The Fire Ninja on why the man with the bugle can’t always play Mr Nice Guy.
on 06 August, 2013

So, if you’re in the Fire Service, you’ll probably recognize the iconic bugle symbol. If not, let me break it down for you. The rank structure within the fire service is rich in history and tradition and the insignia that you see above has a charming story behind it.

Whether it’s modern day fires or fires from the past there’s one thing that big fires have in common. They are almost always noisy events. Take one part burning buildings add screaming civilians and people issuing orders, then throw in your traffic, bystanders and ambient street noise and  you’ve got a noisy environment. In the days before radios, smart phones or walkie-talkies, it was difficult for the command staff of a fire department to issue orders on the scene of a fire. Some enterprising officer got the idea to use a mega-phone or “mouth trumpet” to amplify his orders and lo and behold we have the early origins of on-scene communication. Over time, the “mouth trumpet” (which let’s face it, doesn’t exactly “roll off of the tongue”) slowly got morphed into what we nowadays call the bugle. (Believe it or not, there is actually a lot of controversy over calling it a bugle. There are actually purists who insist that a bugle is a musical instrument and not a voice amplifying device. Seriously, I’ve seen heated arguments about this on-line, it’s crazy)

Anyway, overtime, the bugle began to symbolize authority. The guy with the bugle is the guy giving orders, so therefore he must be in charge. On early fire scenes, responding personnel would actively search for the man with the bugle, so that they could receive their orders to assist. With that nod towards authority, the bugle became the representation of the chain of command. He who has the bugle, is the man in charge. It was a logical next step to assume that the man with the bigger bugle was more important than the man with the smaller bugle (leave it to men to create compensation issues out of this!) but gradually most departments began using numbers of bugles to indicate rank. There are many variations by country, region and response district but here’s a basic guideline.

Fire Fighter = No bugles

One bugle = Lieutenant

Two bugles side by side = Captain

Two bugles crossed = Battalion Chief

Three bugles = Assistant chief

Four bugles = Deputy Chief

Five bugles = Chief

Interesting bit of history and a cool story to tell the kids, but it’s not what I’m here to write about today. No, I’m here to discuss the allegory of the bugle and the A-hole.

(You can insert your own trumpeting bathroom humor here if you like, but bear with me, my point is developing.)

I’ve been in command for the last several years of my fire service career and the more and more that I think about it, the more and more that I see the connection of bugles and A-holes. From a firefighter’s perspective, it’s probably a lot more obvious sometimes. The guy in charge can sometimes really be an A-hole. I guess that’s true in just about every profession really, but it wasn’t until I was on the other end of that equation that I began to adjust my perspective.

Being the boss, whether you are fighting fires or building bar stools has an unwritten requirement built in somewhere, that at some point, in the course of serving as the boss, you will need to become an A-hole. I don’t care if you’re the laid back type or the gung-ho military style. Everyone in a position of authority is required to be an A-hole at times. Don’t believe me? Let me give you an example.

Picture yourself as the boss, and as the boss, you’re required to maintain staffing levels for whatever it is you’re the boss of, right? So let’s say that you’ve got this one guy that frequently calls out sick. Let’s call him Bob.

This guy pushes the sick leave system to its limits and the chatter around the workplace is that this guy has been seen fishing while his “supposedly” sick. Maybe out bowling with the family, or even worse, working at another job.

Ask yourself, as “just an employee” what kind of energy would you have exerted upon hearing that this guy has called out again?

 Very little I imagine?

“Oh, Bob’s sick again, Hope he gets better.”

Now as a manager though, you’ve got to wonder if this guy is faking it again. The more he fakes it and gets away with it, the more that morale suffers amongst the rest of your staff.

Whispers like this begin to pop up around your workplace.
“Well if Bob can use his sick days whenever he wants, there’s nothing wrong with me taking a couple here and there.”

When your staff begins talking about things like that, you’re quickly approaching an outbreak of bad behavior and if you’re a boss that really cares about his job, you begin having fantasies about driving by Bob’s house on one of his “sick” days.

Or maybe even day-dreaming about hiring a private investigator to take pictures of Bob bowling with his family.

But remember, Bob is following the guidelines of the sick leave policy letter for letter, and in all practicality, he’s done absolutely nothing wrong. The “rumors” that you hear about him doing things on his sick day aren’t enough to initiate any sort of investigation, and any other evidence that you might be able to come up with would be purely circumstantial at best.

So when Bob calls in again, and has a sob story of a sore elbow, what thoughts are running through your mind? If you’re doing your job the way it’s supposed to be done, you should be thinking “A-hole thoughts”.

As in; “I don’t care if your elbow is sore, get your butt in to work BOB!”

 Or; “I’m really sorry to hear that you hurt your elbow, did you do that while you were fishing the other day, BOB?”

Those are natural A-hole thoughts that are completely inappropriate to say out loud, but I bet you they’ve been thought by bosses as long as there have been people to boss.

You can consider yourself a nice guy, you can read books on leadership, you can even work on your human interaction skills, but I promise you, at some point, you have to embrace the A-hole within you.

If you’re not thinking that the sick leave abuser is a problem, then you’re not really doing your job as a manager. If you think that it’s normal for people to run 15 minutes late to important meetings, then you’re not fulfilling your role as a boss. If you’re constantly giving people the benefit of the doubt, hoping for the best, relying on people’s inner goodness, I GURANTEE that you’re not a very conscientious leader.

In today’s society it simply isn’t realistic to expect to be the “good-guy” with every decision that needs to be made. Recognizing that and embracing your inner A-hole is a power play that makes it easier for you to do the hard things that must be done and ultimately makes it a less bitter pill to swallow.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are those that enjoy the A-hole qualities of leadership. Those people flourish in the A-hole realm and rather than shy away, they embrace it and develop new and interesting ways to be an A-hole. It’s my personal hope that by recognizing the A-hole syndrome in myself, I am somehow inoculating myself from the total A-hole conversion, but it’s something that I think of frequently and I often find myself longing for the days when I didn’t care if a guy called out sick.

But as the bugles on my collar represent, my company is not only paying me to be an A-hole, they are rightfully expecting me to be one.

  • Operation Florian

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