Semper Gumby in Fighting Fires

Glowing fire

My brother Mark, a Navy veteran, recently introduced me to the phrase “Semper Gumby.” This is a take-off on the Marine motto “Semper Fidelis,” which means always faithful. Semper Gumby, referring to the claymation character Gumby from the ’50s and ’60s, means always flexible. The actual origin is unclear, but Wikipedia says Semper Gumby is heard in the Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, and other branches of our military.

It was an appropriate time for me to learn the phrase because recently I’ve had many calls to be flexible.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt like a fire chief. I’ve been rushing to one crisis scene after another, assessing the situation and the damage, determining an action strategy, and then getting to work alongside the rest of the fire crew. Most of these fires have gone out rather quickly and completely. A couple, though, have smoldered a while…and then they flare up into new fires.

The fire alarms sound again and we get back to work. I’m still watching the smoke of one particular fire that I expect will flare up again soon. My fire crew and the equipment are ready to go!

Amidst all of the firefighting, this phrase Semper Gumby has been stuck in my head.

Semper Gumby. Always flexible.

  • Have a plan, but don’t get dependent on it.
  • Be prepared for surprises that come out of nowhere.
  • Realize that what may seem natural or intuitive for solving the problem may be precisely the wrong thing to do.
  • Stay nimble and relaxed and don’t become emotionally charged.

I generally aim to be a flexible leader. Especially when it comes to encouraging followers to take ownership of problems and create solutions, I like to be extra flexible. On some occasions, my inner dialogue has been Well, I wouldn’t do it that way, but it’s entirely possible that strategy will work. Let’s see what happens. No matter what, there will be something to learn!

The recent fire fighting, though, has reminded me of something I really needed to see.

The more people living in the fire zone, the more pressure there is to put the fire out and the harder it is to be flexible—to exercise Semper Gumby.

That is, the more people affected by the crisis, the more pressure there is and the harder it is to be adaptable, to go with the flow, and to stay calm.

You might say I’ve had a few bad moments recently. I wasn’t always Gumby-like and my rigidity under pressure may have slowed the fire fighting, allowing more damage to occur.

When we get rigid under pressure, I think there are two core issues going on:

  1. The desire to be in control.
  2. The desire to please people.

For leaders the desire to be in control is a paradoxical issue. I’m a leader. Am I not supposed to have control over these situations?

The key here is to not confuse control and stewardship.

We, the leaders, are not in control. We are called to be good stewards. God is in control. He is sovereign. We are not. We are called to be good stewards of the leadership responsibility that has been granted to us by man and under the sovereignty of God.

Here are some verses that help “right” our minds on this topic.

  • Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. (1 Chronicles 19:11-12)
  • Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)
  • I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
  • For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)

Regarding the desire to please people, we all like to be liked. We all crave those good 360 comments in the annual performance review. And, yes, at some level this is important because if we are regarded well among coworkers we have a stronger platform to lead well.

However, the key behind this is motivation. Is your end purpose to be liked, to get those “Attaboy” comments?

Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae addressing various people’s responsibilities in working together and said, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Leaders are firefighters. We are called to lead in crisis. However, how and why we exercise leadership in that crisis is a key part of the difference between leading for God and just leading.

Leaders who follow Christ know they are not in control (and Who is).

Leaders who follow Christ do not seek the praise of men, they seek to honor their Creator, Father, Redeemer, and King.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by raquel raclette. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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