THIS STUFF WORKS Ep 3: PJ LANGMAID
Each month a new guest sits down with Leif Babin to share how the principles of Extreme Ownership worked for them whether in their personal lives or in business.
By Leif Babin
The audio version is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Podcast, and RadioPublic.
Welcome to This Stuff Works podcast. This is our third episode, and it’s a real honor to have an in-person guest here. Our first ever in-person guest, Chief PJ Langmaid from Black Forest Fire. Awesome to have you here with us, PJ.
Pretty humbled and honored to be here.
Well, you’ve made the trip down from Colorado. I know it’s not an easy thing, and you’re a busy man, with a lot on your plate. You’ve been a good friend to Echelon Front here and somebody that we certainly admire in the first responder world, and you’ve lived these principles out through your leadership and the team that you’ve built and that’s very obvious as we’ve gotten to do some work with you and the Black Forest Fire team, and just couldn’t be more proud of your leadership. I think you set a great standard of how to take these and apply them in the first responder world, in the fire service. But in general, I think just as a leader, as a human, and you’re a friend, and we appreciate you being here.
Well, it’s great to be here. It’s tough hearing you say those things, only because I’m always thinking, “It’s really the team that executes. I’m just setting up parameters and let them do it.” So it’s not me, it’s them. It’s the guys and the girls, they get it done.
Well, that’s pretty much what the best leaders I know say all the time, giving their team credit, which is awesome. Again, that says a lot about you, but it’s just been great. We just had three of your guys at our field training exercise program, which was awesome. Just great to see their perspective, great to see their enthusiasm. Your team, that’s Come the Munsters, have been a part of this stuff. They always bring their A game. They always bring their enthusiasm and eagerness to ask questions and learn. I think that says a lot about the culture you build at Black Force Fire.
I think it’s really just they show up with an open mind, and that’s the key right there. As long as they show up with an open mind, they stay humble. That’s one of our core values, is humility. And they know that’s what I expect, is we’re going to go with other people’s plans. We’re not going to push our egos. We’re just going to do good work and listen. I think they show up to those events with that same mindset, without preconceived ideas. So that’s why they’re doing a good job. It’s not me, it’s them.
Right on. Well, let’s give everybody some background about you. So you grew up in a small town in New England, outside of Boston, and you have been in fire service for 21 years. You grew up in a law enforcement household, decided to go into the fire service. So you’ve got experience as a volunteer firefighter in Wyoming and then with a big city fire department in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and now as the chief at Black Forest Fire.
It’s been good. That’s a pretty good spectrum there to have, is the volunteer, where you’re wondering, ” Gosh, am I the only one that’s showing up?” Compared to the big city, where you’re showing up with a small army, compared to a suburb, where you know what a big department’s going to bring, but you don’t have all those people. It’s kind of why training’s a big deal for us, because every one of them has to be squared away. So it’s a good spectrum.
Well, let’s talk about you growing up. Why did you decide to go in the fire service in the first place? What drew you to that?
Well, that’s quite a story right there. So growing up just outside Boston, did a lot of construction work in Boston. I actually started in construction at a very young age. And everybody on the crew, my dad was a cop, knew these firefighters. They were all firefighters on the crew, off-duty fire guys. I can tell you that that’s not the ideal location for an adolescent boy to grow up, is with a bunch of off-duty firefighters. So you end up with a pretty sick twisted sense of humor. Plus, you’re in Boston, so you’re really just grinding it out all the time. And I was really interested in the fire service, and actually, every single one of them said, “Don’t do it.” And I was surprised at that. And when I asked them, “Why not?” It was because a lot of firefighters were getting killed back in the ’70s and ’80s, and they lived through all that, and they were like uncles, so they didn’t really want to see me go down that road. So long story short, I end up out in Wyoming, and I just had the bug, I still had the bug, but I respected their opinions. So I decided, “You know what? I’ll just go get my EMT and I’ll help out.” And then one thing led to another and I was in a basement fire in Wyoming and I was like, “Oh, I got to do this. I got to go find a paycheck doing this.”
But growing up in New England, really good mentors, learned work ethic. And then having a really outstanding father, who I didn’t know at the time, he was just a solid man and good cop. I joke though, that we never had any conversations until I was in my twenties. He was just always interrogating me, “What’d you do this weekend?” He already knew. It was good. Good culture back there, but it just wasn’t meant to be there.
How’d you end up in Wyoming and Colorado, coming from the Boston area?
So basically, I was doing construction, which allowed me to make some cash, go travel around the country, come back, make some cash, travel around the country. And that was 17, 18, 19.
I met my wife in New England. She grew up there as well, and she wanted to go out west. And I said, “Well, let me show you Wyoming.” And we went up there, she loved it. And when we came back from that trip, it was a month later, two months later, she was like, “Hey, we’re going to be parents.” And I was like, “I don’t know that I want to raise a kid in this environment.” She said, “Where are we going?” I said, “Wyoming.” And to her credit, she was like, “Okay.” Which massive cultural shock. She grew up in a legit, hardcore, gritty ghetto type city. And for her to move to Wyoming, that’s total opposite end of the world. So that’s how we ended up there. And then, like I said, that basement fire in Wyoming, I asked the chief up there, “Where do I go in the Rockies?” And he said, “Colorado Springs.” So tested down in Colorado Springs, got hired. It was a bit of a whirlwind to get there, but that’s about it.
So how’d you end up from Colorado Springs to Black Forest Fire, where you’re the chief now?
That was an interesting journey as well. So in 2013, Black Forest had, at the time… Black Forest is a small community just north of Colorado Springs, and they had what at the time was the most destructive fire in state history, wiped out 500 homes, killed two people.
And then, after that, there was a lot of political turmoil about decisions that were made. I’ve never criticized the operations of that fire, and I lived up there and lost my house on that fire. And it’s really easy for people to be critical when they don’t have to make decisions in a time competitive environment. And so, I strayed away from that, but there was clearly some things that were going on within the organization that the community wanted to change. And they ended up drafting me basically to go sit on the department and overlook the department. So we did that for a bit. Then, when our chief was leaving, it was time for me to move on. So I moved on and I couldn’t have been gone more than 48 hours, it felt like, and the chairman of the board called me and said, “Hey, can you just do a 90 day audit as an interim fire chief?” And I was like, “No.” And I said, “Why me?” And he was like, “Well, you know what a fire department should look like. We just want you in there for 90 days. Look at the operations from a boots on the ground perspective.” So I was like, “90 days, okay.” That was three years ago.
One thing led to another, where we’re 60 days into it. The guys and girls there were doing the best that they could, but they just didn’t know what they didn’t know, which is true for all of us. But I was coming from an organization that had 500 firefighters, 21 firehouses, massive support, massive logistics, and they didn’t have any of that. So just basic safety standards that the guys and girls were being neglected on, we just brought it to the elected officials. Said, “Hey, we need to spend money here.” And they were all surprised that money wasn’t being spent there.
I remember one of the things I was told was, “Budgeting things does not mean purchasing things.” I was like, “Oh.” So the stuff was in the budget, but none of those items were actually being purchased, which is why the books always looked good. Well, the elected officials didn’t realize that bunker gear and air handling systems and things like that weren’t being purchased. So when we brought that up, they agreed, “Okay, let’s do that.” And that started opening up the door to them seeing, “Hey, you know what? We’re just going to keep you for another 90 days.” So I was like, “Do I have a choice in this matter?” And they were like, “No.”
And the number two guy, the deputy chief, I looked at him, I said, “I think I just got drafted.” He’s like, “I think so, sir.” He was outstanding when I got in there. He was the number two guy when I got there. And he just came in and said, “Hey, just so you know, I ride for the brand.” Just an old cowboy saying, he says, “I ride for the brand. I know most people would’ve thought I’d be the interim fire chief. I think you’re the right guy and whatever you need.” So he was super humble.
And so, we did that. And then, COVID hit. COVID hits during this time when I’m just an interim fire chief. And I’m telling them, “Hey, you need to look for an actual fire chief. I still have a job in the city. I’m working two full-time jobs at this point, one for the city of Colorado Springs, one for Black Forest Fire, and I’m getting burned out. My wife knows I’m getting burned out.” And it was like, “You need to find somebody.” And after COVID hit and we declared emergencies and accessed funding and all that stuff, they were like, “We found a guy.” I was like, “Perfect. I can move on.” They’re like, “It’s you.” I was like, “No. I told you no.”
And they ran through an election cycle. I actually pushed back on them. I said, “Hey, you’ve made a bunch of decisions and there hasn’t been an election cycle. You need to see if the community is comfortable with this because it’s the community’s fire department.” And after the election cycle, they all had their positions and they offered me the job, and I said, “No.” And they said, “Why?” I said, “Really.” At that time, I had 15 years in the city and I wanted to get to 20 in the pension system. And so, they offered me a five year contract. And I said, “Okay.” And as a man of faith, I was like, “Okay, God’s got a path here, and I’m just ignoring his will, and that’s never going to go well for me.” So I jump ship and went to Black Forest. That’s how I ended up there.
Right on. That’s that’s an awesome story, PJ. You got to trust in God’s will there, certainly. If he keeps knocking you over the head with something, of, “Hey, this is the door that you need to walk through, even if you’re resistant to it.” That’s being willing to be humble enough to follow where you’re being led. That’s awesome. How did you come across Extreme Ownership? Jocko podcast? Echelon Front? What first led you in that direction?
The first edish. I have an addiction to books. So I used to, back in the day, when Barnes & Noble had quite the selection, I used to be going there all the time, once a week at least. And having grown up, my dad was a Vietnam veteran and then a cop. And like I said, I didn’t really know this man, super stoic.
So I was reading military books my whole youth. So when I went through the Barnes & Noble and saw this white book, SEAL Trident, I was like, “I wonder what this is.” And so, I cracked it open. I was like, “I’m getting it.” That was right after the house burned down. I was having a lot of personal issues and I actually had to take four months off from work to get my head screwed on straight.
I spent two days a week in church, two days a week in counseling, and it was a really dark place. So I was coming out of that. That was 2014 into January of 2015. And then, I think the book came out in… Was it April?
Okay. So I was on that journey of, “Okay, every one of these issues in my life is actually 100% my fault. It’s not my wife. It’s not my kid. It’s not my job. It’s none of those things. It’s me. That’s a tough pill to swallow.” In addition to that, I was also looking at leadership my whole life. My dad was an outstanding leader. And so, my mentors were all great leaders. So there was a couple things going on there. And then, your book basically just simplified it and resonated. And I was like, “Oh, this is good stuff. So that was before I was listening to a podcast or anything. I don’t know when Jocko’s podcast started.
Right after the book came out. I think he started December 2015, so about two months after the book launched.
I probably wouldn’t have even known what a podcast is. I’m pretty much a Neanderthal. I can read. And that’s how I ended up in it. Just an outstanding book.
Once you read the book, are these principles that you tried to instill in the people around? How did that grow to become the culture of the team?
So, I became the Interim Fire chief in 2019. So at that time, I was still with the City of Colorado Springs all the time. There’s two things that firefighters don’t like, it’s change in the way things are. That’s just the way it is.
You sound like Navy sailors.
So there’s a lot of guys and girls in the fire department that are like, “Oh, we need changes. We need leadership. We need this, that, and the other thing.” It became very apparent to me, because I had experienced this cultural deal, where I go from Boston, which is very direct, in your face, there’s no such thing as an indirect method in Boston, that just doesn’t exist. It’s just, in your face, “I’m going to tell you exactly what I think. If you like it, great. If you don’t, I don’t really care. And then afterwards, we’re going to go have a beer.” That’s just how it is.
So then, I moved to Wyoming and Colorado and I start to think, “What is wrong with all these people?” And the reality is it was me. Their reality was different than mine, and I’m assuming that they understand. So my point on that is that in the fire department, I grew up with these salty old school east coast firefighters, and the culture was different. So if I wanted to have an impact, I had to realize, “Hey, I need to work within their environment and not expect the environment to shift to align with me.”
So when Extreme Ownership came out, I had already had kind of that realization. And the fire company I worked on in the city was an extremely elite company. And so, we challenged the norms anyways. So what I had come to realize was you can’t force this stuff on people, anything. And so, it wasn’t a matter of trying to push it on people, it was a matter of really saying, “You know what? This works for me.”
It’s just like faith. If you’re trying to push your faith onto people, they kind of resist it. But just for clarity, I am not comparing Extreme Ownership to the Bible.
It’s a much more important mission. Certainly, these things could be found in biblical truth, that’s for sure.
So that’s kind of how I just started living the principles. And at the time, I was doing some small leadership speaking, because of everything that had gone on in Black Forest too, there was stakeholders in the region that had noticed me. As you know, I prefer to stay in the shadows and you guys are dragging me out of the shadows. And they were noticing, so they were asking me, “Hey, can you speak to this group of emerging leaders? Can you speak to a group of developers?”
And so, I would speak to them and gave them some little nuggets of leadership that I had learned along the way. But at every one of those things, I would have some raffles and give away Extreme Ownership. And so, it was just a, “Hey, I’m not going to just give it to everybody in there,” but it was there, sitting for the taking. So that’s how the very beginning started.
It’s funny that you talk about people growing up in Boston and just being very direct. Obviously, it’s a common human tendency. There certainly are some generalizations you can make about folks, whether it’s certain parts of the country or particular industries, things like that.
And certainly, I think we see a lot of that in the first responder world, where, “Hey, I’m just direct. I’m going to tell you how it is. And if you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine.” We saw it in the SEAL teams as well. I’m one of those people as well, I’m going to be direct. I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m just going to get right to the point of things.
It really took me working with Jocko to realize, “Hey, is that really working for you?” And if people are reacting in a negative way and pushing back on things, it’s not helping you. Whether it’s your boss or whether it’s the people on your team or whether it’s peers or other supporting folks in different departments that you depend on. That’s the power of this indirect approach. I think it’s a hard thing, particularly in the first responder world, to grasp.
We get that a lot from people that read the book, want to just demand that everybody around them start taking ownership, and pointing out all the flaws in everybody else. It’s a bummer because what you’re doing is just driving people away from these concepts. Where we know that, How do you get other people to take ownership, you take ownership.” When you start implementing these concepts yourself, when you start taking ownership of stuff, instead of pointing out the lack of ownership in everybody else, instead of people getting defensive and digging in, when you take ownership, their mind opens and they start to take ownership as well. It becomes the culture of the team. That indirect approach that people are reticent to really embrace, it gets you to where you need to go faster than just trying to demand that everybody around you start taking ownership, and beating them over the head with the books or the podcast, whatever it is.
It gets you there quicker, plus you have a relationship when you get there, as compared to all this friction. So you could use your authority to get somebody to comply, but that’s short-term, and they’re just not going to get it. You’re spot on though, with the first responder community, that direct approach.
We did some study when we started doing some entry level testing. And what it was, was like, “Hey, what makes a really, really good firefighter a really, really good firefighter?” Goes back to my days on The Rescue Company, and that was the name of the company I was at with the city. If we’re looking for top performers, what actually makes them a top performer?
So we talked to some IO psychologists and started kind of figuring out, “Hey, that’s what makes this guy tick.” And so, the doctors, there was a team of three of them telling me, “The number one attribute you need to test for is drive.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” And they go through the list and there’s eight attributes, and nowhere on that list was humility. And I was like, “You guys are wrong, because from my perspective, humility’s the most important.” And then they said, “From your perspective as a fire chief, who’s got 20 years in the fire service and 50 years in life, humility is the most important thing. But for a 20 year old kid, who’s going to go running into a burning building, where life is ceasing to exist, the humility is not one of those things.” I was like, “Check.” They’re like, they’re going to have to learn humility. And that level of drive and more cockiness than confidence is what starts them on that career.
So the people that are coming into those services, they’ve got a level of just barely unhealthy ego, that as they get ground down by the job, they start to realize the difference between confidence and cockiness and being humble. That’s a tough lesson to learn, but that’s also where I think the Extreme Ownership piece, it’s on me, but being humble, that takes a lot of humility to realize it’s your fault.
No question. I would push back on that to say that, look, I think whether you’re brand new in the job or experiencing the job, I think you’re never going to learn and grow if you don’t have an open mind, if you think you got it all figured out. And so, I think there’s no question, people that join the SEAL team, it’s the same way. You got to have an ego. That’s what drives people into like, “Hey, I want to be a part of this unit.” Like, “Oh, you’re telling me that’s the toughest military training in the world? Cool, I’m going to go do that. I think that’s something that I’m sure draws people in the fire service, just as it draws people into the SEAL teams.
We used to joke that the cockiest person in the world is the person that just graduated BUD/S, our basic training program. So you just graduated, you don’t even know what you don’t know at this point. Then you go on to your advanced training, what we call SQT SEAL Qualification %raining. You spend about six months trying to learn some individual skills and you realize, “Oh, there’s a lot I don’t know.” Then you go to the SEAL platoon and you start going through a year long, year and a half long workup cycle. And you realize, “Oh, there’s a whole bunch of stuff I don’t know.” Then you deploy overseas for the first time and you get thrown into combat operations. You’re like, “I don’t know anything.” So that level of humility is pretty-
You basically just described the same experience you have in The Rescue Company. So in the fire service, you have engine companies, and they bring the water to the fire. You have truck companies or ladder companies, and they do the search and rescue piece.
And then, in big cities, you have what’s called a rescue. Sometimes they call them heavy rescues. They’re kind of a utility player. They not only go to every fire in the city, but they go to every rope rescue, confined space, dive recovery, swift water, anything that’s technical. Basically, anything that a person can get themselves stuck in, under, or on top of, we got to come up with a solution for. Well, that’s a pretty complex world, considering people are doing stuff all the time. There’s typically one in a big city. So Colorado Springs had one. Denver had one until two years ago. Now, they have two. New York City has five. If my math is correct, there’s less rescue companies in the United States. There’s less rescue firefighters in the United States than there are Navy SEALs. That’s how small of a group it is. And they draw the people that want to get after it.
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:27:04]
People that want to get after it. And the first year you’re there, you’re like, “Oh, I need to learn some things.” By the end of the first year, you’re like, “Yeah, I got this figured out.” By the end of your second year, you’re like, “There’s still a little bit more to learn, but I got this all figured out.” Third year, you start to realize, “I don’t really know if I’m going to learn all this.” And after your fifth year, you’re like, “Yeah, there’s no way I’m ever going to know everything there is to know.” So I just got to build the problem solving skills instead of the task level skills. Because people are creative and they can get themselves into some creative situations that we got to solve. But it’s that same thing where you’re driven and you think you know. And then over time you realize you don’t know anything. So you got to have an open mind.
No question. I think that’s one of the things I love. I know at Black Forest Fire, your emphasis is training and you guys train hard, and you spend a ton of time training much more than other fire departments that I’ve seen. And that to me is one of the biggest things where we brought back those lessons. Humility, ownership, teamwork from Ramadi. And that humility piece, just the idea, if you’d asked young Lieutenant Leif Babin, Charlie platoon commander tasking a bruiser before we deployed to the battle or Ramadi in 2006, Hey, are you ready for some tough urban combat situations? Yeah, bring it on. We’re totally ready. And having been in a bunch of those situations where we are totally humbled, or outmaneuvered, or simply just beaten, or just unprepared. And to come back from that and have to really analyze that stuff and think about it and pass on to the next generation of SEALs of, “Hey, this is way harder than you think it’s going to be.”
And I think that to me is being able to ramp up training that can mimic a realistic, chaotic, difficult scenario where the answers aren’t clear and you got to sort through those issues. So often, I think people think they’re ready for that until they actually get into it. And I love that’s what you guys do, is really spend a lot of time and effort training people, putting them in some challenging scenarios.
Yeah. Some of the metrics are just, they almost seem unreal. So in 2018, yeah, I think it was 2018, they had 500 hours of training the entire department, 500 hours. And now if they’re under 1500 hours a month of training, we’re having a conversation. Because I’m like, what happened? So it’s basically like, hey, 20% of your time is going to be spent training. And the more realistic, the more arduous. We also don’t just make it so that it’s like, hey, all day you’re training. Those 15-minute, those 20-minute little drills, those are priceless. You can get a lot of reps in that way. But we definitely, we have to push the training. Fortunately for the fire service in America, the number of fires are down compared to our forefathers, but the laws of physics haven’t changed one bit. So how else are you going to get that experience? It’s got to be realistic. That’s how you got to do it.
I think that’s awesome, PJ. And we always talk about that for the first responder world. The Jocko said, look, ideally, 20% of your time is training, 80% of your time is spent on the job. And that’s one of the big things that we hear a lot. We don’t have time to train. Our people are actually on the job. And clearly you’ve made time for that, which is awesome.
It’s about prioritize, right? That’s got to be a priority. So I think that’s one of the things that a lot of leaders probably struggle with, or at least managers, is taking care of your people. Taking care of your people doesn’t mean the greatest compensation package and all of these other things, or time off. Taking care of your people means that they have the skills to actually execute the job, especially in this profession where they make the wrong decision, there’s consequences to that. So if we’re really going to take care of our people, we’ve got to train them, mentor them, develop them. To me, that’s taking care of our people.
