Tiger by the Tail

Issue 8 and Volume 12.

The archbishop, and indeed all his instructors in the program, were genuinely impressed that a firefighter would want to become a deacon. A very practical man, the archbishop asked the obvious question: “Why would you, a man who has already given his entire adult life in service, seek to take on another path to do the exact same thing?” A reasonable question. My friend (an equally practical man) replied, “I have spent my entire life busting my a** to accomplish professional goals, which has resulted in being drawn far away from doing the thing I love the most – helping people.” The archbishop nodded in agreement, reflecting on the fact that when he became a priest, he had never envisioned that his life’s path would lead him so far away from that which drew him to serve at the outset – a desire to help others.

Consider Your Path

It’s funny, I used to tell people when I was working in operations that I loved my job and could never envision doing anything else. I joked about the fact that if I ever had to sit in an office all day and wear a tie I would probably kill myself. The value of hindsight is simply priceless. That is not to say that I am unhappy – quite the contrary. I get to work in one of the fastest-growing departments in America with incredible resources and outstanding people. I am blessed beyond words and have nothing to complain about.

At the same time, it is fundamentally important to remember that the further you get from the field, the more difficult it is to replicate the personal sense of satisfaction that comes from helping others. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to promote; setting personal and professional goals is a cornerstone of success. However, understanding the consequences of success should similarly be understood. Rarely do instructors in fire officer classes talk about the fact that promoting through the ranks may ultimately lead to having to leave the street. It may seem intuitive to understand and recognize that fact, but the reality of doing so is far different than the theoretical construct discussed in academic settings. The simultaneous paradox is that the higher you promote in an organization, the more perceived “power” you have to influence change.

Early in my career, a deputy chief counseled me in a direct way when he said, “70 percent of a deputy’s salary is a lot more than a firefighter’s.” I understood what he was saying, but I am not sure his primary motivation (financial comfort in retirement) included a complete explanation of what it takes to accomplish that goal. Working hard is honorable, but not necessarily at the cost of sacrificing your sanity.

Professional success does not equal personal happiness. One may flow from the other – that is, it is easier to succeed when you are doing something you love – but the converse is not automatic. My point is this: Find a rank you love, and if you can enjoy financial security at that rank, hang out there for awhile. Easier said than done, for sure. How do I know I wouldn’t love being a fire chief unless I become one? Such an answer may only be found within oneself, but if you ask most [insert rank here] if they truly love what they are doing, they will likely give you a politically correct answer centered on being extended the honor to serve and the greatness of their organization and the people who work with them. Dig a little deeper, and ask them if they are happy. The answer may surprise you. Tillering a tractor-drawn aerial and commanding fires are pretty good gigs.

Look around and take the time to carefully consider the personal satisfaction that comes with helping others. Then, and only then, can you decide for yourself whether you want to help those in need (external customers) or focus on helping those who help those in need (internal customers). At one end of the pendulum is the firefighter. At the other end is the fire chief. Only you will know where you belong. Wherever you land, be happy and … be careful what you wish for … you might just get it.