Editors’ pick 2015: Paddling to maintain balance
By Tom DeSorcy
It was just a matter of time before this column lent itself to a wildlife analogy – at least considering the two animals that write it. (Sorry Vince, I couldn’t resist.) I’d like to share some thoughts on leadership and public perception in relation to the animal kingdom. Do I detect an eyebrow or two being raised at this point?
You might think leadership is analogous to the behaviour of a stately lion or another dominant animal but no, this is a leadership analogy based on a duck. That’s right, the lowly, mild-mannered waterfowl that populate lakes and waterways. While you might think I’m a little daffy (pardon the pun), I’m quite serious. Allow me to explain.
The way we, as chief officers and leaders in our community, present ourselves in the public eye is paramount to the trust that others have in us and in our abilities. Staying positive no matter the situation and projecting an air of control carries chief officers a long way with the public, the media and your firefighters.
As with a lot of fire chiefs in volunteer departments, I don’t have any staff. My office is in the municipal hall so I frequently interact with people who don’t work directly for me. Being in a small community, I take on more roles than just that of the fire chief; I manage our website, do administration and voice narration for our phone system, and act as an tech liaison for computer troubles, all the while maintaining a host of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.
Often I take it upon myself to inject a positive attitude to my work environment. If someone is having a bad day, I only turn it up a notch. My first thought is “Sorry but you’re not bringing me down,” but in reality I’m just trying to demonstrate perspective. One of my frequent lines is “And how many people died as a result of this incident?” That kind of brings those turning molehills into mountains down to earth. Perspective quickly turns into the realization that things are being blown out of proportion and, hopefully, the rest of the person’s day goes a lot more smoothly.
This example illustrates my attitude toward most things. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place to show emotion and concern, but if what is going on inside me doesn’t concern those around me, then I won’t bring it up – especially if it would bring them down.
Here’s where the duck comes in. To me, having an air of confidence and control shows balance in your world; a duck is literally living life in the balance whenever it is floating on the water. Many of you have probably heard this: the part of the duck you see on top of the water – the calm, cool collected version – is how people see you and what you project to the outside world. What happens on the inside, or in the duck’s case, below the waterline, is not quite as serene. Upon closer inspection, two webbed feet are paddling like mad, adjusting and correcting, propelling and slowing down, unbeknownst to onlookers.
Can you see the comparison now? On the outside, everything is running smoothly yet underneath there is work going on to keep things balanced. Unlike a comparison to treading water, in which case most of a person’s body is below the waterline – thus giving meaning to the phrase keeping your head above water – a duck isn’t paddling to avoid sinking. A duck can coast or it can propel forward, and either way, nobody knows what’s going on underneath. Is the comparison of leadership to a duck starting to make sense yet?
What we, as chief officers, face daily takes a toll on us. Whether you get paid to be an officer or it is something you do on the side while running your family business, the job never gets easier. People in authority, from politicians to professional athletes, are well versed at projecting confidence or concern as required; to me, successful leaders are those who do this well.
Find your own personal balance and be as positive as you can because while one person’s worst day may be our every day, our worst day is no one else’s, nor should it be. Instead, show strength and confidence for the benefit of those around you.
Many of us work and live in smaller communities and we are very public people. While not all of us wear a uniform all the time, people still know who we are and what we represent. I know that it is tough to always be on, and my hat is off to all of you who accept that responsibility and don’t try to duck out of it while you keep on paddling.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Tom is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C. as a communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept