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Flashpoint: Emotional intelligence: Is it learned or innate?

Almost anyone who has taken a management course recently has been exposed to the concept of emotional intelligence (EI). Is this a trait or competency that is of value to the fire service or just the latest buzzword? I am keeping an open mind on this one, because, as a relatively new area of psychological research, the definition of EI is constantly changing. I see great relevance as EI relates to professionalism and team membership.  At the same time, I wonder if it is really a new concept or just a repackaging of some basic human social skills.

March 19, 2008
By Peter Sells

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Almost anyone who has taken a management course recently has been exposed to the concept of emotional intelligence (EI). Is this a trait or competency that is of value to the fire service or just the latest buzzword? I am keeping an open mind on this one, because, as a relatively new area of psychological research, the definition of EI is constantly changing. I see great relevance as EI relates to professionalism and team membership.  At the same time, I wonder if it is really a new concept or just a repackaging of some basic human social skills.

According to the website www.selfgrowth.com emotional intelligence describes an ability, capacity, or skill to perceive, assess and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others and of groups. Clearly, a firefighter, especially in a command role, would benefit from the ability to manage emotions in an inherently chaotic situation. But if EI is a capacity, as opposed to an ability or a skill, then you would either have it to some degree or not have it at all. If it is truly a form of intelligence, then it is an innate and unchangeable personal trait. If you buy into the concept that some leaders are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them (to paraphrase Shakespeare), and that the ability to keep your cool in a crisis is a valuable component of fire service leadership, it would be nice to think that those of us who were not born coolheaded could achieve coolheadedness before being thrust into an emergency scene.

As a young firefighter, I observed my superiors and my more experienced peers intently. On one end were the guys you wanted to emulate: calm; rational; the kind of leaders and decision makers who made you confident and kept you focused. On the opposite end were those who inspired the verse “When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” Experience in terms of years on the job did not seem to be an indication of which type of behaviour would be exhibited.

So maybe EI, or at least the ability to manage one’s emotions, was some type of inherent trait. Or maybe the when-in-doubt, scream-and-shout types had not been properly developed and mentored. I think what was lacking in those who did not stay focused was not the capacity to do so but the practised skill of doing so.

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The difference between knowing how to behave and actually behaving that way under stress is a matter of maturity. So is EI a measure of maturity? That would certainly cover the ability to perceive and assess emotions in one’s self or others and act accordingly.

Emergency response is a bizarre field compared to most occupations. In the office, firehall or classroom we expect the personal respect and dignity that are afforded to sales representatives or a bank tellers. But at an emergency scene, we must suspend that expectation and focus on the task at hand. I am not implying that we should accept being mistreated or humiliated by our teammates or superiors; quite the contrary. Team cohesiveness is critical to success and safety. Rather, as firefighters, we must be prepared to take a certain amount of crap from people. I tell this to recruits and I mean it literally and figuratively. Literally, because if you can imagine a bodily secretion – somebody else’s – you should next imagine yourself covered in it. Figuratively, because when we are at a “routine” scene it is very often the worst day of someone’s life. In such circumstances, sick, drugged or distraught people may lash out at us with abuse, insults, racist or sexist invective or other behaviour that would otherwise be unacceptable. Our objective is to bring rationality to a chaotic situation, to be part of the solution by avoiding becoming part of the problem.

So, by taking the figurative crap in the proper context and not letting it drive our behaviour, are we exhibiting EI? I believe a behavioural skill set can be developed that could be identified as firefighting professionalism: taking the crap without giving it back. Not complaining that this emergency response is taking you away from dinner or the hockey game. Not taking your frustrations out on the homeless man sleeping in the bus shelter. Not protesting that you had to wait for hours for treatment in the emergency room, just like everyone else. Not demanding a firefighters’ discount in a busy restaurant during the lunch rush. If EI were purely an inherent trait, some of us would feel these frustrations and some of us wouldn’t, and we would each behave in response to our emotions. But we are rational human beings. We all have the ability to develop professional behaviours.

I see EI as a behavioural skill set rather than an innate trait. Be not afraid of greatness. We can all mature and develop professionalism, regardless of what is going on in our minds.

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.


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