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Kids Behaving Badly
What motivates your crew to fall in line?
By Nick Brunacini
Reprinted by permission from

One of the joys of my life is traveling with my dad and getting to hang out with firefighters all across this fabulous country of ours (and parts of Canada, too!). The Fire Chief is still very innocent when it comes to any electronic device that doesn't reshape wood and steel or compress air, so my brother or I will often tag along on his teaching adventures to make images appear out of computers. A few months ago, the two of us presented a leadership program on the West Coast. The only downside of our modern travel adventures is the few bad apples who work for the TSA; they can easily set me off. On more than one occasion, I have been so traumatized by the behind the screen cock-and-ball fondling that I've blurted out derogatory statements during some of our out-of-town training sessions. During my latest tirade, I told an A-shift paramedic that his small elbow and knee joints made his arm and leg musculature appear much larger than it actually is. I wish to take this moment to apologize for these tasteless comments. In hindsight, the IAFC may have been right when they called me a "callous and insensitive Neanderthal who must be stopped."

During our recent leadership fiesta, I was sitting off to the side in rapt amazement while Big Al carried on with the crowd of highly enlightened fire-service professionals. A group of 75 firefighters were engaged in an active customer-service dialogue. The Fire Chief was making the point that all leadership must be based on our core mission. He gently took all of our brains by their little hands and led us on a journey. "I've read hundreds of books on leadership. I left most of them on airplanes after struggling through the first 100 pages. Maybe the people who clean airplanes can make more sense out of them than I could. One day it occurred to me that all this leadership material doesn't become relevant, or make a bit of sense, until you can attach it to something tangible. The only tangible thing we do in the fire service is deliver service to our customers. When I finally figured out everything must be based on the customer-service relationship, it framed the entire role of leadership for me."

More than a dozen people clamored to all talk at the same time. Positive energy, love and rainbows were exploding throughout the auditorium.

"We are nothing without our customers!"
"There isn't anything we wouldn't do for our customers!"
'We must rewrite all of our procedures around five-star customer service!"
'All of our management practices must address how they effect customers service!"

It was a real dawning of the Age of Aquarius moment.

The group was very enlightened (to say the least). I sat and observed without saying much as the group ignited and glowed, high on the hope of a better tomorrow. I couldn't help myself anymore and floated a turd into the punchbowl. "All this new-age crap is really sweet, but how do you manage and lead a subordinate who just doesn't buy into all of this?" This caused an awkward silence for a second, then the crowd reacted like angry protestors. I remember an attractive, athletic, blonde, female officer responding: "We simply should not hire people who do not buy into the concept of high-quality customer service. They have no place in today’s fire service." This was followed with a dozen like-minded people scolding me for suggesting that a member of the fire service might not buy into the concept of quality customer service.
I have the innate ability to appear that I am following along with a conversation when actually my mind is somewhere else. While the crowd of hummingbirds attacked me, I floated 10 years back in time. All the love, leadership and serving our fellow man talk transported me to an event that would have frightened and incapacitated most of the people in the room. I have had buildings fall down around me, seen people cut in half and have had bosses threaten my employment, and none of these experiences tested me like this singular event. It opened my eyes to the very nature and depravity of humans like nothing before or since. The true nature of leadership lay at the core of this phenomenon.

My wife and I have three daughters. The first two daughters were normal little human girls. Our final daughter looked like a regular baby girl. After spending the briefest period of time with this beautiful child, it became apparent that the soul of a Viking warlord was trapped inside her. One afternoon grandma came by to take our Little Angel out for a day of female bonding. When it came time for granny and her granddaughter to go, the Sven the Destroyer inside her decided she wasn't going anywhere. Granny made the mistake of believing that a mature and experienced woman could make a small child fall in and march straight. I made the suggestion that granny shouldn't tempt fate and save the day out for another time. This earned me a look that said, "I've been dealing with kids a lot longer than you, Mr. Stupid Man. A 1 1⁄2-year-old child will not set any agenda of mine." She had the good manners to simply tell me, "We'll be fine." I smiled and said, "Have fun."

Granny picked up the child and got as far as the front door before the first signs of demonic possession set in. Writhing of epileptic proportions and speaking in tongues did not scare nor deter granny. The old woman gripped her granddaughter tighter, gritted her teeth and pressed on. The battling duo had made it halfway to the parking lot when my Little Angel positioned herself where she could kick her grandmother right between the eyes. This knocked one of the lenses out of granny’s sunglasses, took both combatants to the ground and allowed our Sweet Cherub a temporary escape. Granny quickly shook it off, rounded up her little charge, stuffed her in the vehicle and went on with their day. During this period of our lives, we lived in an apartment where we had lots of anonymous neighbors. One of the neighbors who watched this scene was concerned that they had just witnessed a child abduction and called the police. Granny hadn't made it a mile down the road when a police department patrol car pulled her over and demanded an explanation. This pales in comparison to what my Little Cupcake did to me several months later.

