Leadership 2a – My first teachers: 1 Coach, 3 Fire Department Captains

We need good models if we are going to know how to lead.

Credit: Themindsjournal.com

Leadership 2a: My teachers: A Coach and the Fire Department

Our leadership vision is built on experience.  We are originally taught by those who lead us, our parents, teachers, coaches, and the first people we work for.  As we move forward in our career we eventually are called to supervise others, and we learn from them what works and doesn’t work.  I wanted to jot down some thoughts about who my teachers were, but it you know me, when I am trying to summarize 51 years of working with people in crisis and 44 years as a social justice lawyer, my stories are like links in a chain, one story leads to another, and soon this document was 15 pages long on Word, so rather than dump the whole thing  as my usual Friday Leadership post, I decided to break it into three parts and publish it over the weekend, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  I have tried to highlight some of my experiences which shaped how I learned to lead because I think it will be helpful to understand where I am coming from, and where appropriate, I have provided links to other posts I have written about my experiences, such as being a social justice lawyer or living the Caribbean and later on a sailboat.

A few words about my teachers.

My teachers about leadership come in three categories: professionals in the leadership field, those who led me, and those I have led.

Lessons from Professionals:

I often wonder if I have ever had an original thought in my life.  I read a lot and learn from others, latch on to clever phrasing, synthesize the most important lessons they offer and by the time I am done, I don’t know who said what and I may fool myself into thinking it was my own idea.  These posts will be a combination of my philosophy of leadership, illustrated by examples of seeing that philosophy in action from my own life as a firefighter, medic in the army, lawyer for the Indians and poor people, teacher in a disciplinary high school, lawyer for people seeking the protection as they fled the violent civil wars in Central American, English teacher in Honduras, and mentor to 126 undergraduate and law student interns helping detainees fight deportation.

My teachers who are the professionals in the field of leadership include Simon Sinek (Leaders Eat Last, Start with Why), John Maxwell (The 5 Levels of Leadership), Tom Peters, Colin Powell, and Peter Anderton, and many more.  You will be seeing their videos and reading quotes from them. Because I have read and reread their books, and watched their videos so often,  I am sure I will unintentional use their language without proper attribution so I want to give them credit for planting the seeds of my own philosophy. I strongly encourage anyone interested in leadership to watch their videos and read their books because they say these things better than I have.

A leader is always learning.

Effective leadership is a never-ending learning process, more like a verb than a noun.  Over 51 years I have worked with people in crisis in a variety of settings: fires and emergencies on the street, classrooms filled with suspicious students, sitting in my office with weeping survivors of domestic violence or victims of torture who didn’t dare trust me.  I have served under a few good leaders and many more bad bosses, and in watching them I have recognized their common characteristics.  Below I present a few illustrative examples of the nurturing, the inspirational, as well as the soul scorching behaviors I have been subjected to.  I hope you find a few things your can do, or never do, to make yourself a better leader.

High school football  1964

(Leadership lesson: know what your team members do best.  Reward effort and attitude.)

Credit: Chula Vista High School Annual

The Coach

My high school football career was short and undistinguished.  I was small, 5’8” 140 pounds, weak, unskilled, and blessed with the aggressiveness of a sleepy kitten. Coach Larry Armbrust made me third string center because it was the position in which I could do the least damage.  In a season of 10 games I played 3 minutes, the rest of the time I found myself “riding the pines,” sitting on the bench.  But even though I did not have enough playing time to earn a coveted “letter,” which is an emblem of sporting achievement, Coach Armbrust gave me a letter anyway.

I am number 10 in the team picture.

