and to maintain morale is to seek alternative ways for people to express themselves. Be it a unit patch, or a special pin, or something like that, these icons have the ability to make us feel special while being part of a team. Conversely, and it might be the case here (and it might not), some employees choose to express their individuality or express their “values” as a form of undesirable protest or as a means of “fighting the system”.
There is a certain amount of tongue-biting I have to endure over the course of each day when someone does something counter to my own values and beliefs. As a parent, it is something that happens daily in one degree or another, and with firefighters it seems that the same motivations exist there as well. It is difficult sometimes to separate what is truly an issue versus what is petty. Sometimes we as leaders must pick our battles and be willing to give on an issue so that we have some bargaining room later when we need it. Regular conflict for the sake of conflict is just being a jerk. Power isn’t worth anything if you don’t let it go once in a while. If you use your power like a stick every time someone goes counter to your ideas, don’t be surprised when someone eventually turns on you and snaps back.
I believe in my right to express my support of this Nation, the God I pray to, and a number of other causes. Likewise, I believe there is a need for uniformity and order when we are serving the public. We have an image to portray in an effort to inspire confidence in our service and people respect uniformity. It signifies order and that’s what we are trying to achieve when we roll onto the scene. In both cases, I think there is a little space for understanding the opposing points of view and achieving cooperation.
When you are a leader, you need to act like a responsible adult. As a follower, if you want to be treated with respect, you also need to act like a responsible adult. Giving someone a suspension for leaving an American flag sticker on their locker, regardless of orders, is being inflexible and unreasonable. Treating everyone with a broad brush when it is not indicated is never a good idea. But failing to comply with an order from the leadership who is trying do their job by creating some uniform and objective rules isn’t a good idea either. The established order was to remove “everything”. But upon realizing that “everything” included an American flag, the rules should be amended either to specifically permit valued and acceptable items, or try to work together to a possible solution.