Hubris: A Dangerous Overconfidence

tempImageForSaveWe’ve all experienced two seasons in our careers.

The first, where we’re nailing everything, our judgement is good, our decisions sound, diagnoses accurate, leadership on point.

The second, where you feel doubtful, unsure of your abilities, scared of making mistakes, feeling like you’d rather sink into the background.

Typically, there is a bridge that gets us from the first to the second, one we don’t really talk about, and in many cases even glorify in the fire service.


In ancient Greek context, it literally means “challenging the Gods”.  It is associated with foolish pride and dangerous overconfidence.

In a career that requires you to be confident in your ability to solve complex, dynamic problems with little discretionary time, interpreting massive amounts of information and making critical decisions in real time, hubris is an occupational hazard.

We’ve all been there.  We’ll all be there again.  The tightrope between confidence and arrogance is a difficult one to balance, but we all know what happens when you overstep.  The Greeks called it Nemesis, the downfall of hubristic individuals.  They even assigned a specific Goddess whose only job was enacting this retribution, so important did they find this concept.

Confidence is knowing that you’re good.  Cockiness is thinking that you’re better.

My experience:  there are typically indicators when you’re displaying hubris, and, if you pay attention, you can avert your inevitable ego check and fall from glory.

Are you listening to the ideas and opinions of others, or do you already have the answers?  Are you sure, right off the bat, that you know what type of fire this is, what’s going on with this patient?  Have you lost your ability to be skeptical and critically evaluate without assuming?

Fear not.  If you miss the warning signs, you’ll get smacked in the face, full force, with something you can’t ignore.  A mistake.

Sometimes, it’s what I call a freebie.  A screw-up on my part that doesn’t hurt anybody or cost anything.  Sometimes, we’re not so lucky.

When you get a freebie, take it and run with it.  Own your mistake, no excuses.  Just because the fire went out or the patient didn’t die doesn’t mean you did a good job.  Having a free opportunity to check your hubris is incomparably valuable, get as much learning out of it as you can.  In our industry, it can save a life or a career.

On that note, don’t let others off the hook when they make a cocky mistake, either.

Don’t ever tell people not to feel bad when they screw up.

You’re supposed to feel bad for sloppy work, so you don’t make a habit out of it.

100/100 Rule

100100From time to time, I will be in conversation with a company officer, and I’ll hear something like: “This employee I have just isn’t making it.   He won’t put in the effort.  He’s got a bad attitude.”

Naturally, I ask them this question:

“Is it possible that they need something from you that they’re not getting?”

Which is typically met with a mix of sputtering, wide eyes, and a rush to defend their unassailable leadership skills.  Often, this includes informing me that I simply don’t understand the apparently mysterious inner workings and behind-the-scenes magic of management.

There is a simple principle called the 100/100 rule, which has been around for a long time.  The idea is simple:

In any relationship that is not functioning well, the responsibility for this dysfunction lies 100% with you, and 100% with the other party, because either of you can fix it.

This isn’t that terribly hard to understand.  Most nod their heads, murmur “uh-huh” and proceed to repeat that the problem in this situation is that the other party isn’t bringing their 100%.

Many officers are quick to point out that their subordinates aren’t bringing their best, and they then use this as an excuse not to do their job.

We all love to saddle others with the responsibility for failure, but we’re terrified to examine our own participation in their lack of success.Read More »

Don’t Call Me a Hero


There are an abundance of memes, stories, poems, placards, and t-shirts that deify the firefighter as a hero.

I don’t like it.

Many won’t like it, but I liken our work to that of the trash collector (whom I profoundly respect.)

If, every time a trash collector turned onto a street lined with full trash cans, he lost his mind with excitement, we would consider him quite foolish.  Yet, do we not do this with structure fires?

If a trash collector climbed inside his compactor before he crushed the trash, just to prove he was brave and badass, we would call it idiotic, impractical showboating.  Yet, our culture still dives into high risk environments when there is little tactical need.

And when a firefighter dies, we comfort ourselves with thoughts of their heroism and bravery.

If trash collectors were routinely getting killed doing their job, we would all say “This is unacceptable.  We MUST find a way to accomplish this job without killing people all the time.”

Why are we any different?

Because we’re “heroes”.

Read More »

Those Bugles Ought to Be Heavy 

Burn BuildingWhen you really think about it, the role of company officer is a stupidly difficult, never-ending, generally thankless position.

At least, when it’s done well, it is.

You’re responsible for the mistakes of everyone who works for you, yet you defer praise to your team.

You can no longer truly be “one of the guys”.  You sacrificed that part of the camaraderie when you took the oath to keep them safe at all costs.

Your job is to enable them, to teach them, to help them, to remove any obstacles and take any bullets so that they can focus on their jobs.

You are duty bound to look out for the people in your care, emotionally, mentally, physically.  You must guide and help them in their work and their home lives as best you can.

You, more than anyone, must put the team before the individual, and the mission before the team.  You must make and live with hard decisions, on a scene or in the station.

Lately, I’ve noticed that most guys like the idea of having a bugle on their collar a lot more than they like the idea of actually doing this job.  They’re more committed to the inflated ego associated with promotion than they are to accepting the enormous responsibility of servitude that comes with leadership.

If the bugles don’t feel heavy, you don’t understand what they mean.

They See a Problem Solver

This is a poignant video, and an excellent reminder that, to a victim, the fire service has a single identity.  To them, there is no difference between me and the guy one district over.  They do not see patches, turnout or helmet colors, operational differences, district boundaries, or politics.

They have a problem, and they see a problem solver.  It would do us well to remember this.

Training As One from LACoFD TSS on Vimeo.

When Are Mistakes Okay?

Dublin FireThere are a lot of different types of Company Officers in this line of work, and there are a whole lot of factors that make each of them unique.

One of those factors is their ability to determine the acceptability of mistakes.

Mistakes happen.  To everyone.  We’ve all got our butt chewed at one time or another, sometimes when we deserved it, and probably other times when we didn’t.

If you’re a company officer, you probably have an intuitive sense of when a mistake is a big deal and when it isn’t.  But how do you explain that to your superior, or write it down in a report?

When we start quantifying criteria for acceptable error, we start to determine that there are four reasons that people make mistakes.

Ignorance, arrogance, complacency, and negligence.Read More »

People or Machine?


Occasionally, in the fire service, we have a tendency to think about staff as another resource that needs management.

“Oh, I need another Paramedic at that station.  Move him over there.”

“We need more engineers, send those two to school.”

In fact, staff has a tendency to think of themselves as objects with unlimited capacity.

“I can work another overtime shift if you need me.”

“I’ll do whatever the department needs me to do.”

The unstoppable, adapt-and-overcome attitude of the fire service is one of it’s greatest traits.

But it does get us in trouble sometimes.Read More »