My father, Dover Ford, Jr., who passed away the fall of 2015, and whose first name my son and I share today, served as a firefighter for the city of Anaheim, California for over 30 years. While during his career, he was never awarded the position of lieutenant, captain, or battalion chief, my father was one of the first to integrate the city’s then all-white department back in 1975.
And for as long as I can remember, my father fulfilled what is one of the most unique roles any firefighter can have. And in the eyes of this son, who has been firefighting on behalf of the local church now for over half of my life, it is an extremely important one.
My father was a tillerman.
In large metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, and yes, even Anaheim, where tall buildings and narrow roads are often commonplace, city fire and rescue departments will have what is called a tiller truck, which is specifically designed to carry long, extendable ladders that will enable their firefighters to climb and address emergencies several stories above the ground.
While tiller trucks are often reserved for large fires, and rarely used for small house emergencies, they are called upon in the event of a major traffic accident, especially when a damaged car’s driver or passenger is in need of assistance to exit, since tiller trucks carry with them special hydraulic cutting tools known as ‘the jaws of life.’
Another interesting fact about tiller trucks is that their size and trailer-like behavior requires them to be driven and steered not only from the front cab, but also from the back. Tiller trucks have two different steering wheels, so that the front driver can control the front set of wheels, and the tillerman controls the back set. In order for a tiller truck to safely navigate through narrow streets and sharp turns at speeds of 50-60 miles per hour, whenever the front cab is in need of turning, the tillerman must turn the back of the truck in the opposite direction. If the tillerman does not commit and remember to turn consistently in the opposite direction of the front cab, the truck will jackknife and cause enormous damage to anything it is near.
When reflecting on my current role within the local church, which is primarily focused on operations, human resources and finance, I discovered a number of leadership lessons that can be pulled from the seat of a tillerman. For those who are responsible for providing strategic direction and leadership for your church or organization, yet are not seated in the front cab, I hope the following will help encourage you and provide you with the perspective necessary to help safely steer your team during seasons of rapid change and fast growth.
A Tillerman Sits Alone.
While the front cab of a tiller truck can seat anywhere from six to eight firefighters, the back cab, where the tillerman sits, has only one seat. With over 100 feet of ladder between them, the front cab and the tillerman can only communicate while in motion via a headset, although communication even with a headset is extremely limited due to the sound of the siren. While the other firefighters in the front cab have time to chat about their spouses or last night’s game face to face when in route, the tillerman sits alone, focused on the road at all times.
When leading within an organization that places a high value on relationships and a culture of trust, a tillerman can often be mistaken as being too distant or always focused on the details, however it is that distance and seemingly counterintuitive focus that helps keep organizations from crashing.
A Tillerman Has The Tools.
Although the front cab may be the first to arrive to a scene of an emergency, it is important to know that all of the tools the team needs are actually in the back with the tillerman. From the jaws of life and medical kits, to axes and hose extensions, the tillerman has the keys that unlocks them all.
In fact, the tillerman does not only control the back of the truck, the tillerman also controls the ladder. He or she is responsible for raising and lowering the ladders for the team, and is also the first to climb the ladder to break windows for ventilation and begin any search and rescue processes. While the other firefighters who rode in the front cab are still connecting their hoses for water, the tillerman is the first to stabilize the scene of every emergency, even though his or her seat on the team may appear to be the last one to arrive.
A Tillerman Has No Brakes.
What is probably the most difficult part of being a tillerman is embracing the fact that while there is a steering wheel in the back cab, there are no brakes. Which simply means that whomever has the responsibility of being a tillerman must extend an enormous amount of trust to those who are driving in front. While a tillerman can provide margin and insight for those steering the front of their trucks, they can do very little about their speed and the sudden turns they decide to make.
Despite having all the tools to stabilize what’s ahead, a tillerman must learn to embrace constant shifts without delay and complaint. Extending this level of trust is a skill few choose to master, perhaps because most people prefer to drive and lead from the front, having all of the information. It is also important to know that the engine of a tiller truck will not start until the front driver, as well as the tillerman have pressed their start pedals.
Which simply means, they must always work together.
I wholeheartedly believe that most churches and organizations today who truly have a sincere desire for change and growth must have a tillerman on their team; someone who can sit alone, has access to a variety of skills and tools, and is gifted with the grace of making turns whenever it is needed.
While it appears they are always moving in an opposite direction, know that they have your back.
(above is a video of Anaheim’s Engine #9, the tiller truck my dad drove for years)