Hit by the “Stupid Truck”: Personal conduct can leave your career, department & public trust in the wreckage

The following article was published in the February issue of FireRescue magazine.

PRESIDENT’S LETTER

By Chief Jeffrey D. Johnson, EFO, CFO, MIFireE

Public attitude surveys regularly cite the fire service as one of the most highly respected professions. While humbling, this isn’t surprising given the caliber of men and women I’ve had the good fortune to serve with and those I’ve met nationally and internationally. As a fire chief, I benefit from the reputation of the fire service as I work to deliver on community expectations. The last thing I want to do is squander this advantage as a result of my own behavior.

We all know individuals whose personal conduct demeaned the work and sacrifice of those they serve with in the fire service. While frustrating at any rank, I’m constantly amazed by talented officers who get mowed down by the “Stupid Truck.” Unlike other managerial skills that get better with time, increased experience and expertise do little to protect us from the “Stupid Truck.” In fact, the more successful and confident we become, the more likely we are to commit what I call the “Five Types of Stupid.”

5 Types of Stupid
The fundamental trait of Ego Stupid is the inability to be self-reflective. It’s “American Idol comes to the office,” and we’re the clueless contestant who’s certain we’re the best. As “the boss,” we project a supreme confidence that stifles the participation and caution that are key to a healthy workplace and instead encourages a false sense of personal and organizational safety.

With Invisible Stupid, we think we can’t be seen. Whether viewing inappropriate Web sites or sending threatening e-mails on our work computer, consuming alcohol or drugs on shift or discharging illegal fireworks at the station on the Fourth of July, we operate as though our identity is protected by Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

Examples of Sex Stupid are everywhere. I draw a distinction between Tiger Woods’ public infidelity and that of a metro police chief who had a relationship with a subordinate and felt it necessary to describe his physical features to her in e-mails—which later found their way to the press. Both admitted to being Sex Stupid, but Tiger’s indiscretion was personal, and it’s that aspect of his life that will pay the biggest price. By contrast, there can never be a good professional outcome when those in power engage in a relationship with a subordinate. Public assumptions made about how we used our power and influence may be entirely unfair, but they are the reality we contend with.

Belonging Stupid is the most understandable in the fire service. Station life makes us enjoy and rely on being part of a group. As leaders, our desire to be liked by the group can result in condoning behavior that is locker room-inspired at best, or offensive and perhaps criminal at worst. When the desire to fit in clouds our judgment, we lose sight of who we are ultimately accountable to: the community we serve.

Finally, Humor Stupid is seen by some as the over-reactive creation of our politically correct culture. I believe that laughter widely shared is a good indicator of a healthy team or organization. But when jokes take on an exclusionary tone (racial, gender, sexual orientation), or when they target colleagues in a manner that can’t be controlled (e-mail and the Internet often play a role), we’ve lost sight of the sense of team that is fundamental to the fire service and establish it as a club attainable only by certain groups.

In Sum
It’s difficult to overstate how much work it takes to gain and maintain the public’s trust. For many of us, it has been the focus of our entire professional lives. Public trust is perishable, and we must always keep an eye out for individuals in our organization who would endanger it by playing chicken with the “Stupid Truck.” The wellbeing of our individual careers, our organization and entire fire service depends on it.

Chief Jeff Johnson began his career as a firefighter in 1978, and he has served as fire chief of Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire & Rescue since 1995. He is past president of the IAFC Western Division and Oregon Fire Chiefs Association. He is a member of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association and has been active in many IAFC sections, including Fire & Life Safety, Volunteer & Combination Officers, EMS, and Safety, Health and Survival. Chief Johnson is a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer graduate and has received his Chief Fire Officer (CFO) Designation.

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