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August 23, 2009

As a paramedic, one of the first things we would do in the morning is go through the rig and make sure all the equipment was in working order and the supplies were stocked.  As one who made the front page of both The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal because of a preventable equipment malfunction, I was always very serious about these morning checks.  One might say, I was a bit zealous in fact.

Matthews Alive: Jaws of Life
Image by Andy Ciordia via Flickr

I was so driven to do the right thing, that I often acted as if I were the only one who was right. One of my colleagues  shared an insight with me once, saying: “Your problem is that you are very task-oriented, while others are more relationship-focused.”  It was wise insight, that took me years to understand.  It wasn’t that I saw others as stupid, as much asI was driven to do the right thing.  I often didn’t see that others were that zealous – and that disturbed me.

Many people are concerned with doing things right, but I am more driven by the ideal of doing the right thing. Sometimes, doing things right appears to be best – but if doing good things right, prevents us from doing great things, then I’m going to speak up and urge others to do the right thing.  In other words, I’m not a fan of rearranging the deck chairs on the deck of the Titanic – I’m more in favor of getting a lot of people into the life boats.

So, back to the morning checks of the fire rescue rig. Every morning, I would go through the rig, top to bottom, front to back, inside-out.  I’d make sure there was  fuel in the Jaws-of-life, IV catheters in the medical kit, and fresh batteries in the heart monitor/defibrillator (which was the cause of the earlier mentioned media incident).  One thing that bothered me was the way the medical and airway kits were organized – or, to put it better, lacked organization.  So, every morning, when I would come on duty (every third day, BTW), I would “reorganize” the kit.

For several months, I would reorganize the kit; and for several months, someone would put it “back” to it’s traditional status.  I had two points I was trying to make with my insistent changes to the medical kit.  One, it was set up very inefficiently – left over from the pre-advanced life support days  when the only thing firefighters had to offer was bandages  and rapid transport to the hospital; and, two, our agency had grown large enough that we needed a standardization process and protocol to address these issues.

Within a few months, the standardization committee was formed, but not surprisingly, I was not asked to serve on it. That didn’t concern me too much, for I’m a believer in committees.  If you give people all the information, and empower them to make the right decisions, they usually will.  In this case, that turned out to be true.  The kits ended up being arranged very similarly to what I was advocating – and that was without my direct input.

But, here’s what I learned in the whole process.  I learned patience, and I learned humility.

First, patience. Being a social terrorist, and trying to “fix” the kits myself, only made me an outcast.  Whomever was putting the kit back to its traditional format was obviously not happy with me.  They were out to wear me down and force me to conform.  The problem with that strategy is that I was raised by a father, who was raised by his father, to always be right.  We didn’t take on issues unless we fervently believed we were right.  Then, stubbornly, we didn’t back down.

If the other paramedic, on the other shift (and I’m pretty sure that he had the support of the all the others – all  five of them thought I was wrong) had approached me directly, and convinced me that I was wrong, I would have backed down.  But that’s the key here – “convincing me.” I am not easily convinced, and for some people, it’s just too much work.  But one day, Dick and I did  talk.  It came on a day that we ended up working together, due to a vacation or some other reason.  And because we talked, I not only backed down from my terrorist tactics, but I learned a very valuable life lesson.  Here’s a sample of our conversation:

“Why do you always change the kit,” he asked.

Because it works better.  It puts the IV catheters, the alcohol preps, and the hep-locks where we can grab them all with one hand and not  dig  for them.  It’s the right way.” I confidently explained.

Right for you.” He calmly replied.

And right there is where the light bulb went on for me. Yes, it was right for me.  But for the other paramedics in that station, who were pioneers in the field of EMS and were 15-20 years older than me, it wasn’t working.  It’s not that my system was inferior, or wrong.  It’s not that his/their way was superior.  In fact, technically speaking, my system was probably better (and I’m not trying to bolster my ego or discredit them), but practically speaking, these other men had a good point.