My letterman’s sweater was my high school equivalent of a Purple Heart, rewarding me for volunteering to be the tackling dummy every day during practice.  Coach Armbrust would put two bags about 6 feet apart, and all the action had to remain between the bags – a defensive player would line up nose to nose with an offensive lineman and I would stand behind my offensive guardian clutching the pigskin.  The goal of the exercise was for the offense lineman to move the defender back, or to the left or right to give me room to slip passed.  When the whistle blew, there would be the clash of helmets and the slap shoulder pads and I rarely slipped passed.  Usually I found myself lifted up and slammed to the ground, seeing stars. I would jump back up and return to my starting position behind two new offensive and defensive contestants.  And the cartoons are correct, when I took a really violent hit, I could hear a small bird chirping off in the distance. When I first saw the viciousness of that drill, I realized that my Gandhian nature made me more suited to taking abuse, rather than dishing it out.

I hated Coach Armbrust back then, he scared the crap out of me, and I cursed him as he sent us on endless cycles of running 50 yards down, 50 yards back with a whistle tweet, and the command, “Down to the fence and back!” He exhausted me, pushed me beyond what I thought was humanly possible.  But as years went by I grew to respect him because he taught me that when I thought I was completely spent, that my tank was empty, that I could always dig down and push myself a just little more.  This attitude saved my butt in Army boot camp and later as I trained for marathons. Coach Armbrust gave me a Bachelor’s degree in learning that scaring the shit out of someone can help them find what they are capable of.  Seven years later, U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Roy Burchfield was going to give me my Master’s Degree in fear-generated personal growth.

But I remain grateful to Coach Armbrust for teaching me that the role of a leader is to reward people based on what they were capable of, and whether or not they did their best.  He taught me that all leaders should be coaches.  Imagine how different the world could be if instead of calling the head of an office “the boss” we called them “My Coach.” 

Montgomery Fire Department 1969-1977

(Leadership lessons: Nobody likes a hard ass.  You earn the trust of your team members by protecting them. Monitor the mental and physical well-being of each team member, and when they are suffering, address the problem with them. A thorough orientation on the first day is important to establish as much confidence as possible in new team members.)

Jim Hardiman, Pete Vredenburgh, Captains Ledesma and Rink 

Putting on turnout jacket to respond to fire. John “Ooops” Katnich, Mike “20-20” Randall.

I paid my way through college and law school as a firefighter.  During those eight years I served under three captains, none of whom qualified as a great leader, but one was definitely a bad boss.  Each had a few good points, and If you plucked out the leadership qualities of each of the three, and combined them, you could have ended up with one good leader.  Captain Noel B. Wood was fun and funny but would occasionally put his crew in harm’s way through his misreading of a dangerous situation.  He was what we called “good in the station, occasionally dangerous on the fire ground.”

Captain Noel “Woody” Wood

Captain Phil Landowski was good in the station, cautious on the fireground, which was fine, but he did not know how to inspire people to follow him, so he was always fomenting mutiny in the ranks by fabricating  “proposed orders from the Fire Chief” that supposedly were in the works and the mere mention of which would  make us lose our minds and vow to never succumb to such abuse. He created what we identify later in a post as “false urgencies.”  His lies would stir our crew up so much he could sit back and watch us complain, and no one would bother him for the stupid things he was asking us to do. 

Captain Bob Ledesma was excellent on the fire ground, but hell on wheels in the station.  Having been a U.S. Marine he believed that only a busy firefighter was a happy firefighter, and he insisted on keeping us jumping.  We firefighters believed that our job was to be well trained, and ready to respond to any emergency.  And in the absence of an emergency, we believed that we were entitled to become objects who had come to rest and intended to remain at rest.  We were the immovable objects and Captain Ledesma viewed himself as the irresistible force. We eventually won, he asked to change crews because he could stand another day of our insolent indolence.  Not my proudest moment, but I still find some satisfaction there.  And I think it is the origin of my personality trait of being a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be when they insist that me or my team doing stupid stuff. Quick example of how to be a bad boss in the fire department.  On the weekly chore chart was the entry: “Wednesday: Trim Hedges.”  We had 8-foot hedges around the station which occasionally needed trimming, with emphasis on occasionally.  If the hedges were trimmed last week, how much new growth do you think has burst forth seven days later?  But oh no, if Ledesma’s crew was on duty on Wednesday, those hedges were going to be trimmed, by god! So, one day when the hedges actually needed to be trimmed, we had one person use the electric hedge cutters and another person following behind him with a boombox recording the sound. 

