Fireproof: Your Grand Strategy for Transforming Failure into Fuel for Your Future
I knew I was in trouble when the cop grabbed the back of my neck and slammed my face into the hood of his patrol car. That was one of those Before-and-After moments. Before, I was rising in the ranks as a firefighter, the son of a leader in the fire service with a bright future ahead of me. After, I was that guy, the person you don’t want to be.
In those days, I was working and going to paramedic school, so I didn’t have much of a social life. While on winter break, I decided to visit friends and family in south Florida for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I was ready to kick back and have some fun.
On Saturday, December 30, 2000, I spent the afternoon with my old boss and his wife in the relaxed, beachy vibe of the area, catching up and enjoying the day. We had cocktails while he played guitar, and we sang along. When I left there, I went back to my Uncle Jimmy’s house where I was staying and had dinner with my aunt and uncle. I had a few more drinks.
Around 9:00 p.m. I decided to go to a local tavern to shoot some pool and hopefully meet up with people I hadn’t seen in a while. When I told Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Kelly my plan, they looked skeptical. They followed me to the door. “Are you sure you’re okay to drive?” Aunt Kelly asked.
“I’m good,” I replied with the wisdom of my twenty-five years. “It’s two blocks away. I can always walk if I have too many drinks to drive back.”
Eager to start the evening, I headed out. The Saturday night crowd was in full swing when I arrived. I ordered a beer and joined a game of pool. Before long, a beautiful girl sitting at the bar caught my eye. She had curly red hair down her back, freckles and sparkling green eyes. She was small and wearing a yellow sundress with straps that tied in bows on top of her shoulders. A little shy at first, she eventually let me buy her a drink. We hit it off and ended up playing pool for hours. A lot of flirting, a little making out—the night was getting better and better.
Around midnight, her friend came to the pool table and told her, “We’re going to Harry’s to meet up with Jenny and Tara.”
“I’m not ready to leave yet,” she said. She glanced at me. “That’s just down the road, David. Would you mind driving me over there when we’re done with this game?”
Glad that she wanted to stay with me, I said, “Sure.” I figured if things didn’t go my way at the end of the evening, I could still walk back to my uncle’s house.
We went to the second place for a couple of hours, then to a third place.
The third establishment was very close to my uncle’s house. It was a small bar that drew an older crowd. People my age would show up after the middle-aged partiers went home. I rarely went there when I was in town because I didn’t typically stay out that late.
The tables and bar stools were all taken when we walked in. The bar was an island style in the center, similar to the sitcom Cheers with dark woodwork and brass trim. A few tables stood around the edges of the room with a stage and two dueling pianos on one end.
Music was blaring. People had to shout to be heard. A few couples were on the floor near the stage moving to the music. By this time, it was about 2:30 a.m.
We joined some girls standing in a tight cluster at the bar. I had my arm around the red-haired girl, and she was leaning into me. We decided that since it was now December 31, we should toast the New Year. I handed the bartender my credit card and ordered a round of shots for the group of six girls and myself, plus a beer.
After the shots, I went to the restroom.
When I got back, our spot at the bar was empty. I asked the bartender, “Where did those girls go?”
He shrugged. “They left.”
I couldn’t believe she dumped me like that. What was going on?
“Ready to cash out?” he asked. When I nodded, he handed me a bill of more than $300.
“What’s this?” I demanded. “I ordered seven shots and one beer.”
He said, “They ordered some more stuff. Your girlfriend said it was cool because you live together.”
“I never met any of them before tonight, not even her.” I glanced down the slip. They had ordered the most expensive liquor in the place, up to $30 a shot, knocked back a few, then bolted.
My temper rising by the second, I signed the ticket.
By the time I reached my truck, I was so steaming mad that all I could think of was catching them. The street was a dimly lit beach access road with only one direction toward civilization, so I figured they would be easy to find. I put the window down to get some air on my face and peeled out of the parking lot, throwing sand and crushed seashells behind me. The truck fishtailed. I brought it around, my foot still jammed into the floorboards.
The speed limit on that street was 25 m.p.h. The stoplight ahead of me turned yellow. Stomping on the brake, I realized I was doing 70, and that was after slowing down.
Red and blue lights flashed in my rearview. My only thought was a speeding ticket. In my mind, I was okay to drive.
I told the officer what had happened. He said, “Are you a firefighter?” I told him I was. He handed back my license. “Where are you going?”
