“Speak The Truth Even When Your Voice Shakes”

By Ryan Royal

There is a battle brewing in our beloved fire service against an enemy that we can’t battle with 2 1/2 inch smooth bores, it is an old foe that is not new to the fire service by any means but I think we used to handle it in a different way. We used to be able to handle it with a stern, man to man talk out back of the firehouse. Grab a cup, go outside, let it rip, call someones bluff, find a solution and move on like men. Before we move on, let me make something clear, I am not trying to act like an old salt here talking about the good old days of handling problems, but I have been taught and mentored by these people who grew up in that fire service. What is happening currently scares me, because without these talks, without that gruff senior guy calling your bluff and bringing you back down to earth, the enemy grows at a rapid pace. When this enemy grows unchecked it is like a working fire with no water, it grows rapidly and we can not stop it until it is too far gone.

Ego, is this enemy. Unchecked ego especially.

I have it, we all have it, but at what level and how is it kept in check? Unchecked egos advance rapidly, and when this happens you can ensure yourself that integrity will be the next part of a mans character to be sacrificed. The two can’t mix, maybe for a while they can, but at some point your ego can become so powerful that it blinds your reality and you don’t notice the threads of your integrity are slowly unraveling. This job can create an ego and build on it from the day you walk in, it is the nature of the profession. You are being taught that you are now part of the select few called upon to protect the large majority of your city, your told that you will be called when everyone else can not solve their own problems and that you will have the answers one way or another. That failure is not an option and that one way or another no matter what happens, we will do what it takes to get the job done. Right? How would that not develop some healthy pride and ego in a new firefighter? I think that is ok, we need “doers” in this profession, people that need to be held back at times, people that have some pride in themselves with healthy confidence and ego. It comes with the territory, with that said the only way to keep this powerful enemy contained is with a healthy dose of reality to cause humbleness from time to time.

In the firehouse you typically find that reality from your peers, (maybe some more than others) we have each other to call your bluff, to provide some peer pressure and just remind you that there is much more knowledge and wisdom out there than what is contained to a single mans experience. This is very important, there has to be that healthy amount of fear in the back of your mind reminding you that if you voice an opinion or direct your beliefs to others that you have the potential to be called out. You will also find this when you make a mistake, with a few conditions. Our job has plenty of mistakes that come with it, almost every fire has a handful of mistakes that can be found. We are going to make mistakes, but it is how we handle them afterwards that shows true character. If you make a mistake, you will and should be called out on it, because that is what drives improvement. Most firefighters biggest fear of making a mistake is not stemmed from the result of the mistake, it is knowing that others are going to hear or see their mistake which is just as powerful as being called out on it in the first place. You know what prevents being called out on your mistake? From being in that uncomfortable situation of having to explain yourself and all of the uncomfortable questions that have been developed by others having time to think about what you messed up on and how they could have done it better? Own that mistake, just own it, take full responsibility for it! It is good for you, it keeps you grounded and shows integrity, it reminds you that your just another blue collar worker like your fellow firefighters, someone who does and will make mistakes in the future. When you own a mistake it shows leadership, it shows your brothers that not only do you make mistakes but it allows you to own it and explain why and how it happened instead of letting them form their own opinions. I have learned all of this the hard way, but once I did it became a very simple concept. These concepts are a powerful weapon against Egos.

This old driver has called my bluff, its probably what he’s doing in this picture. He might come off rough around the edges to some, but he’s honest, loyal, and a mentor who never had a problem keeping me in check.

We cannot lose the ability to have honest discussions with each other, to provide that pressure that keeps us grounded. If we get to a point where we cannot call someone out when they are wrong because we are afraid it will bite us later in our career, then we are setting a dangerous precedence. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard firefighters talk about a situation that is simply wrong and causing them a great deal of grief, but feel as if they cannot call out the other person because they are more senior or of higher rank. Worried that it will effect them for years to come if they speak the truth and stand up against something that is just plain wrong. If you are in this type of situation and buy into those feelings, you are doing nothing to help yourself or your fellow firefighters, and you are absolutely not helping uphold the tradition of the fire service that is keeping each other held in check.