No question about that. That was a tough lesson for me to learn of the setting people up for success where they can accomplish their mission in the most difficult environment possible and bring as many people home from that dangerous situation as possible. And if you’re not pushing that standard high and training them hard, you’re setting them up for failure. And it’s definitely not taking care of your people. I always love what JP Dinnell says, it’s not that you don’t have time, it’s that you didn’t prioritize it, which is exactly what you’re talking about when it comes to training. Like, hey, we don’t have time to train. No, actually I failed to prioritize training. And you clearly are doing that for you and for your team. And I think it’s awesome. You are setting a great example, I think for every other fire department out there.
Yeah. Well, and I think you have to, you guys talk about connecting the thread of why, you have to explain why too. It’s not just about, hey, we serve the public. But it’s because we care about these guys. These guys and gals that are getting on the firetruck. And I want to make sure they have a outstanding career that their families are taken care of, which means that they have to be smart. It’s not going to be safe. And I know there’s a lot of people in the fire service that are going to cringe when I say that, but I’d rather them be smart. So set them up for success by giving them good training, build their knowledge, skills and abilities, and then unleash them. So that to me is taking care of them because you actually care about them. But if you just don’t tell them that you care about them or if you don’t tell them that’s why they’re training, it probably diminishes their ability to prioritize it too.
And when you say not safe, what you’re saying is there’s some element of risk that you just simply can’t control on the job. We had a lot of pushback at times, I think early in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq where there was almost this idea by some of the senior leaders that you could conduct a combat mission and mitigate every risk. And it was the idea of no, it’s a combat mission, man. There’s some element of risk by the very nature of what we’re doing. It’s obviously the same thing when you’re out there fighting fires. So you got to teach them to be smart to mitigate the risk they can control. But the idea that they’re going to be in an environment that’s a hundred percent predictable and totally safe is just by nature of the job, not the case.
No, it’s not the case at all. And I think that’s one of the things that makes Black Forest unique is, while we want to be safer, we recognize that to mitigate the risks, we have to be smart. Because if you really just detach from it and look at it, you say, okay, so I’m giving you 90 seconds to get out the door. You just got to call that you got a structure fire, adrenaline’s going up. Now I’m giving you 90 seconds, get out the door. Then I’m going to give you lights and sirens, that gives you permission to go above the speed limit. And stop briefly at a stop light and go through intersections. And then show up at a building that potentially has people in it. And now we’re going to go in there. And we’re going to tell them, oh, be safe? Nowhere only in that whole spectrum where we’re being safe.
So we got to be smart about managing all of those risks. And that’s one of the things that we’re trying to message there is that’s what we do is manage risk. That’s what we do is manage risk. We did it with COVID, we did it with structure fires. We just manage risk. And I think that resonates with some people because they recognize there’s… It’s almost disingenuous to say the number one priority is to be safe because if that were true, won’t we just stay in the firehouse and not go anywhere. The reality is we’re going out there to do a job. That job is dangerous.
The number one priority is go out and save lives and protect property while being as safe as possible which very different. And you’re accepting that there is some level of risk and which means that the only way to make people smart to be able to mitigate that risk is train them, and to put them in those difficult situations as much as possible in training before they’re in reality.
And that brings up probably the biggest thing that I tell folks is for me as the fire chief, it’s actually the exact same thing as when I was a firefighter on the rescue company is I have two questions that I ask. And when I was newer to the job, the rescue was, is it safe and is it effective? And if the answer was yes, then we would just go with whoever’s plan it was, which was a tough thing. That was part of the development of the extreme ownership side of things inside of the rescue company was, hey, we’re not going with our plan. We’re going with their plan. Well, now, in a chief executive officer position, it’s the exact same two questions. But am I comfortable with the risk and is it effective? And if I can answer yes to both of those things, I’m going with their plan 100% of the time.
If I’m asking questions, it’s because I can’t answer yes to those two things. So my folks know that if I start asking questions, you just got to get me into those circles where I’m like, oh, okay, I’m comfortable with the risk now. Sounds good. Or yeah, that’s effective. So that whole risk management piece, that’s just kind of a foundational thing for us.
PJ, clearly you built this in the culture of the organization. We talked about how the folks on your team that I’ve seen come to our events and been a part of training. They’re fired up, they’re eager to learn this stuff, they’re eager to grow and learn as leaders and to continue to build this in the culture of your team. What has been most effective as you’ve taken to implement the principles of extreme ownership, the laws of combat and mindsets for victory into your team? And then where have you seen some push back on that?
To your first part of that question is patience, having the patience. When they come to me with a question, I almost never give them an answer because I want them to make the decision. And then we have a conversation. As a matter of fact, it’s yesterday. I was in the airport on my way here and I get a phone call from an officer, and he says, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking.” And I said, “What’s preventing you from making the decision?” And he was like, “Okay.” So I think part of it is the patience to detach enough to realize my job as the fire chief is to develop this team. My job isn’t to go put off fires. So that’s going to take time where they have to get comfortable, got to build relationships and let them actually see it at work. And then when they start making decisions, you got to figure out the tact, tone, and delivery piece of like, okay, cool, I see what you were thinking there. What are you thinking now?
So the patience piece, I think is a big part of it, which makes them feel comfortable that they can make mistakes. Some of them don’t feel comfortable still. And I’d say that’s where some of the pushback comes is, as we were talking just before the we started this is, when you make a decision, you own it. Even though you’re working under my umbrella where I actually own everything that’s going on within my command, you feel like you own it. And with that comes some risk that I’m wrong, and that’s insulting to my ego. So I don’t want to be wrong. What’s the easy button? Well, I’ll just go to Leif, you can make the decision. And so that’s where some of the pushback comes is some people don’t want to make decisions and I need you to.
They don’t want to make decisions for the reasons you talked about. And they also think that that’s what doing a good job looks like. I think that’s where a lot of people think like, “Hey, PJ’s the chief. I’m going to go ask him to make the decision here, and I’m going to present you with some options and it’s your call.” And they think that’s what good actually looks like. And I think you have to really re-educate them to help them understand what true decentralized command is. It’s not just, hey, do whatever you want. We see people that go in that direction too. And that seems to scare a lot of the first responder groups that we’ve worked with, whether it’s a local police department, or a statewide agency, or a fire department. There’s a real need to, no, we can’t delegate the decision making. There’s too much at stake here, and that needs to come all through me.
And I think rather than the idea of, look, it’s not just go do whatever you want. It’s, hey, this is the ultimate goal. Here’s the purpose and the goal of the instate we’re trying to achieve. Here’s the parameters where you can make decisions, where you can’t make decisions. And when people really understand that, then you’ve got people that are, at least if it’s outside of those parameters, it’s above my pay grade to make the call. At least I can make a recommendation up the chain to say, “Hey boss, here’s what I think we could do to solve this problem.” And then you could say, “Great, do that.” Or, “Hey, hold on a second. Maybe we don’t have the resource for that.” Or, “Hey, there’s some other things going on here that I need to look into.” But I think it’s a constant process of educating people to show them that that’s actually what good looks like. And look, if I’m the boss and you’re coming to me for a decision and I’m saying, “Hey, what do you think we should do?” I’m responsible for that decision, it’s not on you. It’s actually on me. And so I think you have to really encourage people and help them understand that.