I pointed toward my uncle’s street. “Right there.”
“You need to park, and I don’t want to see you out again tonight.” At that very moment, a second patrol car pulled in behind his. He drew in a long breath and said, “This is not your night. I need your license back.”
The driver of that second car was his supervisor who was also the head of the DUI task force.
While they put me through the sobriety tests, I thought they were messing with me because I came through the tests okay. I became confused when they had me put my hands on the hood of the patrol car and patted me down. When the officer told me that they were going to take me in, I jerked around and said, “Really!”
That’s when he grabbed my neck and slammed me down. That’s when my life changed and never went back.
I spent the first few months of 2001 going through the court process, meeting with the probation officer, required drug testing, community service, AA meetings and substance abuse treatment. My driver’s license was restricted to work only. My vehicle was impounded. My family was disappointed, and my career as a firefighter was in jeopardy. My bright future had the lights dimmed out.
I was relieved of duty for more than two months while everything got sorted out. When I returned to shift work in March, I found the atmosphere had changed dramatically. Where I used to be respected and included, now eye contact included unspoken words of condemnation. They assigned me to work with trustees from the local jail picking up trash at the fleet maintenance shop and sweeping the bays in full view of my fellow firefighters. I had to drop out of paramedic school as well.
When I finally got back to fighting fires, I floated from one firehouse to another. Eventually, I was suspended because of the DUI arrest. After my radio was stolen at the scene of a fire, I was terminated for destruction of government property. A few months later, I went to work for a rain gutter and roofing company, fell off a roof and broke my back. I was laid up for the next year, and all I could think about was how to return to the fire service.
Those were tough days for me. I wondered if they would ever end. Now, twenty years later, I can see several important principles I learned at a core level that made me a better leader.
My leadership journey began at an early age. I was four years old the first time I slid down the pole at station 41, possibly younger the first time I sat on the fire engine. My father was in the fire service. He was my hero, bigger than life, and I wanted to be just like him. Words like honor, service and integrity meant a lot in my family.
I knew I was born to be a firefighter. Throughout school, I worked hard and stayed out of trouble. I had a straight path ahead of me, and I was on my way. Here’s a brief rundown of where I was when I ran into my first Growth Opportunity.
1993 I joined the United States Navy.
1996 I enrolled in EMT school.
1997 I joined the volunteer fire department in Martin County, Florida, and ended up at an all-volunteer station in Jensen Beach.
1998 I graduated from Indian River Fire Academy.
1999 A large fire department in Central Florida hired me. I worked my way up the ranks holding positions in Training, Special Operations, and Administration with the bulk of my service being in Operations.
When I headed to South Florida on winter break after Christmas of 2000, I had everything going for me. I never dreamed that before New Year 2001 rang in, my career would have a giant question mark hanging over it. A brief lapse in judgement will destroy a stellar reputation in seconds.
“A brief lapse in judgement will destroy a stellar reputation in seconds.”
Small Decisions Make a Big Difference
During that fateful night on the town, I made a series of poor decisions that led me to a crisis. At the time they seemed like small things—whether to walk the two blocks to the tavern or drive, whether to take a pretty girl up the street to meet her friends or politely decline, whether to cut my losses on the bar tab and head home or rush out in a rage to get some kind of justice. With a change in just one choice, that night would have ended much differently.
Life’s decisions are like shooting an arrow at a target. You must take into account elevation, distance, wind, humidity, obstructions, the weight of the point and the shaft as well as the tension of the string. If your aim is off a fraction of an inch, the arrow will miss the bullseye. Once the arrow has left the bow, you no longer have control. It’s going to fly and land where it will. When you miss the mark, all you can do is adjust your aim and take another shot.
All of history’s greatest leaders experienced tremendous failures. Those tough times might even be what shaped them. Failure teaches you two things: (1) how resilient you are and (2) humility is a good thing. No matter how good you think you are or how high you have risen, you could still fall short. Failure stings less when you are humble.
I read “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt whenever I wanted to reinforce the lessons I learned those many years ago.
The Man in the Arena
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat ~Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910, Paris, France
When you fall, dust yourself off and keep going. Figure out what you did wrong and promise yourself you'll never do that again. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are doomed to repeat them.
Define Yourself or Someone Else Will Define You
From all appearances, that December night in 2000 ruined my life. I ended up on my couch with a broken back and in a deep depression, my life purpose crushed into the sand. One day my Uncle Al called to ask how I was doing. During the conversation, he told me, “The measure of a man is not the mistakes he has made, but what actions he took to correct those mistakes.”
If you allow failure to define you, then you are a failure. Leaders define themselves. They do not quit because of some detour or stumbling block along the way. They learn what they can from the experience and take the next step in the right direction. Every single day, I still push forward to improve myself. With every setback comes an opportunity to become better.
“Leaders define themselves.”
Everyone Experiences Failure
When you dare to achieve greatness, you put yourself at higher risk for failure than those who are satisfied with mediocrity. Leaders always deal with setbacks. Not everyone will approve of your methods. Some will find fault no matter how brilliant or circumspect you are. Stand tall and persevere. NEVER QUIT! Every successful leader perseveres in the face of adversity.
I also learned that failure affects those closest to you—your friends and family. After three years of trying to get back in, I was finally reinstated into the fire service in 2004. The following year I was promoted to engineer. I thought my years of humiliation were over. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
When my father retired from the State Fire Marshal’s Office in 2005, people in high positions all over Florida travelled to congratulate him at the luncheon in his honor. They stood up and spoke of how he helped shape their careers, how he influenced their lives and his many contributions to the fire service. I had no idea my father was a man of such great renown and reputation. He never once bragged about his achievements. I had no idea how humble he was.
After the event, I felt proud standing with him. Well-wishers came by to shake his hand and say nice things. When they finished congratulating him, many of them looked over at me and remarked about my drinking. One of them said, “Hey, Hollenbach, want a drink?” Something inside me curled up a little tighter and more painful with every comment. My father tried to laugh off their remarks, and that hurt me worse than anything.
I am David Hollenbach III. I have my father’s name, as he has my grandfather’s. My shortcomings were not private. They were directly linked to my father’s legacy because I have his name. That day, I decided I would not allow my actions to tarnish my father’s name any more. I committed myself to becoming the best part of my father’s fire service legacy, not the stain I was then.
No formal leadership development program or mentoring program existed in my fire department at that time, but some officers mentored people on their crews. Whenever I worked with men I respected, I soaked up as much as I could from them. I studied hard. I trained hard. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough.
Three years later, when I was promoted to lieutenant, I quickly realized that I lacked the qualities of a leader. I had rank, but the crew at that station was established and somewhat senior. Two of my crew members had more time on the job than me and more experience. Fortunately, the good people on that crew helped me develop.
One of my best friends, Mike Yetter, was also a student of leadership. He was always available to discuss work issues with me. Mike was an officer with Miami Dade Fire Rescue, a former Army Infantryman and all-around great guy. He recommended several books to me. Once I got a taste of leadership training, I developed a thirst for more and my quest began.
I devoured books on leadership. I searched the Internet for leadership development programs hoping I could find something that I could use in my station. During my quest, I found a video of Colonel Art Athens speaking in front of a group of Midshipmen where he tells a story about one of his mentors. Fresh out of officer training, his mentor was assigned command of a Marine Corps unit with a seasoned gunnery sergeant as second in command. The young officer asked his gunnery sergeant one question: “Given both of our levels of experience, why would you follow me?” The gunny replied that he and the platoon would be watching him to answer three questions based on his actions:
- Do you know your job or are you striving hard to learn it?
- Will you make the hard-but-right decisions, even if it costs you personally?
- Do you care as much about us as you care about yourself?
These questions are the Three C’s of Leadership: Competence, Courage, and Compassion. Colonel Athens focused the rest of his lecture on the third C, Compassion.
Leadership isn’t about being in charge. It’s about working hard to ensure your team’s success. The skills required to be an effective leader can be learned. However, using those skills takes courage and commitment. The challenges are real, relentless and inevitable. Sometimes, they hit you out of nowhere.
Great leaders know that excellence is not a destination. Excellence is a path, a calling. Great leaders accept no excuses for mediocrity. On Day One they stand out. They step up and say, “You can count on me.” They make a decision to earn their place of honor and keep earning it every day.
But even more, they realize their good name is more valuable than any number of bugles or badges or patches or medals. I have my father’s name and my grandfather’s name. I am their legacy. My name means something to me. I want it to mean something long after I am gone, and I want every member of my team to leave the same kind of legacy.
When you develop this level of trust with your people, they will go far beyond what they imagine they are capable of. So will you.
