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Flashpoint: May 2010

Riker: One of the reasons you’ve been given command is so you can make a few right decisions, which will establish a pattern of success and help build self-confidence. If you don’t trust your own judgement, you don’t belong in the command chair.

April 26, 2010
By Peter Sells

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Riker: One of the reasons you’ve been given command is so you can make a few right decisions, which will establish a pattern of success and help build self-confidence. If you don’t trust your own judgement, you don’t belong in the command chair.

Wesley: But what if I’m wrong?

Riker: Then you’re wrong. It’s arrogant to think that you’ll never make a mistake.

The exchange above took place on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989. Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher had been given his first command assignment, to lead a scientific survey team, under the watchful eye of Commander William Riker – a low-risk, low-stress command assignment that was well within his capabilities. The outcomes were as much about the professional development of the junior officer as they were about the data to be gathered. When I saw that episode, the phrase “establish a pattern of success” stuck in my mind.

Fast forward to 1994. At the age of 18, Tiger Woods had become the youngest winner in the history of the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship. Tiger’s career was under the guidance of his father, a decorated Green Beret colonel, who understood training, success and command. It was clear that Tiger was headed for a successful career. The strategic decision to be made centred around the timing of his professional debut. He could have turned pro as a teen, took his chances against the world’s best players and probably won a couple of big cheques. Instead, he stayed in the amateur ranks, became the only golfer to win the Amateur in three consecutive years, attended Stanford University and continued to reinforce his pattern of success. He was learning how to win.

Forward again to 2003. Thirteen-year-old amateur golfer Michelle Wie became the youngest player in history to make the cut in an LPGA event, the youngest winner of any U.S. Golf Association adult tournament with her victory at the U.S. Women’s Public Links championship and the youngest-ever to make the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open. The following January, she became a media sensation by accepting a sponsor’s exemption to play against some of the  best male professionals in the Sony Open. What transpired from that point could be described as establishing a pattern of failure. Wie sought opportunities to play at levels way above her ability. She played against male professionals 14 times on six tours. She turned professional on her 16th birthday, too young for LPGA membership. That decision disqualified her for NCAA eligibility when she later enrolled at Stanford. In 2009, she recorded her first victory since that landmark win at the age of 13.

Now, let’s talk about firefighting. Specifically, let’s look at command training. Whatever the level of technology being used – tabletop models, paper exercises or networked virtual-reality simulators with all the bells and whistles – I have too often seen command training that is purposefully designed to throw as much at the trainee (or test candidate) as possible. This trial-by-fire mentality assumes that overwhelming the trainee with information or a scenario that will escalate too quickly beyond the available resource level will result in an officer with a greater appreciation for the worst-case outcome and who will be better prepared. Reality could not be further removed from this assumption. This training style often results in shattered self-confidence, paranoia and distaste for the training process. We should be creating Tigers.

John Brunacini related to me an anecdote from a few years ago in Phoenix. John was driving past the Command Training Center one evening and noticed that the lights were on. He found that a group of firefighters had let themselves into the CTC after hours and were running through training scenarios. The style of training that had been implemented at the CTC was to play the role of incident commander at one of several types of structure fires, simulated on a computer screen, and assign resources into the hazard zone using established communications and tactical protocols. No surprises, no unreasonable expectations – just rote practise to establish a pattern of confidence and success. The philosophy is to become progressively better at implementing the system and then react to the situation as it unfolds, either in the CTC or on the street.

What started in Phoenix is taking off. Command Training Centers (or Centres, in Canada) using the same methodology are active in the U.S. Midwest, are being implemented in Ontario and are drawing attention from Australia and Dubai. Develop a command system that works and instil a pattern of success in your people.
Riker: You did a good job. I’m proud of you.

Wesley: Thank you, sir. Does it get any easier?

Riker: Nope.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com.


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