The Prankster As Leader – It Doesn’t Work

As a follow up to some issues I discussed on my last post, I submit to you this case study:  I have never called our Dispatch to have anyone sent to a false alarm.  Years ago, however, I was prompted about the crew on one of our medic units at another station complaining all day about being the next on rotation for any out-of-town transports. When I called the station to ask a question on another matter, the officer asked me to call back and inform the medic crew that one of these transports were getting ready to go. Ultimately, when the prank was revealed, everyone had a good laugh.

A few shifts later, we did end up with one of these transports and the same crew was back on rotation.  I called the station to let the crew know what was going on.  I hung up from that and went back to my computer.  After a few minutes, I still hadn't heard the medic unit check in on the radio.  When I called the station to find out what was going on, I'll bet you know what the answer was. That day I learned a lesson the hard way.  The lesson: Don't give someone an order and then, when something unusual comes up, expect your orders to be followed without question.

Individuals who become supervisors, and subsequently leaders, must understand that when they play pranks like that, the result is that people don't see you as credible. I do have examples of officers who have been able to be pranksters and be credible, but they are VERY far and few between.  In retrospect, a friend and colleague who I consider one of the best officers I have ever worked with was one of those.  But my observation is that he had the ability to pull off pranks that didn't require his active involvement.  And while never calling attention to his ability to pull a fast one, he wasn't the class clown either.  

Conversely, there are those who when they pull off the joke, they have to be in the middle of it.  This obviously detracts from their respectability.  They are not seen as credible.  The crew just sees them as an extension of themselves, with some added paperwork responsibilities.  When it comes to playtime, these characters are right there in the mix, setting someone up for a "bunny tail", throwing someone else's car keys into a bowl of water bound for the freezer, or throwing a bucket of cold water over top of the shower door on some unsuspecting boot.  And what's even worse is that when the officer engages in this behavior, it also means that to be a good sport, you must be okay with being the mark in some of the practical jokes. Otherwise, the argument is that you can dish it out, but can't take it, and depending on how you react, you may very well end up looking foolish, which certainly isn't going to do anything for your respect.

There are ways to not be a prankster and not be seen as a tight-ass either.  We have a long standing "tradition" of wetting individuals with ice cold buckets of water when they get promoted.  The day I got the official letter, I overheard some of the crew debating the wisdom of wetting me, since I don't engage in that nonsense.  But when all the work was done that day, I finished up a report, walked out into the kitchen and said, "Okay, if you're going to do this, let's do it and get it over with."  

Each of the other six guys at Station 6 that day got a shot at pouring ice water on a newly minted chief officer (see the picture).  I'll admit it was cold and that it took my breath away.  But I sat there and when they exhausted their last bucket and they were all standing around, I shook the ice off my shirt and stood up.  I then asked, "You guys done?"  They all acknowledged that they were, I simply said "Thank You", went inside to my rack and changed into a dry uniform.  Then I went back to my office to finish up my evening reports with a smile and a business as usual attitude.

Likewise, if you have that kind of attitude and someone does take a chance to pull one over on you, the best bet is to maintain a sense of humor about it, but remind the entire crew that it isn't smart to prank the chief.  I've said something like, "Are you sure turning the heater on high in the chief's car is a good career move?", which gets some light laughter, but everyone gets the point.  Later you can take the individual aside and actually use it to discuss this very same lesson here with them, so that perhaps they learn from it for when they become an officer. 

When you are a leader, it requires you to not take yourself too seriously.  But if you are busy dreaming up new practical jokes rather than dreaming up new training scenarios, the likelihood that you will be given the respect you desire as an officer is going to be slim. Officers who engage in practical joking with their subordinates are only asking for reciprocation; the biggest downside is that reaction may come at the time you least want it to.  Best to leave the funny stuff to the kids and stick to being the responsible adult. 

1 Comment

  • chiefbobr says:

    Very good article Mick, and one that should be required reading for all new and aspiring officers.  As an officer, you relinquish control of the situation owhen you become a part of ongoing 'firehouse funnies'. As you stated, the officer can watch and giggle, but he or she needs to stay out of direct involvement so that it can be stopped if it begins to get out of hand. It's all about respect and setting the example. Thanks for the post, BR

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