Credit: Commmedia News, Penn State

From the museum: a Boombox

From then on, any Wednesday when the hedges showed no appreciable growth we would make a big show for Captain Ledesma of stringing out the extension cord, waving the hedge clippers, to distract him while another firefighter moved beach chairs and books around the corner and behind the hedges.  Once we had gathered on the far side of the hedges, we would plug in the boombox, turn it on to the rattle of the hedge clippers, settle into our beach chairs, drink sodas, and read.  

One day we were doing just that when Captain Ledesma, thinking himself the comical trickster, unplugged the extension cord inside the station, silencing the boombox.  Without moving from our chairs, we started yelling, “Plug that back in, we got men trying to work here!”

“Just wanted to keep you guys on your toes,” Ledesma yelled from inside the station, and the boombox started up again, we went back to reading.

It is imperative you attend to the welfare of your team members.

The absence of good leadership in one aspect of the work nearly led to my suicide: the welfare and morale of the team must always be more important than an particular task; a good leader should be monitoring how each team member is doing, every day. Our job was to fight fires and to attend to horrible and tragic injuries inflicted on unsuspecting people. This was before people recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder existed so after a tragic, bloody, and heart-rending incident each firefighter was left to go find a corner and try and make sense of the horror they had just witnessed.  I developed Post Traumatic Stress because of children who died as I tried to save them.  For 14 years I suffered with panic attacks, hallucinations, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts.  If I had admitted my pain back in the fire station I would have been told to “man up” or “grow a pair.”  The problem with that advice is that it would not have cured a broken heart. I left the fire department 43 years ago and my heart is still broken. 

After my experience in the fire department, and the 14 years of PTSD that followed, once I regained my calmness it became imperative for me to always nurture a calm environment for my team, to monitor their well-being every day, to reach out to them at the first indication of any pain, and you will see that protecting my team members is the backbone of my leadership lessons.

This video is from an HBO documentary “FDNY – A Good Job” by the actor Steve Buscemi who worked as a firefighter in New York City for 5 years before beginning his acting career.  It is particularly interesting to me because it includes interviews with two of the first women to become firefighters in New York City.  Our department was all male which I thought was unfair, (I left in 1977) so every time the department started discussing hiring, Tony Ballatore and I contacted NOW, the National Organization for Women, and they would send over women to apply, and the department would suspend plans for hiring. Bastards.

Watch the entire video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGqbKSr-46w

One last fire department orientation story.  I am going to have an entire post on the important role the first day orientation plays in creating a calm and safe atmosphere. My firefighting experience did not include such an orientation. The first big fire I went on was with Captain Wood, who you may recall was great in the station, occasionally dangerous on the fireground.  This was his orientation to me as a 19-year-old scared witless rookie firefighter.  We had arrived at the scene of my first burning house and I slipped the heavy air tank of the breathing apparatus on my back, tightened the belt, and slipped the mask over my face.

Credit: wikipedia

I was trembling with fear and Captain Wood dragged the hose to the front door, signaled for me to grab on behind him and then turned around, lifted up his mask so I could hear him, and shouting over the roar of the fire, he gave me my orientation:  “Listen kid, I’m going to tell you what my Captain told me the first time I went into to a fire, ‘The Christians went into the Coliseum together, but they died alone.’”  He pulled his mask down, we pushed in, attacking the fire.

Credit: MyveronaNJ-firefighter-training

Up next tomorrow: Leadership 2b: My Teachers: A Drill Sergeant, several Lawyers, 1 Caribbean Hotelier, and a sailboat

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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