Years ago while serving as Chief 1 (Fire Staff) on a large western forest, I had the opportunity to find myself at odds with the Regional Forester and my boss, the Forest Supervisor. Generally, I was well respected in my job by both of those individuals. And they knew I would speak the hard truths that were often what people were thinking but no one was saying.
When I was sitting in a regional fire leadership meeting and one of the administrators were stating “facts” that the rest of us knew were not at all facts, it was usually me who stood up and respectfully disagreed with the administrator. If I did not stand up to suggest that the administrator didn’t fully understand the situation, faces in the meeting room would turn around to find me, wondering when I was going to speak up.
My push back against the GS-15s and Senior Executive Service bosses was always polite and respectful but the truth had to be made known to them because often times, they just didn’t have all the facts and they were just following the agency line.
I felt it was all our jobs as leaders to speak truth to power, but very often my peers felt uncomfortable speaking up. On the other hand, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut when I heard some well intentioned but inaccurate statements coming from the bosses in a room full of fire supervisors.
Now back to the story of being at odds with my Forest Supervisor and the Regional Forester. We had experienced a tragic multiple firefighter fatality on our Forest prior to me taking the helm of the Forest fire organization. But I was dealing with the aftermath and it was ugly. One of the crew captains involved that fateful day was unjustly being brought up on criminal charges.
In preparation for the expected media scrutiny and the concerns of our firefighters for their co-worker who was about to appear in court facing criminal charges, the Regional Forester, the Forest Supervisor and I would spend three days visiting all the crews and stations on the Forest to allay their fears and answer questions. The trip had been going well so far as we spoke to the firefighters explaining what we knew about the upcoming court hearing and what the Agency was doing to support our crew captain. On the third day, as we gathered up on the back lawn of one of our stations with the type two IA and two engine crews and their overhead, we gave our talk to the firefighters intending to keep them calm and let them know we were there to support them.
At one point, the crew captain asked the three of us a question. His question was, “if we get involved in a fatality accident, what should we do?” Remember this was over 20 years ago and the climate for firefighter liability was very different than it is today. But back then this was a real concern for our fireline supervisors. Could they end up facing jail time like their co-worker? The crew captain persisted asking the regional forester, “Sir, what do you think we should do if we’re involved in a fatality accident?” The RF’s answer was clear. “Just speak up honestly and cooperate with the investigators. We’ll have your back”. The crew captain then looked straight at my boss, the Forest Supervisor, “Ma’am, what do you think we should do if we’re involved in a fatality accident”? Her answer was the same, “Oh yes, absolutely. Tell the investigators everything because we’ll have your back.”
When the crew captain looked at me, I knew the question was coming. “Bobbie, what about you, what do you think we should do?” Damn! I was trapped between being honest and telling him what I really thought in front of 40 firefighters, disagreeing with my bosses. Of course I wasn’t going to start lying now. I looked at both my bosses and said, “No disrespect to the RF and the Forest Sup but, if you’re involved with a crew fatality or serious accident, don’t say a word until you have a lawyer. Don’t say a word.” (The climate is different now, so I wouldn’t give the same advice 22 years later.) But I had pissed off my bosses. I had visibly disagreed with them in front of 40 of our firefighters. They weren’t happy with me.
Later that day, my boss pulled me aside. She was not happy with me and had that look on her face that I was used to getting. I’m sure part of it was because I had not only disagreed with her in front of my firefighters but with the Regional Forester as well. She said to me, “You know, you don’t always have to say exactly what’s on your mind. Not all the time. Sometimes, you can just go a long with the agency line or say nothing at all.”
I thought about what she said. Do I always have to speak up? But I didn’t always speak up. There were lots of times I just kept my mouth shut. She just didn’t know about all those times. I often disagreed with her and the Forest Leadership Team. But I couldn’t always be contrary. I had to choose my battles. But this issue was too important. This was a battle that I’d fall on my sword over. One of my primary jobs as Chief 1 was to protect my firefighters.
I said to her, “When I took this job as the new Chief 1, I was automatically suspect. I didn’t start my career on the Forest. I had 12 years on a structure fire department. I didn’t fit the mold of the local FMO. I made changes, and I bucked the status quo with the organization. And it took me years to build up my reputation as a boss that would support the firefighters. It took years of hard work to gain the trust and respect of our firefighters. I will not throw that all away by saying something they already know to be false. I won’t do it. I have to be honest with them.”
Her face was taut and unsmiling. She wasn’t happy because in front of 40 firefighters I just said she and her boss were wrong. But that’s ok. I was respectful to both of them when I disagreed.
Some time later, that same Regional Forester and I were alone after a meeting. He said that although at the time he didn’t understand why I would visibly disagree with him in front of the firefighters, he now understood. Something had happened, and he got it. He understood why I said what I did. My Forest Supervisor also knew that she’d always know my opinion on the important things. She knew we wouldn’t always agree but she respected my abilities to lead the fire organization and speak honestly.
Did my speaking up impact on my career? I think it eventually held me back. But would I choose to go back in time to keep quiet in order to be promoted even more? Absolutely not. It’s not about getting ahead to the next job. It’s about doing the best at the one you’re in.
Opportunities to prove your integrity come during all parts of our career. It happens when you’re just starting out as a GS-3. “Who mixed this pump fuel? it’s not right.” It might just be a little thing. But speak up and be honest. It’s how you build your credibility. Take a little lump, and admit you made a mistake. You’ll have other chances to build your integrity, but it starts by being honest. This is how you build the trust of those around you.
Years ago I was the first engine company officer on scene at a major auto accident with three vehicles and eight patients. It was an ugly mess. I was the on scene incident commander, and I didn’t do a good job. As a matter of fact, I’d give myself a failing grade for my poor performance as the IC. Afterwards, I recognized what I had done wrong but, it was my fault that the incident didn’t go well.
The next shift, my Battalion Chief called to say we were going to do an After Action Review with all the units involved. When my crew and I walked in to the meeting room for the AAR, everyone was already seated. Before I sat down I said to the group, “Let’s just get this out of the way. I messed up as IC. We can start there. I did a poor job. Now let’s do the AAR.” Openly and honestly admitting I had failed as the IC on that incident established that I was honest and actually bought me some respect from the older officers in the group. (That story is episode 35, Ok Guys, I know I Screwed Up at BobbieOnFire.com)
If you’re like me or most of us, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to speak up and be honest. But remember how we speak up and how we push back is critical. There can be a fine line between someone with integrity and honesty and one who just like to throw bombs. Always being respectful to others is important, too.
Knowing when to speak up and when to stay quiet is tough. It’s a judgement call based on experience and maybe even intuition. But how you’re perceived as a leader depends on it. Having integrity is integral to your role as a leader. Speak up, be polite and be honest.
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 available now.Order from Amazon Order from Barnes & Noble