Back in those days I owned a white 1990 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with a blue carriage roof. I thought it was a sweet ride despite the fact that my wife told me I looked like a gay pimp in it. The car seat in the back didn't fit the car's personality. One day, my Little Jujube and I were running errands. We had made our first stop and were getting back into the car when my sweet 2-year-old went nuts. Despite baby's protest, I picked her up and stuffed her into her car seat and drove off. Being the dutiful parent, I had my Sweet Baby's car seat located in the backseat of the car, directly behind the driver’s seat. As I pulled out of the parking lot and drove down the road, my Little Hell Bitch did non-stop leg kicks into the back of my seat. After 2 miles and more than 100 double leg kicks to the back of my seat, I tried to reach directly behind me in an effort to remove my Little Boo from her car seat to throw her out the window of my speeding gay cruiser.

Having your seat back jack-hammered by a pissed-off 2-year-old is not a pleasant experience. But I quickly forgot my rage when I was hit in the side of the head with a hard object. I turned around and was immediately rewarded with a blow to my face with the backseat window’s trim panel. Little Love Muffin had torn the interior of the car apart and was using it to hurt her daddy. I played tug-of-war with baby’s new bludgeon toy for a good half mile. After being kicked, hit, scratched and bitten, I determined there was no way I could get my hands on the fruit of my loins, so I pulled into a grocery store parking lot. I stopped the car, threw it into park, twisted around in my seat and made short work of removing my angry passenger. I put her out my open window and gingerly set her down on the ground. Her scream produced a 5-degree rise in temperature. I let her finish her tirade then told her, "You can’t do this to me anymore. I'm your father and love you but I'm sick and tired of this evil shit. Sorry honey, but you have to live in this parking lot for the rest of your life." She took a step backward, straightened her arms by her sides, clenched her fists and inhaled all the air in the world as her eyes rolled back in her head. I was filled with a combination of pure dread and absolute fright as I drove off.

My Sugar Princess actually levitated several feet off the ground as I drove in large circles around her. I wanted to drive as far away as I could but my daughter was producing an energy force that had pulled my car into her gravitational field. Shopping carts, homeless people and other parking lot litter was blown into the air and formed a tornado of hapless debris around my Evil Little Mistress of the Universe. In the middle of her emotional super nova, Miss Cupcake pooped her Huggy, causing entire trailer parks of mullet-wearing white trash spontaneous bloody noses. This is when I gave up all hope and became completely liberated. It wasn't that I quit caring. In that moment I finally realized there wasn't a god damned thing I could do about it. The only thing I could change was me; everything else was negotiable but ultimately out of my hands. It continues to be the strongest moment of clarity I've ever experienced.

In that instant, all the violence stopped. I was sitting in a parked American luxury car starring at the world’s most beautiful 2-year-old. I asked her if she wanted ice cream. She smiled and nodded her head. I opened the door and leaned forward. She climbed into the back of the car, got in her car seat and buckled herself up. Nothing will make a 2-year-old more grateful or submissive than a clean diaper and an ice cream sundae.

These are the images that possessed my thoughts as the group of enlightened California fire-service professionals harped at me about requiring the members of the department to willingly join in on the forced march toward customer-service nirvana. I came out of my trance a stronger person. When the group finally took a collective breath, everyone had an expectant stare directed toward me. I looked over at my father. His look said, “Things were going to well. You just had to grab the wheel and run us over the cliff. Life was so much easier when I could do all of this with a slide projector.” I made crazy eyes at Big Daddy before turning to the stirred-up crowd of earth people and confronted them with the real world. One occupied by B shifters with large elbow and knee joints and hair-covered backs whose idea of high-quality service delivery had more to do with restraining themselves from physically assaulting the customers.

"I agree with everything we've been talking about for the last few hours. The leadership problem officers face has nothing to do with the highly motivated workers we've been talking about. But how do you train your officers to deal with the pricks in your organization? Those select few members who can’t get along and refuse to go away. The idiots who leave a wake of pissed-off people. The vast majority of our citizens complaints come from rude and unprofessional behavior."
The Nordic goddess officer said, “As a boss, you cannot tolerate this type of behavior from the workforce. It must be stopped immediately.”

