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When I presented at FDIC I had a few evaluations that were disappointed in the lack of “solutions” to some of the issues that I present. The following is some of what did not get covered at FDIC due to limited time. For those that might have been in the above category at FDIC 2010, I had 1 hour 45 minutes to fit a 4 hour class.

So, I hope this addresses some of those concerns. It does not address all of them, but hits the point of Crisis Leadership. However, I believe that you can apply much of what is in this submission to most situations, just slightly modified.

Thanks for reading and please pass on any ideas or methods that you have used that have been successful.

As always, stay safe and keep hydrated in this heat.

When I teach my class “A Firefighter’s Own Worst Enemy” I discuss behaviors and actions that are detrimental to the person, his fellow firefighters, the officers and the organization. One of the biggest factors in this equation is leadership.

We toss that word around in the fire service all of the time, yet, I am not so sure many know what it really means to be a leader. We have all seen the promotion happen and the new officer expects to be a leader but has never had any real leadership training and hasn’t practiced leadership prior to the promotion. Leadership is more than just bossing people around and making decisions about what the daily schedule is going to be. It is even more than telling your folks what to do on the fire ground.

There are many aspects of leadership, but today we are going to talk about leadership during rough times. I’m going to focus on crisis leadership and how it relates to how we cultivate our people in the fire house and on the fire ground. We have to prepare them to make decisions. Let’s face it, you are not always going to be there to guide them, so we have to set them up to succeed.

As was mentioned in the above paragraph, we have to practice leadership. It doesn’t just show up and is not obtainable for everyone. Sure, there are characteristics and methods that you can copy and learn from other leaders, but the fact is that you have to create some of your own style based on the people you are leading and the goals of the organization. One of the most important parts of our profession is preparing our people for battle.

Firefighters must make split-second decisions that result in life or death consequences. In some circumstances what we do and the decisions we make could determine whether or not someone lives or dies. It could be the people that we protect or us. We have to instill in our firefighters and officers the ability to make those decisions and the education and training to make the correct decisions.

When we speak of crisis leadership, we are talking about decisions during an emergency. Sure, a crisis could happen in the firehouse, but for this article, I am speaking of fire ground decision making. That is where we are getting injured and killed and where some of our decisions are most important. But, the molding of good leaders will carry over into the firehouse, making the company and organization better.

When you are a company officer, you have to lead by example and your expectations must be made clear. It is not a matter of coming in and telling everyone that you are in charge and that they must listen to you. It is a matter of you coming in and showing that you are in charge and the leader by your actions. You present yourself the way you want your firefighters to present themselves. You convey a positive attitude and you don’t complain about everything that is wrong with the place or the job. Additionally, you train and work hard and you put great effort into improvement and you’re cool under pressure.

If you want your people to be calm and collected during times of crisis, take a look at the leader and that will tell you if the crew is or isn’t. During crisis moments, the leader must set a direction that is clear and concise. The initial decisions are crucial and will dictate how the rest of the incident goes. The leader will evaluate the situation at hand and determine what tactics to take, what resources will be needed and will already be thinking of a backup plan.

If things start to go bad, the good leader doesn’t get flustered and will not stick to failed plan just because he is worried about how he will be judged. He understands that plans don’t always work, even when based on good information. Changing a course of action, even in the fire house, when something is not working is a true sign of a leader. It isn’t so much admitting that you are wrong, but that you can adapt and change the course of action to get to the desired outcome. This teaches them to make decisions and not to be afraid of being wrong.

With these leadership skills we are obligated to pass along to our people the decision making skills that are necessary to be effective during a crisis. By doing this, we ensure their progress as a firefighter and future officer, but we also ensure that when you are not there, they are confident enough to make tough decisions without retribution. This is crucial and will be discussed more in a future article.

If a leader is truly a leader, he will be able to get buy-in or commitment of his decisions. This is not based on his authority for rank necessarily, but rather on the trust he has built over time. As he has made decisions with his team, they have learned that his decisions are based on the overall good of the company and not self-motivated. This type of commitment is important for the leader to have during times of crisis. Typically it results in clear communication and a common goal between the leader and the crew.

The ultimate result is a crisis situation that goes smoothly and is successfully mitigated. That is what it’s all about anyway, right? In addition, you are showing your team members how to be leaders and not telling them how. Remember, leadership is not something that you get or have and then that’s it. Leadership is a dynamic process by which you are able to continually motivate people to do the things that they want to do very well along with getting them to do the things they don’t want to do even better. If they trust your purpose of your motivations, they will continue to operate as a well oiled machine while at the same time making you look very good.

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Great topic and this was a nice read! I'm fairly young in the fire service (2 yrs) but I've had lots of leadership experiences and have even done numerous speeches on leadership...I would love to see more Officers that would rather add value to their people instead of trying to add value to themselves. Stay in the trenches with your men and develop them to think and make decisions for themselves! Keep up the good work!
Thanks Jason

There's some really good points here that have provoked some thought about some of my past leaders, and the type of leader I want to be (and hope I am). I try and lead by a definition I was given some time ago by a very wise and motivational leader. They said "Leadership is enabling those whom you lead to succeed." It's about their success in the activities we engage in, not so much ours, whether on the incident ground or as part of training, routine work or personal development. By enabling the team and the individuals within it to succeed, we enable our own success. Our success becomes a by product of the teams success.

I was also told that leading by influence is more successful than by authority, and I certainly find that to be the case. If someone believes in what they doing they will give it 100%. If people are simply doing what they are told I would not expect the best out them. Even on the fireground, it doesn't take long to tell a crew what the objective is when detailing a task. If they know what they trying to achieve they are more likely to think about what they doing and become more adaptable to changing situations while still meeting the goal i.e. showing some leadership.

This is a fasinating subject; one which is often talked about, but rarely understood.

Mike D

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