Dealing with Aberrant Firefighters

Their passionate personalities are magnetic

By Mark vonAppen

I believe firefighters can be placed into three categories in terms of engagement and leadership.  Generally speaking,

•    25% believe in (or pretend to believe in) current leadership staff
•     35% have no faith in (some of them even hate) the leadership staff
•     40% could go either way given strong direction and leadership

Of the 35% that contains the haters, there is a very temperamental subset that can have a profound impact on organizational chemistry.

The most important firefighters to capture are the aberrant leaders, those passionate individuals who, if ignored, can be savage and destructive forces on the team. Like it or not, your truest leaders are not always the ones who do exactly as they are told or what the book says is right every single time. Your best leaders are not necessarily those whose heads bob in approval of everything that occurs within the organization. The best leaders are functionally intelligent, independent thinkers who often leave micro-managers scratching their heads wondering where things went off the rails.

People gravitate toward strong personalities, not drones who do just exactly what is expected of them and nothing more. Some of the strongest leaders among us have pushed it right to the edge, and some have even gotten kicked off the team. Passion is energy; channeling that energy in a way to best suit the needs of the team is the key to overall success. Some of history’s most influential leaders were agents of evil; I sure don’t want them on my team. To bring the “rogues” home, you must first understand who they are.

The aberrant, motivated firefighters are driven by passion. Sometimes, your informal, real leaders wind up getting chapped by positional leaders who don’t know what to do with them. Rogues have a lot of energy and original ideas, because of this they are seen as trouble makers who rock the boat. They ask questions. They can be found training by themselves or in tight-knit, misunderstood groups. They are often your highest performers because their passion and drive for perfection won’t let them stop training and learning. They are students of the craft in the truest sense. These types are often intolerant of those who do not understand their drive or respect the craft.

Communication, trust, and confidentiality are the keys to success in any leadership endeavor but particularly when dealing with these bristly people. Cultivating trust is a must if we seek an elite level of performance.

Each aberrant leader must be engaged individually to determine what motivates them. Build trust by treating everyone as unique and shower them with genuine interest. Place these fiery leaders in positions where they have the best chance of affecting others with their strength, their passion for the craft. They must feel that the organization will not quit on them, even when they overstep their bounds. These high performers must be tolerated and even protected. The deal breaker is if they do harm to the team; this cannot be tolerated. The obligation of the informal leader is to make every effort to try to contribute to the success of the team.  

How do you develop trust? People must feel that the leader is speaking to them individually even as the leader is addressing an entire group. Trust and connection must be built and might take a while.

•    Communication
•    Honesty–most aberrant leaders have something in their career that has made them jaded, be honest or you’ll lose them forever
•    Create stakeholders–include informal leaders in the planning process
•    Clearly communicate the plan and then execute it
•    Mutual exchange–have expectations of the individual and allow them to have expectations of positional leaders
•    Accountability  
•    Patience

For better or worse, aberrant leaders have the greatest influence on the organization. Their infectious, passionate personalities are magnetic. People are pulled in when they speak, and they will emulate their actions. If you are able to rein in their energy for the positive and are genuinely interested in helping them succeed for the good of all, then you will have an ally for life. If you double-cross or lie to them, you will have an enemy for eternity. Trust is the biggest factor in getting and keeping rogues engaged.   

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Have an all-in attitude.

Aberrant leaders have loaded dispositions that can either aid in leading the group forward or act to tear the team apart. The key is taking all that energy and focusing it in the right direction before it goes sideways from lack of exercise and frustration. They just need someone they can trust and who truly believes in them. People follow passion much more readily than rules. Find your most passionate people and bring them onboard. True progress is made when passion and lofty goals meet planning and expectations.

MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the fire service since 1998, is a captain in the suppression division. He served as a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention curriculums. He has been published in Fire Engineering, is the creator of the fire service leadership blog FULLY INVOLVED, and is a featured presenter at FDIC International