“Great leaders know that excellence is not a destination. It is a path, a calling.”
My Growth Opportunity seemed like a string of bad luck from mixing it up with the wrong pretty girl to the head of the DUI task force showing up at precisely the wrong moment. In reality, my “bad luck” happened because I didn’t have a defined plan for my life and my career. I didn’t have a Grand Strategy.
Your Grand Strategy
In Linda Kulman’s book Teaching Common Sense: The Grand Strategy Program at Yale University, she writes about the program established in 2000. The Grand Strategy Program was created by professors who were seasoned leaders in the real world—John Lewis Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett, Paul M. Kennedy, J. Richardson Dilworth and Charles Hill. They wanted to develop leaders who could think on their feet and use common sense.
Students in the program studied different philosophies and various methods of strategic thinking. After mastering the foundational material, they were then involved in scenarios where they had to make big decisions using what they had learned. They practiced making fast decisions to achieve practical outcomes.
Linda Kulman quotes Henry Kissinger as stating, "I think one of the empty spaces in our country . . . is the study of strategic issues,” he commented. “We lack [the] preparation of a young leadership group . . . That is, how you assemble the issues that are relevant to national decision making and develop a habit of thought that you get to automatically. The American tendency is to wait for a problem to arise and then to overwhelm it with resources or with some pragmatic answers. But what you need is a framework of decisions that helps you understand where you’re trying to go.
A Grand Strategy defines big picture actions that may or may not be used in order to achieve big picture goals. This approach is typically reserved for policies and actions of national leaders with the intent to maintain, achieve, or improve domestic and foreign affairs. When allowing contingencies for the responses of other nations, they reached their desired outcomes faster and with less collateral damage.
“A Grand Strategy defines big picture actions that may or may not be used in order to achieve big picture goals.”
In my quest to learn more about leadership, I came across this idea of a Grand Strategy and wondered, what if people had a Grand Strategy? What if you saw your life from the highest vantagepoint and took the same approach as nations when setting up a plan to achieve your goals? When you think in these terms, you can look at contingencies that you’d never see on a smaller scale.
The first step in building a Grand Strategy is to identify the End State you want. Keep in mind that the rewards for a life well spent are a result, not an End State. Rewards might include a nice retirement income, a house on the shore and a fishing boat at your disposal. An End State is being a great leader who ensures the success of your people.
When preparing a Grand Strategy, think of it as a military operation. Once you determine your ultimate destination, you set up multiple roads to get there. You also plan for multiple modes of transportation. If a bridge falls to the enemy, you have other routes lined out. If a dam breaks and washes out the roads, you have alternate methods to reach the destination. Contingencies are essential for success because you can count on the need for course corrections along the way. Everyone has Personal Detours at times. Often, when you least expect them. You will need to make fast decisions with the least collateral damage possible.
What Is Your Desired End State?
A leader’s desired End State must be broad and loosely defined. Use general terms during the early part of the build because you cannot know what the future holds. You might be in medical school with the goal of being a doctor. After a few years in private practice, you might decide you would rather do something else. You might go into law enforcement or decide you would rather try your hand in the arts or politics or open a small business.
Your occupation, the thing that allows you to pay your bills, is not important in the long run. How you influence people around you and add value to their lives is your desired End State.
“Your occupation, the thing that allows you to pay your bills, is not important in the long run.”
You followed the men and women who came before you. Who are you leading? What example are you setting? One day someone will write down a few words to read in front of those family members who survive you. They will stand up and talk about how you touched their lives. You are writing those words in their hearts and their minds right now. What are you writing?
Action Step 1: Determine your End State.
What is your desired End State? What do you want others to remember about you when you are gone? A great exercise that I have used many times is to write out your own eulogy. First, you would write one as if you died yesterday. Second, you write one as if you have accomplished everything you have dreamed of accomplishing. Write it as though someone you have yet to meet is your dearest friend, mentor, or a mentee twenty years from now who is going to read it to all of the people you care about.
 GoodReads.com, “Theodore Roosevelt > Quotes > Quotable Quote”
 USNALeadConf. “USNA LC09 - Col. Arthur Athens, USMC (Ret.)” YouTube.com. Aug 26, 2013. Accessed Aug 29, 2021.
 Linda Kulman & Henry Kissinger, Teaching Common Sense: The Grand Strategy Program at Yale University.