CARVER Coaching & Performance Newsletter

Hi Paul here,

I hope this finds you well.

The week’s topic is: Principled Lessons from a New York City Firefighter

I am just home after 6 weeks in America with family and work. On my travels I learned much that I hope to share with you in these newsletters over the coming weeks and months.

Regular readers will be used to me pontificating on the universal application of coaching practices and the domain agnostic principles of performance…Now there’s a mouthful!!!

I hope you enjoy!

A CARVER Insight – Principled Lessons from a New York City Firefighter

I recently spent an afternoon deep in conversation with a retired New York City Firefighter called Joe. Joe had been on the ground throughout the aftermath of 9/11 losing many of his comrades. Our conversation began with 9/11 and its aftermath, but then shifted toward the fundamentals of performance and coaching.

Joe spent the majority of his firefighting days in a Brooklyn Firehouse as a regular firefighter… in the heat. The team he was part of were one of the highest performing teams in the New York City Fire Department and from our conversation I am most confident that Joe was a high-performing firefighter. As he talked in detail about how they did things in Brooklynn, he began to share a number of universal truths about performance.

Firstly, he explained that his Brooklyn team went to more fires than many other teams. Brooklyn was ‘on fire’ during the 80’s and 90’s and his team were built for what he referred to as a “good fire”. He actually noted that his team would often break protocol by going from one fire to another, without going back to base.

  • Performance Principle- Repetition is important. Opportunity is the mother of improvement.

Next he explained the clarity they had with regard to their roles and responsibilities during the firefight. He said, “everyone knew exactly where to be and what to do”. To my ears he explained a shared mental model among the team of firemen.

  • Performance Principle- Performers perform best when there is clarity of roles, responsibilities and expectations.

To further explain this, he went on to explain their chatter on the way to a fire. He explained how they would go through their roles in bite-sized, task-orientated language.

  • Performance Principle- Keep it simple (Note: simple is not easy). Focus on the fundamentals. Simplicity yields complexity.

Then he explained how they would review and reflect after the fire using a simple: What worked well- What could we have done differently framework.

  • Performance Principle- Reflection is a key separator in all performance domains. Performance is a learning competition.

Joe then went on to explain that after he was promoted to Lieutenant he was given a firehouse in another borough to lead. There he met unmotivated, underperforming firemen. He explained that their downbeat disposition towards fighting fires wasn’t something he was used to. As Lieutenant he was now in a management position and he struggled with his unmotivated crew. There just wasn’t a passion for putting out fires; a poor environment.

  • Performance Principle- Environment is the silent hand of behaviour.

He finally began to explain how he struggled to lead his new crew: struggled with their attitude, struggled with their application, struggled to understand them. Leading was a different job, it was more about achieving results through others and he struggled with the “others”.

  • Coaching Principle- We can’t learn from them and we can perform for them.

It was intriguing to talk to Joe; he had some great stories. I suppose the biggest learning here for many transitioning from playing into coaching may be that they are different disciplines. As coaches, it is no longer enough to have simply ‘done’ it yourself and expect those under your watch to follow and ‘do’ off the strength of this.

Coaching is about achieving results through others and high-quality coaching requires a different set of skills than high-quality ‘doing’. No doubt the knowledge acquired from having ‘done’ can be of value but it then becomes about meeting people where they are at, and taking them to where both you and they want to go.

Go figure,


Copyright Paul Kilgannon 2021
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