Coping: Three Labor Day Lessons in Management

I was reminded this morning of the two finest management stories passed from father to son (or from an uncle) that transformed my life at a very young age and figured there’d be no better time to share it than right now.

These two have been guideposts for me when it comes to how to excel in management.  And they reveal three cornerstone lessons in effective management.

The Cheese Sandwich Story

Pappy was a fire (*alarm office) dispatcher during WW II at Pearl Harbor.  It wasn’t the most exciting part of the war effort, with other relatives cat-skinning in the Aleutians to build airfields, getting destroyers shot out from under them, or fighting at places like Guadalcanal.  Pappy’s workplace was a concrete bunker, all but impenetrable, but Universe seems to favor our family in odd ways.  Air conditioned office in wartime Hawaii?  Who’d have thought?

Seems  his boss in the bunker was a salty old Chief.  Every day the Chief would come to work, run the finest, fastest, most accurate dispatch office in the Navy and then he’d sit down and have his lunch:  A cheese sandwich with mayo.

And every day he would  complain about how absolutely awful “…these  G…D…cheese sandwiches are…” or “:….G-d I hate these damn cheese sandwiches, day after day…

This went on week after week, until finally Pappy finally had his fill  of the whining and could stand it no longer.

Chief, why don‘t you have your wife or whoever is making your sandwiches just make something else for a change?  You know, like bologna or something like that?”

Came the unexpected answer:  “Why, I make these sandwiches myself, George!”

Pappy reportedly shook his head in disbelief, shocked at how people would  rather complain rather than fix the most obvious points of discomfort or dissatisfaction in their lives.  And, near as I can figure it, the world hasn’t changed in the 70-years since.

LESSON #1: Manage yourself or you’ll be seen the fool.

The “What About Today?” Story

Back in the 1960’s or early 1970’s, there was a national gathering of fire chiefs in Seattle and the late Gordon F. Vickery, who was then chief of the Seattle Fire Department had been called upon to give a presentation at the old Olympic Hotel about his department’s Marine Division which included the city’s fireboats and such.

It happens my late uncle, John Philbin, was assistant chief of department at the time and while Vickery was looking for some reference material, he asked John if he knew of a good citation about how fighting a oil tanker fire since this was “like fighting a high-rise fire where the building had fallen over into the water, had no windows, and there wasn’t any ground around it

As always, John said yes, he had exactly the right the reference material in his basement home office over near the hydroplane pits in Seattle.

It’s in what everyone calls Philbin’s Fantastic Filing System.” John offered.  Instantly, Vickery bit.

Don’t just stand there, John, run home and get it!” Vickery reportedly told him.

Red lights on (although no siren) John hopped in his chief’s buggy and rolled out to the house, found the precisely right (and brilliant) reference article in his archives, and was back downtown at headquarters — all within 35-minutes time.

As you might expect, the next morning Vickery’s presentation on marine division fire fighting tactics was incredibly well-received by the visiting fire chiefs.

Later that day, at headquarters (down off Pioneer Square) as they were riding the elevator from ground level up to the Chief’s offices on the fourth floor, John chided Vickery a bit.

Yes, Gordon, Philbin’s Fantastic Filing System really paid off for you, didn’t it?” asked John, maybe fishing a bit for a compliment on his contribution.

John, that was yesterday.  What as you done for us today?” Vickery reportedly shot back.

LESSON #2:  Manage people effectively and keep them motivated.

A few years later, as a Seattle station news director, I spent a good bit of reporter time with Vickery whose management style was simply amazing: Direct, plain-spoken, and even sometimes abrasive when needed.  But boy, did it work!

From the Seattle Fire Department, Vickery was later tapped to head up the city’s utility, Seattle City Light.  “You got to keep ‘em stirred up.” he once advised me when I questioned him about some personnel beef during his City Light tenure.

From there, he went on to head up the US Fire Administration and later served as the second head (as an interim appointee) of the fledgling Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979.

I think about the Vickery story every time I hear a fire department aid car.  You see, Gordon Vickery, my late uncle John Philbin, John Galbraith of Todd Shipyards (which built the first aid rigs), UW professor Mickey Eisenberg for training, and Doctors Leonard Cobb, Frank Pantridge,and especially Dr. Michael Copass  medical director built the world-famous, ok legendary, Seattle Medic One Program.

LESSON #3:  Manage yourself, manage your people, then change the  world.

Oh, yeah….one other “Labor Day” preach:

If you love doing what you do, it isn’t labor.  It’s an advance form of play.  And who doesn’t like to play hard every minute they can?  Play time will end all too soon….

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