I rarely venture into writing about leadership as I still consider myself a student and not necessarily a teacher when it comes to leadership education. However during a recent travels and visits with firefighters I have yet to find a firehouse where someone does not complain about the boss. Routinely, the same common denominator is present. The "officer" was never educated to be an officer. So the decisions he or she are making are not based on best practices. They are based on uneducated opinions or "experience". Some of these decisions are based on what they watched their officer do when they were riding backwards. Unfortunately, that is the way the majority of today’s officers have been taught. Not an excuse but unfortunately reality. We must change this and we must do it now or the future of the fire service will be negativley impacted forever!
After a recent conversation I find myself compelled to write about three concepts that are so important to the sustainability of the fire service and our ability to educate our current firefighters so they can be a little more prepared for an officer role.
We normally find leadership education in war movies. However I just returned from vacation and on the flight watched a new movie starring Brad Pitt, Money Ball. See a movie trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=UJOIHGB6nKU This movie is well worth watching. It has a good story line surrounding Major League baseball and current and future leaders can learn a great example in how to lead the people who call you boss.
As many of us watched and listened to General McCrystal here he has told us "we must know our people”. For those that have yet to watch this amazing speech, do so now! http://www.ted.com/talks/stanley_mcchrystal.html In Money Ball Billy Bean Did not want to get to know his people so they were easier to cut or trade. However, once he took a vested interest in "his people" he began appropriately socializing and taking a vested interest in his players as people they performed much better. He did not lower his standards he did not become one of the guys. He was still the boss! However he began to learn what made his players tick and was able to help educate and mentor them towards winning. So how does this apply to the fire service? Simple, know our people! Are you a chief officer? Do you stop in your fire houses and have breakfast, coffee or lunch with the guys? Do you know every FF's name and something about them? Granted if you are in a large department that may not be possible but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try! Your job is to lead those under you and you must know the capabilities and weakness of those who you will call on. Do you train with your companies? Do you at least show an interest in the companies while training? Or are the training grounds something you have not set foot on once you put on the gold badge? It's easy to get caught up in the administrative side of our job however that is not an excuse for not showing an interest or training with the troops. Just because you wear a gold badge doesn't mean you are above training. The fire service you trained for in the academy many years ago has changed drastically! You must continually train with your officers and firefighters to make sure they go home safely.
The fire service of today needs the seasoned veterans to step up if they have not already and be the informal leaders. You have experience that cannot be learned in a training tower, book, DVD or trade magazine. You have time in the hallways, on the roofs, in the firehouses that when you leave will leave with you unless you take the time to pass it down.
Remember when you came on the job? How hungry you were for the senior guy to talk with you and teach you something? Remember when you wanted to learn everything you could so you could impress the old guy? Those FF's are still in your firehouse. They may look and act a little different and have their "smart phones" in front of them every available second. But they are still the same as you were, hungry to learn and be the best they could be. Now, I know you may already be done helping. You may be very cynical due to the politics of the job or how it has changed. I know it's not the same job as when you started. I understand and completely respect you wanting to just finish out your career quietly. However the future of our departments and the future of reduced firefighter injuries and deaths needs you! If you are an officer it is your job to find those informal leaders and get their help. The senior guy is who you need the respect from; the rest of the shift will follow his/her lead. As an officer you will only be as good as your crew or shift. Don't you want your shift to be the best it could be? Of course of do! But for that to occur you need the informal leaders help. They have the experience; they have the ability; they have the knowledge that you don't have to pass on to the next generation.
Old school doesn't make it right. We are all aware the fire service has changed in many ways. Today's fires burn faster and they produce smoke that you probably have not trained to fight. Today's building, we know the issues here! However have you changed your tactics that take those changes into consideration or are you still managing incidents the same way you were taught or self learned many years ago. You can't effectively lead your troops to fight an enemy you don't know or understand. Period end of story!
Today's enemy is not the same and if you don't want to answer the hard questions to the NIOSH, OSHA, NFPA, local law enforcement because your department suffered a LODD you best get out from behind your desk and train! However, if you don't have the ability or time to get out from behind the desk then don't hold a position in the fire ground command structure. We understand you still want to go to the fires. But be there to support those who are up to date and trained to fight today's enemy. Be another set of eyes, another voice of experience another support mechanism for the IC.
Today’s leader’s have many challenges today they are faced with. Some even say today’s leaders have a much harder job then their previous leaders. I believe every leader of every generation has had its fair share of challenges. It is up to you how you face and deal with those challenges every day. Remember and consider this last point. Many of you train to be good fire ground leaders. However, that is where we spend the least amount of time. If you want to be effective you must also train to be a good leader and mentor in the firehouse
Get out of the firehouse and train!