Having worked my normal 24 hour shift, I got up at 0530 and went to the station’s kitchen to make a pot of coffee. As I stood there, filling the pot with water, I realized that the crew’s dinner kitty was still sitting there on the counter. Although it wasn’t much, it made me think about the trust that you find (or don’t find) in some firehouses. It contrasted with a discussion I overheard about one shift raiding the other shift’s fridge just the day before. Now while most of our stations are “hardened” facilities and require an ID card for entry, I remember when we could leave the place wide open and never have to worry about anything being touched. In this day and age, not only do we need to worry about some mutt walking in while we were on a call and stealing a laptop (it happened to one of our guys), we have to worry about the criminal elements who want our ID, uniforms, or even a vehicle, so they can pose as a firefighter.
Trust, however, is a pretty interesting concept of its own. As a leader, you have to earn the trust of the troops. And as I pointed out, twenty years of being their buddy can go right out the window if you hose them on one thing. I’ve found that it’s better to be circumspect than to lie to another firefighter. If you just can’t talk about it, you might as well lead off by saying that, because if you try to act like you are bringing them in on “the scoop” but you can’t tell them the full details, your credibility is shot.
I look at the way my crews trust me in differing degrees. Do they trust me to command them going into a burning building or to guide them at a building collapse or a confined space incident? I’d guess most of them do since I’ve never had them second-guess me on a scene. Do they trust me on most things? I’d guess they do. Do they trust that I’ll get the roster right in the morning. I’d bet much less so (I’m notorious for having to re-send everyone the “amended” roster). But whatever you do, you had best build credibility in the areas you want them to find you credible in, because if you don’t, your word is crap.
I know company officers (and chief officers) who simply aren’t trusted. The guys may like them, they may have a beer with them, but get them aside and they’ll tell you, “This officer isn’t trustworthy”. They may feel like the officer has got their back on daily things but just can’t trust them to make the right decision on the fireground. And on the fireground, when people have the possibility of being injured or killed, you’d better bet that if you are leading a crew, a section, or the entire incident, you’d better have some credibility. Because do you know what happens when you don’t have credibility? No one will listen to you.
When elements of mistrust exist on a regular basis between the troops and the brass, those factors simply add to frustration levels that always exist anyway between these two dynamics. If you are an officer trying to increase team morale and trying to slow down the rampant rumor mill, you’ll find that deep at the seat of these sentiments lies that mistrust. Be it that the previous leaders were untrustworthy, or that others have continued to fuel the conspiracy theories for their own amusement, in any case, so long as your people fail to trust you, no amount of money, new trucks, etc. will stop the train. It requires making that leap to show them that you can be trusted. In exhibiting your faith in them, hopefully they can begin to have some faith in you.
Maintaining this kind of relationship requires a lot of work. From first-hand knowledge, it can often be frustrating. I am a “firefighter’s firefighter” (or at least I hope that’s how my people see me) and I still walk the walk as much as talk the talk. Yet when I pinned on those chief’s bugles, it didn’t matter that some of these individuals have known me and what I am about for decades: I’m a chief now. The whole element of trust seemed to have to begin from scratch and work its way back to the same level it was at when I was a Captain, I guess.
The problem is that for as much as you try to show these people that you are only interested in doing the right thing, because of years of mistrusting anyone in a white helmet, they don’t feel comfortable putting their trust in you. Firefighters pride themselves in being a cynical bunch; show me one firefighter worth his or her salt and I’ll show you that they have a skeptical eye about pretty much any subject that presents itself. It’s a survival mechanism. While others pride themselves in seeing a half-full glass, we fully expect that the glass is half-full alright: with an unknown toxic. Firefighters require everyone and every incident to prove it is safe to trust first, and only then will they dip their toes into the pool. So an understanding of that culture requires actually living it because the lack of “street cred” automatically targets you as being an outsider and unable to be trusted.
We as leaders must work hard to develop a space of trust. Of all of the qualities of a leader, trust is most important. Frankly, no one is going to follow you if they don’t trust that you’re going to take them someplace they want to go. While you may have all kinds of degrees and certificates, there’s nothing other than setting an example for your troops that is going to teach them that they can follow you and that they can trust that they’ll survive the experience. If you are trying to change your organizational culture and continually meeting resistance, chances are that your either personnel aren’t mature enough to appreciate that individuals are different and new leadership isn’t automatically to be distrusted (until you’ve done something to break that trust already), or because no one has ever given them a reason in the past to let go of their fears and follow you. In both cases, it’s going to require you to stand in front and establish that relationship or understand that you need to develop a thick skin, because the sniping will never end. Standing up and setting an example seems to be the most productive means of accomplishing the mission.