When I was a Division Supervisor on a wildland fire, I’d be driving around in my truck, talking to my folks, listening and talking on the radio, hearing from the Ops Chief and placing orders to logistics. I was busy and engaged. But by 1000 I was looking into my five-pound sack lunch to high-grade the good stuff. I wasn’t hungry. I hadn’t done any work yet. As a matter of fact the most work I would be doing all day is walking up the line to talk to my crews. I wasn’t hungry, I was Sport Eating. Just eating for the fun of it. I was and still am a regular practitioner of Sport Eating.
Sport Bitching is just like Sport Eating. We do it because it feels good, or we’re lazy or bored. In the fire service, whether it’s the wildland environment or a city fire station, one of the worse things that can happen is having a dry spell. No calls. No fires. Sitting around the station doing busy work or out doing project work can be bad for crew morale and will likely lead to problems. Those slow times are when our folks become “firehouse lawyers.” They’ll find all sorts of things wrong and you as their supervisor will pay a price. It should be one of the “situations that shout watch out”. We should do everything we can to keep our firefighters busy and engaged. And if you’re a leader (and remember, we’re all leaders), you can add to the negativity if you’re not careful.
Years ago when I was a District FMO/Division Chief, I received an email from the Forest Fire Staff that had been sent from the Regional office. It was something that I thought was dumb, stupid, ignorant… and it pissed me off. I started ranting at my computer screen. “This is the most stupid thing I’ve ever seen. What do they think we’re doing out here? They’re so out of touch…” My rant was getting louder and more animated as I shouted and waved my arms at the computer screen.
My AFMO/Battalion Chief came into my office, shut the door and said, “Bobbie, you’re scaring the folks in the office.” Oh my gosh I thought. That’s bad. What a horrible example I’m setting for my leadership. I shut up and mumbled an apology.
Choose Your Moments
But man, it felt good to rip off a string of expletives and call the Regional office and Forest Headquarter folks a bunch of ignorant idiots. I got an adrenaline rush. It made me feel strong and important. But it was only creating a bad environment for my own personnel.
Sport Bitching does feel good. It really does. And in my career I’ve done plenty. As an immature leader, I didn’t realize how destructive it was. But I learned… eventually I did. That one instance when my BC said I was scaring our personnel was like a slap in the face. That’s when I started considering what was going on.
As a leader, you absolutely cannot Sport Bitch down to your folks. You will create a negative environment. They’ll pick up your vibe, and within 30 minutes they’ll be bitching about you, their co-workers, the other engine crew, the adjacent shot crew on the line, the overhead team, and everyone else. You set the tone. You’re the leader.
A little recreational Sport Bitching can be ok. Keep it light, limit the time it consumes and make sure everyone moves on. I mean, you can’t deny the caterer sucks when you’ve had frozen burritos and white bread every day in your sack lunch. But move on already!
If you’re a Captain and your BC has given some direction you deem wrong, dumb or counterproductive, you might consider the judicious use of peer-to-peer Sport Bitching. With the other Captains, you might talk about how dumb this new direction from the BC is. Careful now… not too much. Don’t get carried away. Once you’ve gotten their attention about how you perceive the new direction, quickly insert your plan for approaching the BC with some alternatives. Ask the other Captains to think about the new direction and your proposal. Don’t just bitch about it! Because if you’re just bitching, you have entered the black hole of negativity. That sucking sound you hear is the toilet water swirling around taking you all down the drain.
Strategic Sport Bitching
In my career I’ve used Strategic Sport Bitching on my boss and even my boss’s boss. But this requires surgical precision Sport Bitching. It can be dangerous but can have amazing results if practiced carefully. I’ve Sport Bitched all the way to the National Fire Director and Chief of the Forest Service with varied results. You have to know your audience. But if we’re going to be leaders, we have to speak up. It’s all about how we speak up/Sport Bitch. Think of risk management. Risk versus gain. Much can be gained, but you’re way out on the edge when you’re Strategic Sport Bitching at that level. Imagine playing the board game Operation as a kid. One mis-intended flick of your finger and you get buzzed. I had some significant successes practicing Strategic Sport Bitching to a Regional Forester (think Captain upgrades). But I paid the price with the Chief when my finger hit the side of the Operations board, and I was severely buzzed.
Let’s consider our options when we receive that dumb email from above or read the latest direction/policy that just doesn’t make sense. How do we react? Do we react in a constructive way or a destructive way. As leaders we set the tone for our personnel. We get to choose what the mood will be. You can never Sport Bitch down to your folks. That’s never ok and can cause irreparable harm to your organization. (Think of the toilet water swirling. You flushed it.)
Remember, we all have the ability to influence regardless of our rank/position. If you’re a crew member, you can influence those around you by your work ethic, attitude and words. You have the ability to influence the squad boss and crew boss too.
If you’re the Captain, Crew Boss, FMO/Division Chief, you have the ability to influence a larger piece of the organization. Think about it. We’re all leaders and need to step up and speak up. There’s nothing worse in my opinion than staying quiet during a meeting and then sport bitching to your peers and employees afterward about the new dumb direction that’s just come down. If you were silent during the meeting where you heard about it, you have no right to bitch now. I’m not suggesting you get into a verbal altercation with the big bosses. But it’s important for them to know what your perspective is. It’s that judicial use of Sport Bitching. Let’s all step up and practice smart visible leadership while being careful not to just Sport Bitch for the fun of it.
You listen to this story at http://bobbieonfire.com/2020/02/08/28-sport-bitching/
Both Sides of the Fire Line is Bobbie Scopa’s uplifting memoir of bravely facing the heat of fierce challenges, professionally and personally. It’s due out in September and available for preorder now.
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