LEAD FROM THE FRONT
“Leadership is intangible, hard to measure, and difficult to describe. Its quality would seem to stem from many factors. But certainly they must include a measure of inherent ability to control and direct, self-confidence based on expert knowledge, initiative, loyalty, pride and sense of responsibility. Inherent ability cannot be instilled, but that which is latent or dormant can be developed. Other ingredients can be acquired. They are not easily learned. But leaders can be and are made.” — General C. B. Cates, 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps
Leadership remains an art, a skill that you must develop to be a leader of firemen. True yesterday and still very true today.
Part of leadership skills is maintaining your tactical and technological edge. Not only your skill as a firefighter, but your knowledge of the profession is observed and tested by the men and women you lead. Maintain a high level of competence in your fire profession throughout your career. Your proficiency will earn the respect of your firefighters. They expect you to have a solid foundation in such things; they have been led to believe that you do. They are a little disappointed when that foundation isn’t there. Such are the things an officer must do to earn the respect and cooperation of those he or she leads. Being knowledgeable and proficient in the job is one of the primary ones and sadly is often one of the first to slip. And we get away with it for a while. I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. I know there are many excellent officers out there. I applaud the example they set. But there are also many who spend their days doing everything except preparing themselves for the test to come. If you’re in a small town, the chances of your knowledge being put to the test in front of the crew (or worse; leading to their injury or death), are reduced. If you’re in a big city working on the edge of “Crack St. and Central” then the chances of your knowledge and proficiency being tested are certainly higher, but usually in a focused area. In my first due, it isn’t the fully involved structure that concerns me; it’s the room and contents fires, the basement fires, the lightweight construction. Those fires will test me. And that is just the fire end of this business. A small town fire officer must excel or be well versed at being an EMT or a Paramedic, NIMS, Hazmat, extrication and technical rescue, an instructor, and familiar with an ever expanding set of technologically advanced equipment. The list is long.
There are officers who put up a fantastic front. Their convincing mastery of the profession is based on their behavior around the fire station, perhaps a reputation for being extremely aggressive at fires, being the tough talker or just simply getting lucky over the years. But where previous generations of young firefighters were willing to work hard, put up with verbal abuse and risk their lives without asking why, this generation of young people is a little different. They are also not afraid to work hard, not afraid to risk their lives. But they are not inclined to listen to bravado unaccompanied by action and they also like to know the why…they like to feel as though you value their view of things and can offer them a valid reason as to why something is or is not done a certain way. Many of them are better read on tactics and the latest studies than the older crowd, and they like to show that knowledge off. If you aren’t up to speed, you will not be able to offer wise counsel on the value of the latest article or blog post. Like it or not, this is how they function today. They will be able to “fact check” you on the web before you can finish blowing smoke up their backsides. Many officers are so busy with the business of administration these days, that they have little time or energy left to take on new tactics and new technology. Just when you felt like you had learned it all and you could relax a bit, they go and introduce something new on you. Then there are those of you who received your bugles through no merit or display of tactical ability, but simply by attending a certification course and putting in your time. Now, you do have to earn it. For those of you in that boat, stay out to sea; don’t give fate a chance to come calling. Someone might pay for it with their lives.
1. Be real and transparent with those you lead. We all need improvement, we all get complacent, and we all make mistakes. Own up. Don’t try to snow them with your objections to something you haven’t studied up on and therefore can’t credibly defend your stance. “We don’t do it that way” no longer holds any sway. They want to know why it CAN’T be done that way.
2. Be knowledgeable in current fire service issues. Be able to say to them, “Yeah, I read about that, and this is the question I’m asking myself…” or “True, but the other side of that argument is…” For instance, Captain, what is your department’s stance on Survival Profiling? Do you know? Are you well versed in the debate? How will you justify your actions on the fire ground to those you lead?
3. Train with them. Show them what you know and allow them to see that you don’t know everything and are willing to improve your understanding. Your followers will really value that kind of honesty. I have made plenty of gaffs in front of the members I lead. I find they are eager to show what they have learned, especially if I am willing to be teachable. This in turn requires me to have a solid grasp in the basics so I can validate the new information.
4. Teach them what you know. Don’t know what you know? Well, what are you doing wearing bugles then? Maybe you should be back in the bucket? Oh,..yeah. Need the nice paycheck, or maybe no one ever asked you, they just promoted you…Well, Captain…it’s not too late. Begin by learning something so that you can teach them. Teaching increases the teacher’s knowledge through preparation and application as well as those being taught.
5. Lastly, if nothing else, know your organization’s standard operating procedures, and apply them according to sound principle. If we want our people to follow our leadership, we must also demonstrate for them our own followership to those above us. Don’t just do what the department says because the department says. Gain understanding of the reasons and thinking behind the decisions made by your superiors. If there is anything we can quickly learn from the young people filling our fire houses it’s that they don’t follow blindly. Most of them expect to be told why before they buy into commitment. But if you know and can explain, then they will most often jump on board and be enthusiastic