Yeah, I think you’re spot on with that. The encouragement piece is huge. It’s when you think about, I’m saying, hey, the organization needs to spend 20% of its time training. I need to be spending more than that time investing in my people, which means investing in the relationship so that they know what winning looks like. They know that they can make decisions, and when they reach a sticking point, they can come and ask me questions. But for me, I still have to maintain the discipline of, I should only answer the questions that only the fire chief can answer. That’s it. Somebody else between me and them should probably have been able to answer that. And if they can’t, why can’t they? Where have I failed to get them that knowledge or give them that authority?
So it’s a daily struggle. You could ask my wife, every day I go home, I’m like, “Yeah, I totally suck at this job.” Because it’s a constant struggle and grind of like, hey, I want to make sure I invest in our people. Because the people are the ones that actually execute the mission. It’s not me. All I can really do is just open up their aperture and let them see what they need to do and give them the resources to do it.
How did this become part of the culture at Black Forest Fire?
Yeah, when I got there, there was no leadership training, no leadership development. And when you’re in a small organization, everybody needs to be able to make decisions, especially where this is not a 40-hour a week business. It’s 24/7, 365, those calls are getting made at three o’clock in the morning, Christmas morning, somebody’s going to make the decision. So if you got an organization that needs decision makers every second of the day, you have to develop them. Nobody was developing them. So it was like, okay, now I’m the interim chief. Oh, you know what? I know exactly where to go to find some good leadership development. Fortunately for me, I want to say it was 2000, when was the first roll call? 2017, ’18?
I think it was 2018, I believe. Yeah, that’s right. That is dichotomy came out.
So I know I had mentioned to you that I was doing some leadership training with some local businesses and organizations. Well, when I saw what you guys were doing, I was like, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here. What can I do to support Echelon Front? And I actually reached out to Flynn at the time and said, “Hey, if you guys ever need anything, let me know.” And so when the Denver Muster came around, I reached out to Jamie and said, “See, you guys are bringing a thousand people to a mile high, and we’re not anticipating any medical issues?” And she was like, “Yeah, we should probably have somebody stand by and do medical stuff.” Well, I was like, “Great, you should do that.” And she said, “Can you do it?” And I said, “I could probably do one better.”
And so we brought up that team to do the standby medical in Denver, and that kind of started to get the ball rolling, was to me again, it wasn’t me telling the guys and gals, “Hey, you need to do this.” I basically said, “Hey, I need a paramedic and an EMT who’s willing to go to this event. You can stand by and do medical, do some PT if you want.” And they were like, “Oh, we’ll do it.” And of course they’re like, “Are we getting paid?” “Yes, you’re getting paid.” So I pay them to come up, they’re on duty, and all of a sudden they go back to the firehouse and they’re like, “That was pretty legit.” Next muster’s coming up, guys are like, “Hey, can I go?” “Yeah, we can send you.”
And we prioritize training in our budget to be able to start sending people. So the training division has kind of laid out a pathway of, “Hey, we’re going to give you these books. Whether you read them or not, that’s totally up to you. But there’s some resources if you’re an officer and if you want to go through the officer progression in the fire department, you got to go to a muster.” And now as of last week, they got to go to an FTX. So really it’s been organic, which is, I think that’s been the right way for us. Firefighters are, like I said, they don’t like change. It’s a hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress. So they have to choose it of their own free will. And if I just force it on them, they’re not going to do it. So they get to see it and then they get to experience it, and then they want more of it.
I think that’s awesome, PJ. And we’ve seen that go badly. We talk about the mindset of being default aggressive, and I’m a very default aggressive person by nature. I want to make things happen. I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m just going to get right in there and do that. And that’s where it goes back to that indirect approach where, yeah, I think the enthusiasm that your team has to be a part of these events is really incredible. And it would be so different if you just forced 12 of them to go to an event. They don’t know what it is, they don’t really know what it’s about. And they’re just kind of like, “Yeah, what is this thing?” Maybe there’s a handful of people that, hey, they take something away from that. But there’s people that are going to be rolling their eyes in the background and they don’t want to be a part of it.
So I think that longer term, you talked about patience earlier, and to me, I would just call that a strategic approach. Where are you actually trying to get, you want this to be a part of the culture of the team, which means it’s got to be their idea, not your idea. And just introducing some people to the concepts, offering it to them, but not forcing it on them, not really beating them over the head with it. And then introducing it to some people that then could now start talking about it, and getting excited about it. And opening minds to other people like, “Oh, that’s really cool. I’d like to go to one of those.” When you got people requesting that they go rather than you forcing them to go, it’s a totally different outcome as a result.
You’re spot on. It’s thinking strategically. And the fact of the matter is, Black Forest is a small fire department and young firefighters who are hungry are going to want to go to other fire departments. And one of my grand strategic goals, and I define them differently, is when these men and women leave Black Forest, that they’re squared away leaders that are going into other fire departments so that they can help those organizations as well. Because there’s a good chance they’re not going to stick around for 20, 30 years in a small suburb department. They want to go to the big city. They want to see if they have what it takes, which as they’ll find out, it’s really the same circus, different clowns.
But that’s an awesome thing too though, that’s something I saw in the SEAL teams. The worst thing that you can call somebody in the SEAL teams is a quitter. I mean, we have a 70% to 80% attrition rate going through buds. If you ring the bell, a drop on request, you’re a buds quitter. It’s got a massive negative connotation. So even someone like Jason Gardner, who’s been in the SEAL teams for 30 years, or Steve Ward, 28 years. These guys retire and you’re like, “Oh, quitter.” People are kind of joking about that stuff. And obviously there’s some joking to that, but that’s one of the ways that they would retain people. And I had it happen to me. I left the Navy, the 13-year mark, so I’m 7 years shy of the 20 years required for an official retirement. And so people are like, “Oh, you’re quitting. You’re walking away from the teams.”
And one of the most squared away leaders we worked with was an army battalion commander. And when we were deployed Ramadi and watching how he handled that, so the army would deploy for, I mean, they’d 12, 15 months at a time. And so guys would be rotating back overseas like their enlistment is up. And the Navy and Marine Corps generally doesn’t happen that. You deploy for the duration of your six month deployment and they will extend you. So people generally aren’t ending in enlistment and going home in the middle of a deployment. They’re going to extend you based on, hey, you’ve agreed to go on this deployment. You’re going to get out when you get back. But the army doesn’t work like that. And they’d have people that are leaving in the middle of a deployment and their enlistment’s up. And this battalion commander, rather than belittling them or say calling him a quitter, he would just say, “Thank you for all you’ve done for us, all you’ve done for the Army, anything that we could do for you, you let us know going forward.”
And it was always that way of, “Hey, this person’s moving on to bigger and better things. They’re going to do a different chapter of their life.” And I just thought his attitude about that was incredible. And I think that’s the best way to be, right? You want to have relationships with people. If you’ve got a squared away person’s going to move on to a different department, having a great relationship with that person is powerful for you, for your department, it’s going to benefit you as well. So it’s the idea that you’re going to just insult that person for leaving, I think is really shortsighted.
Well, relationships are paramount. And so when they leave, one, they’re carrying our brand over there, which actually helps with recruiting other firefighters. Because somebody who’s young is trying to figure out, man, this guy’s squared away and he works for ABC fire department, where did he start? Oh, he is at Black Forest. And it actually helps with the recruiting. But the other thing is we deploy firefighters all over the country to do a variety of tasks, whether it’s wild land or urban search and rescue. They’re going to go and interact with other people all of the time. So why not have the relationships in place beforehand? So yeah, we had a graduation three weeks ago, I think it was from a recruit academy. And we’re losing a guy to a larger department, highest paid fire department in Colorado.