Where am I going with all of this? It all comes back to this enemy that we must fight in ourselves.I enjoy taking on large projects in the name of our profession getting back to the basics and treating it more like a craft. In the past some of these undertakings have ended up bringing a large amount of recognition to my crew and I.  I personally don’t handle praise well when it comes to situations regarding our job, it makes me uncomfortable. Don’t let that be confused with being unappreciative of the recognition, because I am. But I try to use personal praise or recognition as a reset button for myself. It is a good time to ask myself,  “Am I remaining grounded and what were my original intentions that brought this recognition?” It should remind you that it is not about you, and recognition was never the goal. When I look around  I can quickly come up with a list of people that are better than me at this job, and that are leaders that I can only hope to be like. You should be able to think of these people also…if you can’t and you think your the best firefighter on your job, your not. If you think you have the Company Officer role dialed in better than any of those who have come before you, you do not. Humble yourself and really think of those people that come to mind and strive to model their qualities that made us think of them in the first place. This will keep us grounded. If we WANT to, we can always find someone that does this job better, but we have to want to see it.  I have a list of these people to last me a career.

My Father (On the Left) has conquered this enemy, this unchecked Ego. He is a shining example of how you can advance through the ranks from follower to leader but remain a man of strong character. He believes in his people and treats them with respect. He does not believe that because he is their leader he has to have all of the answers or know everything that someone may ask. He would never ask someone to do something he wouldn’t do himself, and most importantly he always puts his people before himself. When integrity and respect is what you show as a leader, you will have a loyal following that will trust you even when they don’t fully agree. He treats leadership as a gift and a honor, and does not egotistically demand respect because of rank, he earns it through consistent, level headed decision making based on the simple differences between right and wrong.  I think his greatest downfall is the size of shoes he has left me when it comes to leadership, they would take me a lifetime to fill what he’s done in 25 years.

“Speak The Truth Even When Your Voice Shakes”. To me that quote can be summed up very simply, it is not going to be easy, but it is the right thing to do. It is the only way to prevent Egos from running rampant throughout our ranks. It can be done respectfully, it can be done firmly, but the bottom line is it must be done. When egos become strong enough that integrity becomes compromised it becomes very difficult to show that person the results. By the time you call them out, the ego has become so strong that they will fail to recognize their faults because they cannot fathom themselves doing such wrong. When we get to that point in the game, it is too late in the 4th quarter. For the sake of this great fire service and its future, speak the truth even if your voice shakes. Grab that cup of coffee, bring a guy out back and dish out an ass chewing when it is needed, and then the next time your on the other side of that conversation take a hard look at yourself,and remind yourself why that man on man honest conversation is such an important tradition to this fire service. Don’t get offended, don’t get angry, and for Gods sake do not hold it against them. Check yourself and move on.

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29 Comments on ““Speak The Truth Even When Your Voice Shakes””

  1. James Says:

    Great article and the quote “Speak The Truth Even When Your Voice Shakes”. True words, call the bluff and stand by the values that others have set, respect the Fire Service, and it will love you back.


  2. […] There is a battle brewing in our beloved fire service against an enemy that we can’t battle with 2… […]


  3. Great read!
    “He treats leadership as a gift and a honor, and does not egotistically demand respect because of rank, he earns it through consistent, level headed decision making based on the simple differences between right and wrong.”

    The fire service will be a better place when everyone figures out the mysterious “ego”.

  4. Swaner Says:

    Ryan,

    Thank you for the excellent article. I have often wondered about this very topic. I have never really looked at it from that angle. I appreciate the perspective.

    -Tim

  5. Ron Ayotte Says:

    Excellent article. We have too many “know it alls” who don’t know squat and and people with the “I” syndrome who turn it in “you” when they make a mistake and try to blame others.


  6. Great article! Reminds me of a statement that was made to me by one of those whose shoes I am attempting to fill. ” There’s what’s right according to policy and then there’s right according to morals. Don’t be afraid to buck policy to do what’s morally right by your men.”

  7. Mendy Tyree Says:

    EXCELLENT ADVICE!!!!! This needs to be applied in all points of life!!! If people including myself would follow this what a better life this would be!!! Trying to follow others advice and learning from others mistakes is a hard lesson like I said that is very hard to do! So we all need to SPEAK THE TRUTH EVEN IF YOUR VOICE SHAKES!!! THANK YOU FOR THIS ARTICLE!!! I KNOW THAT YOU HAVE RAISED YOUR FAMILY TO BE AND I HAVE THE UTMOST RESPECT FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY!!!! GOD BLESS AND KEEP YOU SAFE ALWAYS!!!!

