April/May 2001 Issue Number 22
Is a monthly electronic newsletter which links current events and issues to the daily challenges faced by fire and emergency services managers. Current topics in the area of sexual harassment, diversity management and conflict resolution will be discussed.
We hope that you find the information here useful and provocative.
Let us know what you think!
Executive Development: May 21-June 1, NFA in Emmitsburg, MD. The first course of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Linda Willing and Toby Drabczyk will be facilitating this class at NFA in Emmitsburg, MD.
"Can Sensitivity Be Taught? Rethinking Diversity Training" April 30- May 6, 2001, Sacramento, CA. This workshop will be presented on May 2 during the FDIC West Conference. For registration information, call 888-299-8016.
The Power of Symbols
The Army recently announced its intention to make black berets part of every soldiers uniform. Currently, the black beret has only been worn by the elite unit of Army Rangers.
The Army justified the change as a way of boosting morale and promoting unity among all soldiers. However, the decision has had the opposite effect so far. On March 10, two hundred protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to demonstrate against the proposed change. Additionally, there has been a letter-writing and email campaign against the new policy, as well as pressure put on elected officials to block the new uniform guidelines. Efforts to reverse the decision have even gained the attention of President Bush, who has asked the Department of Defense to review the policy before its planned implementation on June 14.
It is remarkable that the Army, an organization that has thrived on symbols since its formation, could be so blind to the effect of this decision. Even those who have never served in the armed forces know that a beret means something special the Green Berets were famed in movie and song, and the black berets of the Army Rangers are emblematic of their elite status. "Ive seen young soldiers almost transformed during Ranger training, " said a World War II Ranger who attended the protest. "To some nice person sitting behind a desk, what will it mean to them?"
Symbols are powerful. What looks like just a hat, just a helmet, just a truck, may mean much more to the people who see it as a symbol of their dedication and achievement. Symbols also speak to tradition that provides a sense of continuity and affiliation.
Remember what happened when some fire departments abandoned red fire trucks? It didnt matter that lime green was more visible and thus safer. Firefighters mourned the loss of the traditional red trucks, and in some communities, successfully pushed for their reinstatement. What happens every time there is a change in the uniform guidelines? There are always people, often very vocal, who oppose the change based on a desire to respect tradition.
Tradition is not a bad thing. In fact, in times of rapid change, positive traditions should be deliberately preserved as a way of maintaining stability and a sense of history. Leaders that understand this, and who respect traditions that are not in opposition to necessary change, usually have a much easier time earning the respect and loyalty of their subordinates.
The Army is learning this the hard way. They have made a bad decision with good intentions, and now are trying to figure out a way to do damage control. The people who made the decision about issuing berets to everyone probably thought they were just talking about hats. But the effect it has had is to make loyal soldiers and veterans ask, "Why would someone harm such a noble heritage?"
Never underestimate the power of symbols.
Source: The Associated Press, March 11, 2001.