And the new recruits asked me, “Hey chief, how’s that make you feel when somebody’s leaving?” And I was like, to quote our friend Jocko, “Good.” And they were like, “What?” And I said, “We’re unleashing good human beings into the fire service. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with that? Yeah, they’re not staying here.” Yeah, the taxpayers would like to get more return on that investment, but they’re good people and they’re going to do a good job somewhere else, and they’re taking our brand with them. I have no problem with that.
And some of those people may come back too, right? I think that long term strategic vision is really powerful. And that says a lot about your leadership. And most people, I think are shortsighted when it comes to that. They see that as a problem instead of an opportunity to spread the message and help other fire departments out there. That’s awesome.
Yeah. Well, and the first responder community as a whole, there’s struggles. I’m assuming that it’s probably that way in corporate America as well, but that leadership is the difference. And if you’re not investing in leadership, you’re really not investing in the team. You’re not investing in the bottom line and the return on that investment is failure. So it’s like, hey, we just got to invest in developing good people and they’ll take care of the rest.
We had a client recently in the corporate world, that was one of their complaints was losing people to competitors. “I’m tired of training people up and then having them leave and go somewhere else.” And they’re like, “What can we do to stop that?” And I was like, “Build a culture of extreme ownership that utilizes the laws of combat cover moves, simple, prioritize [inaudible 00:53:40] or as command.” The more of that you have in your organization, the more people are going to want to stay and be a part of that organization. There’s always going to be some level of attrition, and that’s okay. So I think that’s very, very strategic of you.
The culture piece is spot on. So small suburban department we’ve got in the State of Colorado, we’ve got city of-
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:54:04]
In the state of Colorado, we’ve got city of Denver, city of Colorado Springs, and then we’ve got these other large fire districts. And so how do you compete with that? And I get asked that question all of the time because we cannot pay what the city of Colorado Springs does yet. We can’t pay what Denver pays. And the reality is the way we compete is culture and if we have a culture where, not that you get to do what you want to do, but you get to have ownership of what you’re doing, that’s way better than being told what to do all of the time.
As we often say on Echelon Front, control over your own destiny is the best compensation you can give somebody.
And that’s culture and that’s the confluence of stories and character and all of those things put together.
That’s why it bothers me so badly. You and I have had some conversations with some fellow firefighters just about giving people ownership of the schedule or these people holding the line on certain things sometimes when you’re like, man, let them run with that. What do they want to do? And as you said, if there’s no risk that make sense, let them do it. No big deal. What’s the harm in that?
Yeah, and that’s exactly right. To what end? Okay, what’s the risk here? Well, there’s really zero risk. Good to go. And is it effective? Yes. Then why do I want to put any strain on that relationship to have it my way?
I think when you’re pulling the threat on that, that’s generally what it comes down to. It’s ego. It’s ego like, no, no, I’m in charge here and I’m going to tell them what to do and how dare they not think that my plan is the greatest plan in the universe? And I’ve had a lot of conversations with that, particularly on the fire service side where a leader’s really trying to hold the line on something when you’re like, Hey, your folks want to organize a little bit differently, or hey, they want to adjust the shifts, or they want to have a little more say in whose working when or where. Let them do it. What’s the harm in doing that? When you start pulling that thread, those questions become very hard to answer I think.
Yeah, and there’s a balance to everything is you can’t just let them do whatever they want. However, if they’ve got a great idea and you’re comfortable with the risks and it’s effective, why are you not just letting them do it? Why not? The way that they staff rigs as far as like, Hey, I want to work on this shift, or this person wants to work on that shift. Well, if they have equal sets of skills and you don’t have imbalances and you can look from a broad spectrum that those crews are good to go, then why not let them determine that? I mean, what? Because you’re the boss.
Well, it comes down to leadership capital. And the question is obviously if there’s a reason to do it and it’s going to affect the mission, it’s going to affect the team, it’s going to affect the ability to mitigate risks to the team, obviously then it doesn’t make sense and that’s should be pretty easy to explain. But I think when you’re evaluating everything that comes down to just simply leadership capital, is it worth my leadership capital to expend that holding the line on this particular situation just to insist on the plan that I came up with? And I think most things, it’s just not. It’s just simply not if you detach and put your ego in check.
And for me, I often think that if I have to make the decision, I’m robbing somebody else of the opportunity to make the decision. When I first started the very first week, this is a serious, serious scenario. I couldn’t believe it. My very first week. I actually think it was the first day, but it was all kind of a blur because there I am saying, “What? I’m the interim fire chief? How did this happen?” And I’m like, “I think I’ve told you I’m the accidental fire chief.” I shouldn’t be the fire chief.
The deputy chief of the department number two guy comes into my office and it was either the first day or the second day and he says, “Hey chief, can I get permission to buy toilet paper?” And I was like, “Are we that centralized that only the fire chief can authorize the purchasing of toilet paper?” I’m pretty sure everybody needs to use that every day. This should not be something that comes to the fire chief.
This is mission critical gear.
And I was like, wow, that’s where we’re at. We’re at an overly centralized organization. Nobody can make any decisions. Everything’s complicated. It was starting to just dismantle that over time. And now like I said, I pretty much don’t answer any questions. I don’t authorize anything because I just want them to do it. I give them parameters and then if they reach that sticking point where they just won’t commit, I’ll ask them, “What’s keeping you from making this decision?” And then they’re like, “I’m going to do it.” And for me, it’s having the patience to look at every interaction with that other person as an opportunity to develop them into being the leaders that I want because we need leaders from the very first day throughout their whole career. I need them to step up and lead. We’re a small team, so everyone has to execute. And then it’s a lot of work because you’re constantly pouring into them.
No question. It takes time and effort. And then as new people come join the team and others leave, it’s a constant process of building up the trust and confidence and the power of those relationships to facilitate decentralized command for sure. And then ensuring everybody understands the purpose, the goal of the end state you’re trying to get to, the commanders at ten, as we’d say in the military and then the parameters where they can make decisions and where they can’t.
Back to what we were talking about earlier, PJ, because I see this a lot in the first responder world, when someone is talking about Extreme Ownership, they’re making reference to Jocko Podcast or talking about the books, Extreme Ownership [inaudible 01:00:18] leadership or what they learned at a muster. And there’s pushback that people, “Well, this isn’t the military, that doesn’t apply here,” or, “This is different.” Where have you seen pushback on these concepts and how have you overcome them?
Well, one of the pushbacks, typically it’ll be former military guys that have had a bad relationship with the Navy at first because at first glance-
SEAL teams in particular.
Yeah, exactly. At first glance they’ll be like, “Oh, what am I going to learn from that?” And that’s probably their first one but for us in the fire service, we’re able to make a pretty quick correlation I think probably better than law enforcement because we’re a small team, sounds familiar. Operating in a time competitive environment, sounds familiar. Having to operate in uncertainty, sounds familiar. In the fire service, at least we can adapt the lessons that you took from combat and apply them to our world very quickly. The difference is your enemy had free will. Our enemy follows the laws of physics. That’s something we can predict. We can start to mitigate some of those risks.