  8. Trevor Says:

    Damn fine article man! It was great to talk with you the other night about the stories that your grandfather and his buddies from the 39th Fighter Squadron were sharing. Your article is a shining example of how those men became such great fighter pilots! It’s exactly how they held each other accountable and we MUST do the same. Like you I have some shoes to fill, and the best info my old man gave me was the same you mentioned. Own your mistakes, man up because someone will call your bluff. When they do, and you are wrong you deserve a little razzing, a moment for your crew to put you in your place. He also said if that “grab a cup and come out back” conversation happens, take it all in and feel humbled that your crew cares enough about you to straighten you back up. This is an adult profession, and if you want to be treated like an adult you should expect to be talked to like an adult. It’s not harassment, hazing, or any other form of foul language. It’s coaching for a career that will KILL YOU or someone on your crew if you aren’t accountable. Keep them coming brother!!!


    • Thanks Bro, I really like that line, “feel humbled that your crews cares enough about you to straighten you back up”, that is very true. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  9. Mitch Says:

    “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
    John F. Kennedy

    I like the part about “owning it”. It is a must in leadership. Thank you for writing that.


  10. I read your article with great interest. Difficult to visit your site on a regular basis, so one of your local brothers brought it to my attention. I am very proud to have been given the opportunity to have worked with you and your father.

    My career began 4 decades ago and yes, more often than I can rememmber I had those man on man talks. There is a long list of mentors that shaped not only who I am but what type of leader I became. I hope those that read your article take the times to thoughtfully think about what kind of firefighter they are, where they are going and if in a leadership position, what kind of leader they wish to become.

    There is an important point that I hope does not get missed. Talking through someones behavior or performance cannot be done without carefull consideration to not “what” is said but “how” it is said. I am always very careful to stay away from the disrespectful things that can be said and the langauage that allows thhe message to be carried and heard.

    There is a great deal of difference between stating, “what the hell were you thinking, you could have killed members of your crew” and “walk me through what you did, what you saw and let’s think about the more effcient and safer approach to completing those tasks”. Yeah I know I am sounding like a Fire Chief but trust me the mentoring/coaching approach works.

    They same works when “you” are sending your message up thru the ranks. The egos above us are even bigger and can be more prooblematic. Telling your Chief, “your policy sucks” as opposed to “Chief can you explain to me the rational behind the policy because there are some unintentional consequences I would like to discuss with you”.

    This is getting to be too much of a lecture. Let me end by simply saying how pround I am of you Ryan and your running mates, Nick and the other Ryan, “You are alright”!


    • Chief,
      Thanks a lot for swinging in and passing on your advice and experience. You’ve been around this job a long time and have seen the good and bad ways situations can be handled. I appreciate you sharing some of your advice, we still have a tremendous amount to learn, and I think we can honestly say we are trying to soak up as much as we can without letting a bunch of good and bad experiences be wasted. We have had our fair share of both types over the last few years. Take care, and feel free to comment any time.

  11. Dan Gulick Says:

    Excelent article! We have recently been discussing this aound our House. Thanks Brother.

  12. Ray Duke Says:

    Nice article Rich, way to tell it how it is.

  13. Bombero146 Says:

    Spot on! One of the best articles I have read in a LONG time. Thanks you my brother for sharing wisdom!

  14. Powder Says:

    Sir, Great read!!!! Thank you for your insight. Should be a mandatory read for anyone getting off of probation and then again at their 5&10 year anniversary.

  15. Bobby Medina Says:

    I am a retired westcoast Fire Captain Paramedic and can totaly relate to this topic! I retired at 23 years with one lung and a disability retirement.I used to be bad and bitchen, trained well, in shape and had the best equiptment. I was the president of my union local, started a paramedic engine company and fought to change many things in the fire service of southern california. The one thing that I learned is that its all about humility. We all have our heroes, for me the FDNY guys go a long way to teach us all about humility! When you do the job and are competent, there is no room for ego. No worries, if you are a career firefighter you will learn it. Wheather it is thrust upon you or you accept it. Hoorah to my fire family, be thankful that you have the opportunity to be part of the greatest occupation on earth. God Bless Bobby


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