"I agree. The members shouldn't be rude. How do you make them stop?"
"They must be disciplined until they understand the behavior will not be tolerated."
"That’s swell. How do you do that?"
"When one of our members has a complaint filed against them, it must be investigated. If the complaint has merit, the member must be punished."
"When your department receives a citizen complaint, can you guess which one of your members generated that complaint?"
"It doesn't come as a shock. Most of our conduct complaints are generated by the same few people."
"Is it fair to say that if the same members continue to get complaints that your resolution process isn't working?'

A guy sitting in the back shouted, "How do you handle the complaints you get on your companies?"

I shared the following story: "I had a Captain working for me who was a world-class prick. This guy was angry at the world. Over the course of five or six months, he generated three citizen complaints and a complaint from a member of the department. The first two complaints I followed up on were filed by customers best described as clinically insane. One of them was a conspiracy theorist and the other one was a career criminal. Both complaints were so far out of whack there really wasn't much you could do with them. The third complaint was valid and so was the internal grievance. This gave me the opportunity to have a chat with Mr. Meanie. We sat down and argued for the first part of our get-together. He accurately pointed out that he was technically competent in the nuts and bolts part of his job. He just no longer had the patience to deal with all the "idiots and scumbags" who called 911. I agreed with him on both counts: He was competent and had no patience. I reminded him he was accumulating almost a complaint a month. Each one of these complaints pissed off half a dozen different people, ranging from the customer all the way to my boss, and I had to spend an average of three hours on each one of his human misadventures. I told him the complaints had to stop. He looked at me and with all sincerity said, "I've been here more than 20 years. What’s the worst thing that can happen to me if I get another complaint? I'll still show up to work and get paid."

This is where I got to say, "You're absolutely right. I am not so naive to think I can fix all the things that are wrong with you. I also know that when I get another sustained complaint on you or your company I will spend an extra 30 minutes to write you up. After the second or third time this happens, someone will have to suspend you. I figure with an eight-hour investment on my part, I may be able to get you demoted. Life would be a lot simpler for all of us if you just stopped getting complaints. Every time you open your mouth, you piss someone off. If you stopped talking to the customers, you would probably stop getting complaints."

I was shocked when he told me the not talking idea had a lot of merit and he would give it a try. I left our meeting slightly more confused than I had started, but at least I got to put the cards on the table. I felt I had fulfilled my leadership responsibility to the organization. A week later I received another citizen complaint directed toward Captain Grumpy's crew. I called the complainant to get the details. She told me it was her intention to file a complaint against the police department for spraying her husband with pepper spray. Over the next hour, I found out the lady had dual citizenship (the United States and Germany). Her mother had been a secretary in the diplomatic core and her father was an officer in the Air force. She hated her across-the-street neighbors and she liked to play bridge. Her favorite singer was Tony Bennett. I asked her if she was happy with the service the fire department provided. She told me, "The firemen were very nice. I'm sorry they sent you my police complaint on accident. Please let them know they were very helpful in our time of need."
I exonerated the complaint, once again fulfilling my responsibilities to all involved parties. During the next four years that I was Captain Asshole's boss, he never got another complaint and as far as I know he never uttered a single word to a customer.

The guy in the back was having none of it. "You didn't fix the problem! All you did was make it worse by forbidding him to ever speak again."

"I'm going to have to disagree with you," I said. "My problem with him centered on citizen complaints. After our meeting, I never got another citizen complaint on him again. I fixed my problem."

"You didn't fix the organizational problem," he continued. "I was an officer in the military, and if I had this problem I would have…"

I stopped the guy mid sentence and reminded him that the military can imprison and execute its troublemakers. I was just a lowly Battalion Chief trying to get through the day.

The guy in the back was now standing and speaking loudly. The well-behaved audience had dissolved into a dozen or so independent talk groups trying to shout over one another. I had turned them into B-shifters. Finally the Fire Chief stood up and declared break time. The time-out allowed the group to find its center, restoring the harmony and free love that I interrupted. I spent the rest of the afternoon nodding like one of the soldiers of Islam that stand behind Louis Farrakhan when he makes his speeches. All I needed were some dark shades and a bow tie.

Sometimes we overestimate our personal power. Other times we confuse any use of our power as good leadership. People follow other people because they want to. There are a million different ways to lead because there are a million different motivations that cause people to fall into line. Money, power, being included, continued employment, good dental benefits and ice cream are just a few of the things we will trade for our compliance. Captain Asshole traded letting the public know exactly how he felt for his own future peace and status quo. My 2-year-old daughter taught me that you shouldn't get too caught up in the things you can’t fix. Sometimes it’s all you can do to get out of the way and not make things worse. If you feel like it’s your inalienable right to control the world and people around you, you’d better buy a helmet and look forward to your daily ass-kicking.


Nick Brunacini is a 27 year veteran of the fire service. He has had articles published in a variety or publications. He currently serves as a fire department shift commander. Read more of his articles at