But that time competitive environment and being able to operate in that friction and have bad communications and everything goes wrong right when you need it to go right. I mean, I always joke that Murphy is my best friend from Murphy’s Law. I mean it’s just like in the fire service we have automatic aid and mutual aid, and Murphy is my automatic aid, a partner, and he’s at every fire and he’s very well staffed.
In the fire service, we’re able to take the lessons that you guys took from combat and apply them pretty quickly. It’s typically a little bit of a relationship thing that people have had in the past with SEALS in particular, or it’s a bias that they have, what they’ve seen in the media. I mean, of course we won’t even open that can of worms, but it’s just like they come with a certain bias and you just got to overcome that a little bit. And then they seem to buy in once they start to see it more and more.
It’s been pretty awesome for me to see how many fire departments have questions on their promotion exams out of Extreme Ownership and have taken the stuff on board and utilized it, which is awesome. I mean, clearly I think for every veteran out there, for people that have encountered SEALS who were massively egotistical … And look, some of my absolute favorite humans I’ve ever worked with in the SEAL teams, unbelievable people and some of the absolute worst people I’ve ever worked with, just egomaniacs that are out of control in the SEAL teams too. So I understand where they’re coming from with that and I think-
That could be said about firefighters too.
Look, it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. And I think just you’ve done a great job I think, of overcoming that by simply just living these principles, not just trying to smash people or forcing it down people’s throats. I mean, as Jock often says, “No food tastes good if it’s forced down your throat.” But just by letting it be their idea and introducing them to concept like peaking some interest in that. And it’s been awesome to see. I don’t think I’ve met a single member of Black Forest Fires coming into here that hasn’t been totally fired up about what they’re learning, eager to learn to go and apply this stuff.
Yeah, I mean of course they volunteered to go. We did have some people that there’s a balance to everything and there’s a broad spectrum. And that’s one of the challenges I have. My organization has 55 people I have to communicate with on a regular basis. How do I have a simple, clear, concise message that resonates with all of them? Some folks, they want even less information. Some people they want an encyclopedia.
And so trying to message that has been tough because some people probably would say that I was forcing Extreme Ownership down on them just because I bought them the book. Like, “Hey man, here’s reference in case you want to work on some leadership stuff.” I actually don’t care whether you read it or not, but we’re buying all the officers stuff because you guys came to us and said, “We need leadership development.” “Okay, cool. Here’s some tools.” They’d be like, “Oh, he’s forcing it on us.” No, there’s no test. There’s no test. But the folks that you’ve interacted from our department they’re like, “Hey, I want to go.” The repeat customers, there’s a long list of those and it’s like, “Yeah, hold on, these other people get to go first.”
I think more than it being a reflection of what I’ve brought to the organization, it’s really what Echelon Front’s done as far as every time they interact with you guys, they come back fired up and the message spreads and then all of a sudden three other guys on that crew, they want to go. Send them and they come back. I mean, I’m just a conduit. I’m just a signpost that points the direction. I don’t actually do anything.
Well, you’ve peaked people’s interests and gotten them there and I mean, even just your three leaders that you had at our field training exercise program, I mean it was just awesome to see. That’s humbling. It’s a humbling program where you’re putting people in uncomfortable situations and having to make decisions and there’s immediate real-time feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. And it’s just really cool to see their ability to be self-critical of like, “Hey, I need to do a better job here. I need to actually improve here. This is something I got to work on going forward.” And it’s awesome to see that because not everybody reacts in that way. A lot of people want to talk about it, “Well, it’s everyone else around me.”
One thing I wanted to ask you about too is I think it’s your perspective as a chief is very valuable and obviously 21 years in the fire service and you’ve come up to the ranks and seen this, but just in the law enforcement world as well, one of the biggest frictions that we see often is those frontline leaders that are out there trying to make things happen and their relationship back up the chain with the chief, with the senior leaders that they have to deal with.
And I remember one particular time, Jock and I, this was early on in one of our mustards and we’re talking to a frontline leader of the fire service. And he was talking to Mia Jocko about a situation where he clearly had a [inaudible 01:07:04] relationship with his chain of command and they were responding to a fire and he sees the situation, he’s getting his guys together, he’s going to go actually execute to start fighting this fire. And he was told to stand down, we’ll tell you what to do. And Jock, he’s asking us, “What do we do in that situation?” And clearly the answer that he wanted was like, well, you just tell your chief that you’ll deal with him later and you go fight that fire and save lives and do what you need to do. And obviously if people’s lives are on the line and there’s something that you can do to save lives, I mean that’s going to be the top priority.
But as we sat there initially, I was just listening to Jocko’s response to this question was great because his initial reaction is like, “Well, you do what you got to do.” And then he kind of backed off that to say, “Well, actually what I need to do is ask myself why does my chief not trust me to go and execute this thing? Why do I have such a bad relationship with my chief that I’m being told to stand down instead of actually being able to go and contribute significantly to this? And clearly there weren’t lives on the line in the situation. Just maybe there’s some property that could have been saved if they just started fighting this fire sooner.
And that question was okay, again, from a strategic perspective, why do I have zero leadership capital in the bank? Why do I have such a bad relationship with my chief that he doesn’t trust me to actually just start doing what I need to do to fight this fire? And once we opened that can warms up, you could clearly see what that leader was like, oh man, I’m blaming the chief here when I got to do a better job actually building this relationship.
What would you say to folks like that as far as what they need to do to build better relationships up the chain of command so that they do have more trust and confidence from their senior leadership to actually go do what they need to do to accomplish their mission?
Wow, there’s a lot there. And you hit the nail on the head relationship. I mean, you’re going to have to build a relationship. Leadership is leadership, whether you’re leading down the chain of command or up the chain of command, it’s leadership. It’s building that relationship. I’ll go back to my two questions. Am I comfortable with the risk and is it effective? If I’m a firefighter and a chief wants me to go do something and I think it’s completely dumb, but the risks I’m comfortable with and it’s effective, I’m going to be like, “Okay, yes, sir. Got it.”
And you just do that all of the time and there’s zero friction, the time comes that it’s moving outside of being effective or it’s a little too much risk and you want to push back, that chief is going to look at you right away and say, what does he see that I don’t see? Because you’ve been compliant the whole time, but more importantly, you’ve supported the chief’s decisions the whole time. And it doesn’t have to be the chief. It could be your lieutenant on a fire department company you might have a lieutenant, a driver, and two firefighters. Or New York will have a lieutenant, a chauffeur and four firefighters. You want to have a good relationship with that first line leader too. So what’s it hurt? If he’s telling you to put a uniform on and you want to hang out in your shorts and a t-shirt all day, put the uniform on. What’s the risk? But you’re building that leadership capital. And I use the term relationship capital and leadership capital interchangeably because they’re actually the same thing for me. Just build that capital and keep building it. And I’ve made the argument before that your reputation in the fire service has value. It has value because in that time competitive environment, if you and I are both firefighters and you don’t have a good reputation or you don’t have a relationship, but let’s say you don’t have a good reputation with the chief and you say, “Hey, we’re going to go to the roof and vent,” he’s probably going to say “No.” But if I have a good reputation and I say, “We’re going to go to the roof and vent,” exact same building, exact same fire, he’s going to say yes. And the reason he is going to say yes is because he trusts me, because I’ve built that relationship up. That’s going to frustrate you where you’re like, “How come he says yes to him, but not to me?” And so your reputation that has value and that reputation’s built on the relationship that you have chosen to build with your boss.