Incandescent light bulb
Image via Wikipedia

They were familiar and comfortable with the traditional placement of the medical supplies in the kit.  In the heat of the moment, during a life and death struggle for a patient’s life, they didn’t want to have to remember where this young punk had put the stuff. They wanted to be able to operate on autopilot and focus on the needs of the patient. (For those of you under 40, this will begin to make more sense in the not-to-distant future!)

I learned patience that Summer. To this day, I am still not a fan of the “traditional” way of doing things.  I still tend to be focused on how to do the right things, as opposed to doing the same old, same old correctly.  I remain an advocate for change and progressive methodologies – and I’m willing to swim against the tide to achieve positive growth.  However, I am much more patient, while working on the process of change within the systems – social, technical, legal, and bureaucratic – already established.

The technical, legal, and bureaucratic systems are relatively easy to work with – for someone like me. It’s the social systems where I feel like a moron sometimes.  That’s where I failed my coworkers at the Cedar Mill fire station back in the mid-80s.  I wasn’t patient enough to work within the systems, so I resorted to system  terrorism.  In other words, making changes on my own. – without permission or authority to do so.

Humility is the other thing I learned through that situation. Being technically right, doesn’t mean I’m right.  Just because it is right for me – and others, doesn’t mean it is right for everyone.  And even if I was absolutely, positively, without a single doubt right, if I can’t convince others – not force them, but convince them – to follow my lead, I have no other choice but to go with the flow.  Right?

Sometimes, even if the traditional format is wrong, if that’s what the people want, it is probably best to let them have it. However, as a leader, I’m going to always seek to lead people out of the rut and into the promised land of enlightenment and new truth.  In the process, as Henry Blackaby says, “There is price to pay – for everyone involved.”  Obedience to our integrity will cost me, and it will cost those around me.

Have you ever had to pay the price of honoring your integrity?  When have you been absolutely right, but have had to abandon your cause?  Do you agree that the social  systems are as important as the technical, legal, and bureaucratic?  Have you learned to be humble and patient?  At what cost?  If you haven’t learned those traits, how has that cost you?

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  1. August 23, 2009 8:15 pm

    You make an excellent point. The part about needing to operate on autopilot in life-or-death situations especially struck me, and gave me more understanding about how people feel in the face of change.

    However, I’d also like to point out that not every situation is life or death — so maybe sometimes there isn’t a strong case for going with the flow.


    • August 23, 2009 9:40 pm

      You’re right Kathleen. But that’s when I say there is even more of a case for going with the flow – because, that’s where humility really shows its true colors. Who am I to say I’m right, if the majority says differently? So, instead of pushing ahead with my agenda, why not use the wisdom of the crowd? Otherwise, it is just arrogance and self-serving.

      And here’s another point, learned from a life spent living as a rebel without a clue: Pick your battles. If its not life and death, let it go. Save your ammo and resources for the really important issues. Build trust and cooperation first.

      My next two posts:

      Thanks for the feedback – I appreciate the checks and balances.


  2. August 25, 2009 3:22 pm

    I have been absolutely right more often than not (my own humble, but correct opinion)…BUT because I am wiser than I was in my youth I realize that something is just doesn’t matter if your are absolutely right about things because those things are in the scheme of things quite trivial. So I have learned to let go of the trivial even if I am absolutely right. Now the big issues I will dig my heels in and the world can pretty not budge me from my positions, but luckily I have come to discern which of those battles are worth fighting. I guess 25 years of marriage and 5 kids have taught me this…

    As for some of your other ?’s, I would offer that in many cases the social is more important than the others…You will win more over by your loving, humble, sincere attitude than you will by your technical knowledge or legal standing on an issue..even if you are absolutely right…attitude trumps knowledge often…not always, but often.

    These opinions are my own and no way reflect that of my husband or adult boys who would seriously disagree with parts, especially the first! Kim



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