Unfortunately, many times morale is often misperceived as simple obedience to orders; a common misconception of someone in a leadership position trying to apply management theory to people instead of things. Remember, you lead people, you manage items. There is no more efficient and effective way in managing your department towards its goals, than by inspiring your people to believe in those goals, and wanting to achieve them as both individuals and as the collective group. It is hard for someone at the grass roots level to help push the train forward when they don’t believe in the destination of the train nor its conductor. These individuals will quickly stop pushing and simply grab a seat, waiting for others to push them. You can quickly see the signs of a stalled trained, one in which all members have taken their seat, and how the pursuit of progress has grinded to a stop.
The functioning and successful organization is not one that simply survives today. It is the group, which accomplishes today in hopes of building the foundation for tomorrow. Each day in the successful organization is simply another act in a play scripted months or years prior by a visionary author. Directors come and go, but still the script remains the same. In essence, the costumes and delivery may change, but still the play goes on, and the message remains the same. Conversely, each day in the “stalled train” organization is filled with the inefficiency of writing the play as we go. Actors try to create lines and verses in front of the crowd while on stage. The spectators, and more importantly the other actors see this inefficiency and quickly lose hope that the production will ever reach Broadway. Even the most dedicated and passionate performers will begin to question if they should remain or if they should pack up and find a different play.
The path of reaching your goals will most certainly be filled with obstacles, which cause members to question the validity of the quest. But, it is the members’ driving beliefs, in which they are working towards a greater good, that will keep them trekking on. This is the truest form of “morale.” When faced with adversity the group will dig in its heels and continue to push forward because they believe that they are part of something, and are playing a vital role in the success of the department. The members need to feel important, valued, included and appreciated. This is unfortunately where many “leaders” go astray. For example, let’s look at a relationship. A wife says to her husband that she is no longer happy with their marriage. She tells him that she no longer feels a connection or a partnership throughout their everyday life. The husband decides his best course of action is to buy her a new convertible. It should be fairly clear to many that the husband certainly has missed the point and his relationship is most likely going to become a “stalled train.” Much like the unscripted play, the husband chose to address issues as they arose, as opposed to looking for the foundation of the problem and working towards a meaningful and satisfying solution. The same can apply to your fire department. If a chief senses general disapproval and lack of morale, the answer is not “going easy on the guys for a few days.” The chief’s problems have not been solved, his people remain unmotivated, and they still have not bought in to his plans for the future. That is, if such plans even exist and he is not trying to direct an unscripted play. His approach should be much simpler and more effective — find out what his people value, what drives them, and what it is that will regain their support to begin once again pushing the train. This is how morale is both built and restored.
Without a belief that the chosen path is the right one, the destination is correct, and the leader knows where he is going, the group will never accept that they are on a quest for The Promised Land. They will never climb out of their seats and help push the train. Sure, they may do enough to simply survive through each day, but that is not efficient, nor effective. Getting people to buy in and give their all in the most impacting way they can each and every day is what drives an organization, and the only way to do that is to harness morale. After all, no athlete is going to give his full effort to a team that doesn’t want to win championships. He is going to rest on the bench to avoid injury hoping to be traded to a winning team. A general manager can draft the greatest athletes in the world to play for his team, but until the coach creates a game plan that every player believes will win, all of these athletes will just go through the motions, never applying their full effort, nor achieving their full potential.
In closing, I’ll turn to a Bruce Springsteen song to illustrate the points that started off this article. The lyrics tell a story of struggle to find belief in what you do, much like a stalled train organization. “I’ve done my best to live the right way; I get up every morning and go to work each day. But your eyes go blind, and your blood runs cold, sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.” The narrator worked hard each day trying to achieve but the lack of belief, or buy-in, has worn him down to the point where he wants to stop pushing. Don’t let this happen to your organization or your people. If it does your path to success will become one of slow progress and countless obstacles. Instead inspire your people to believe and to push the organization because the goal at the end of the track is of a greater good. And by the way, the title of that song in case you’re wondering: “The Promised Land.”