And the inverse is just as true. As the chief, if I want them to do what I need them to do, I need them to trust me. I got to build a relationship with them so that when I tell them to do something, especially when I’m telling them, because now I’m no longer asking them, “Hey, what do you thinks best?” I’m like, “Hey, I need you to do this because time’s been compressed.” For me, it’s the same thing, build a good relationship.
And you also have to apply some grace because this was tough for me first starting out as a firefighter, like black and white. Engine puts water on the fire, truck opens up the building. It’s not that simple. I mean, it’s not that difficult. It’s quite simple. That’s not true at all. There’s a whole lot of variables that go into that. And in that time competitive environment, I’m told to do something, I have to trust them, but also I have to have some grace like, okay, they’re seeing things that I don’t see. I’m just going to have to go with it and if they make a mistake, I shouldn’t just hammer them like, “Oh, I knew he was wrong. I knew he was wrong from the start.” Because it’s definitely different. As you move up in leadership, you’ve got a bigger picture to be looking at.
For me, I have a standard where I want everybody thinking strategically all the time. But then my command staff, I want them thinking grand strategically all the time. And that’s a stretch. But I’m looking at things even on a fire, where are we building a relationship or destroying a relationship with our neighboring fire department who’s on the exact same fire? Because if we’re so focused on the mission, you could get bought into like, well, it doesn’t really matter. We’re going here to put out this fire and save lives and property. Yeah, but are we destroying? Are we actually burning down our relationships with everybody that’s supposed to support us at the next fire? There’s a balance there.
And that’s tough, I think for some folks on the fire service that are riding on the back seats or even some of the officers, why aren’t we not doing this? There’s probably a good reason, and I’m not saying that every fire chief or battalion chief is competent, but build a relationship with them and support them. And if you support them, they’re going to support you. It’s that law of reciprocity.
This is trust, listen, respect, influence. I mean, that’s what you’re talking about. To me, when I hear someone telling me, and whether this is in the first responder world, whether it’s in the corporate world, when someone’s telling me, “Hey, the chain of command isn’t listening to me,” that’s often the question we ask is how often are you pushing back on stuff? And generally what you find is that those are people that are pushing back all the time and so instead of you actually listening to me when I’m saying, “Hey, chief, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” if it’s just me saying, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” well, I say that all the time and you’re like, “Oh, it’s just Leif again. He’s complaining about stuff like always.” I have no ability to influence you whatsoever.
And I think it’s a hard thing to think about, but if you can keep your ego in check, if you can get those emotions in check. And I say this being the chief haterade drinker in tasking a bruiser where I talk about how screwed up the chain of command is all the time. And yet when you realize, hey, it took Jocko as a mentor to me to say, Hey, does it help us to not have a good relationship with our boss? And so we didn’t push back on stuff. We get told to do something and it makes us a little more efficient, some paperwork process. We’re going to do all that stuff and we’re not going to push back on anything until it actually matters.
And I think that idea of like, Hey, I want people to trust me. I want people to listen to me. I want people to respect me I want to have influence over the chain of command and over our organization, over our mission, I’ve got to give those things. And if you’re thinking about that stuff in strategic terms, in every interaction, whether it’s with your team, whether it’s with peers, whether it’s up the chain of command, man, it just makes all the difference in the world and your ability when you give those things, then you give people trust, you listen to other people, you show them respect, and you allow them to influence you, they give you those things in return. It’s pretty amazing the influence that you gain over the organization.
Yeah, and I think to your point on your question about that lower-level leader, mid-level leader looking up the chain of command, but this is where the patience comes in from the upper leadership mentoring people down below. If you’re getting pushback from your people, why are you getting pushback? What do they see that you don’t see and what’s your relationship like with them? Because the easy button is to just say, “Yeah, that’s what I said, do it,” and move on. And they’re going to go execute.
But clearly they see something. Either they see something that you don’t see, or what I find often is they’re unaware of something that you’re aware of, and so you’re robbing them of the opportunity to grow in that moment. That’s where you got to have the patience and the intentionality to be open to that every single moment of the day where when that comes up, you’ll be like, “Okay, walk me through what you’re seeing. Why are you pushing back on this?” Because you clearly see something, or I didn’t do a good job giving you enough information. And I’ll tell people all the time is when we walk out this door, we have to be aligned on this. If we’re not now, what do we got to do to get there?
Does that make sense? You got to build that relationship down the chain and you got to listen. It’s not just up the chain where it’s like, Hey, I need to listen to the chief and listen to the battalion chief, listen to the captain. It’s like, Hey, what’s that firefighter seeing that I’m not seeing? Or clearly the firefighter is pushing back on this because my message that I thought was clear didn’t resonate through the ranks to get to him. And he thinks that the reason I want him in uniform is because I’m ready to go invade a country. It’s like, no, actually it has to do with more than that. I have to have that conversation, but I want to hear it and I need to listen more than speak.
And if they don’t understand it, the problem isn’t them, the problem is you, and you got to take ownership of that. That’s the power of Extreme Ownership, for sure.
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:21:04]
We talked about it up at the council, I brought it up just briefly because the council… Amazing event, right? You got these thousand pound animals that you get to go on a horseback ride with. And as I reflect on my time in leadership, some of the early, early, early advice I got at a ranch with a guy who he chose to walk away from breaking horses to building relationships with horses, and I learned so much from him in such a short amount of time. But it really was… He’s getting that animal to choose of their own free will to align with his will.
That’s a wild Mustang. Doesn’t even speak the same language. And how’s he doing that? Because he’s pouring himself into it, he’s taking the time, he’s paying attention to all the cues, and then, during that process, he’s building a relationship to the point where this wild Mustang trusts him and follows him. So to me, if you want to be an effective leader, you’ve got to pour in your people and get them to align with your mission, vision, and values of their own free will. That takes time, takes a lot of patience, takes a lot of love.
I think that’s spot on, PJ. I think that’s a great place to leave it, man. We really appreciate you being here and just can’t thank you enough for your friendship, for your example that you’ve set, not only at Black Forest Fire, but I think from so many first responders out there, about how to take and live these principles out and build those in the culture of your team. And just can’t thank you enough for making the time to be here with us in person.
Yeah. Well, I’m humbled and honored to be here. Hopefully this isn’t the last time. Come back down and we’ll do this again. You guys definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone, which I’m like, I just want to hang out in the shadows and do my thing. But if you guys see value in sharing it, then why wouldn’t I help share what you guys are doing? I think you guys are doing a great job and providing for a great mission and vision.
Well, thank you for helping us share this message with the world, and I look forward to getting up to Black Forest and doing some training in person with your team up there one of these days soon.
Yeah, come by.
All right. Thanks.
President & Co-Founder of Echelon Front
Leif Babin, a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer, is the President and co-founder of Echelon Front LLC, a leadership consulting firm. Leif is the co-author, alongside Jocko Willink, of the New York Times bestsellers, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, and the Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win. Echelon Front teaches the principles of Extreme Ownership and the Dichotomy of Leadership to help leaders apply them in their world to solve problems, accomplish their goals, and achieve victory in business and life.