From the Chief’s Desk
B y R o n n y J . C o l e m a n I f you are one of the lucky few to achieve a leadership role in a fire organization, there is a possibility that you may face a challenge or two. Some people avoid challenges; this is because they are concerned about the winning and losing aspect of any problem. Some people seek out challenges as a means of measuring their com- petency. Regardless of whether you want to fight a battle or would rather avoid it, the outcome may influence the culture and environment of the department for years to
come. That is where the third element comes in that you
should be concerned about as a leader: experience.
We often use the term experience as a synonym for time
on the job. In other words, it is often characterized in the
same tone as tenure. To be a successful decision maker,
you need to look at experience differently. Experience is
what you learn from both winning and losing in dealing
with challenges. My friend Tom Scully [San Jose (CA)
retired] and I were recently discussing this phenomenon
as a part of the learning process that ultimately provides a
fire officer with wisdom. In short, when we are confronted
with problems and we apply our education and knowledge to that problem, it is not so important whether your
win or lose but rather what you learn from the event.
The attitude that one needs to have in entering critical decision-making processes should not be focused
on whether or not the outcome is positive or negative.
Instead, the focus ought to be on what lessons there are to
be learned from the exposure to the challenge. In the case
of critical decision making, it is very important that the
outcome be assessed from a learning proposition perspective if the experience is to be of any value at all.
In short, sometimes you can win but have negative
consequences of the outcome. Other times, you can lose
but have positive influence over the outcome. The degree
to which you analyze the learning experience is critical to
When you go to college to get a degree, it should not
be regarded as an increase in your knowledge as much
as it is an increase in your wisdom. Let’s say that you
are confronted with a human resources problem. If you
approach that problem as a winning and losing scenario,
it definitely limits your options. If you approach it
regarding a potential for role clarification and improved
performance, it does not become a matter of who wins or
who loses but rather how improvement is achieved. Your
learning experience is characterized by all the knowledge
you gain by researching potential options.
Therefore, your number one priority in entering any
And, be ready to see the other person’s perspective.
conflict must be to know your facts thoroughly. Know
what the ground rules are. Know what past practices have
been. Compare and contrast your experience with other
experiences within the organization on a similar topic.
Avoid assuming guilt or motives from the other side
by remaining open minded for as long as possible. This
requires that you listen very intently as opposed to being
judgmental at the outset.
Never lose your temper when addressing a challenge.
Loss of temper is loss of control. Retaining your temper
is then a discipline that makes you seem more stable
and less argumentative, especially if the other side gets
demonstrative with temper. Remaining calm under stress
is difficult at times but reaps great benefits.
Always take a positive approach that the challenge can
be resolved in an amicable fashion, even when it is a tough
proposition. You need to be able to be optimistic in con-
flict to mend relationships when the conflict is resolved.
Respect your opponent. As noted by Stanley Fish,
degrading or insulting your opponent in a challenge is
counterproductive for long-term relationships. “It’s not
personal” is one of the watch phrases of resolving conflict
with relationships still intact. 1
The higher you go in an organization, the more often
you are liable to run into challenges. The manner in
which you approach them is important in creating the
culture of competency in the organization. Following the
few simple rules described here is a step in the right
direction. Violating any one of them has a very specific
outcome. For example, failing to do your homework in
knowing your facts can often discredit you at the outset
of a debate. Showing disrespect to your opponent can
often result in his providing a reciprocal observation
denying you respect. The best approach in any problem
solving is therefore an opportunity to learn. An opportunity to learn adds to your experience and wisdom.
1. Fish, Stanley, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in
Politics, The Bedroom, The Courtroom, and the Classroom, Harper, 2016.
Ronny J. Coleman is a retired state fire marshal for the State of
California. He has achieved chief officer designation at both the
state and national levels. Coleman has a master of arts degree in
vocational education, a bachelor of science degree in political science, and an associate of arts degree in fire science. He is president
of Fireforceone, a consulting firm in California.
Winning and Losing vs. Experience
Strategies for approaching challenges in the fire service