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There is a lot of talk these days about fire service leadership and how important it is to a well run and safe fire company or department. Both our senior officers and newly promoted ones need to find and have a good grasp on the important elements of leadership. So where does the typical firefighter learn and develope good leadership skills? What role do the company officers and chiefs in a department play in this search for leadership skills?

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Truth is there are very few leaders in the fire service. We have developed organizational structures that put people in positions of influence, but rearly are those guys leaders, they are managers. Managers more so than leaders model the behavior of those that came before them. You follow people for what they believe in (values), what they have accomplished, what they know, or what they can do for you (these are the weakest followers). Leadership skills can be taught to make leaders more effective, but leaders are leaders. Good leaders can make managers appear to be leaders. Leaders are the guys that decided what game you were going to play at recess in grade school, they decided where the group would hang out in high school and what the group was doing that weekend. I have heard numerous stories of war where young kids just out of high school step up in battle and make key decisions that yeild positive results when officers have been killed or have not made a decision. The kids were leaders before they got there, not born with it, but have learned as a young kid how to influence those around them to accomplish their goals. They were trained in strategy and tactics in boot camp, but it is a special skill to get other people to do, what you want them to do, because they want to do it. What we have to do is get better at recognizing these guys and groom them on their way up. They can be just as effective as a negative leader as they will as a positive leader, people just follow these guys. Everyone is not Officer material and everyone does not have what it takes to be a leader. Sorry.
I think both of you made a direct hit. Unfortuneately this is a pretty tough issue to tackle in many departments. In my opinion the majority of the emergency services training is directed at a small fraction of what we do(ie: look up the recipe in the cookbook). Although many of the things we learn as firefighters is task oriented it seems to me that interpersonal communications is what gets us in trouble. I have been through alot of the IFSAC merit badge classes which gave me tools but not the implementation. We all need mentors like many of the folks that utilize these types of forums and learn from each other. Many departments mine included dont have the large amout of resources to have great mentors internally which forces me to look to the extended brotherhood.
Ultimately, I feel leadership is learned in the home. With that said, Chiefs, Company Officers, and Senior Firefighters for that matter all play the same role, that is if they are good leaders themselves. They develop an atmosphere that allows new or junior members to feel comfortable will accepting responsibility for their own actions and mentoring them to make the right decisions. I firmly believe that alot of whats wrong with this country is the loss of parenting in the home. We cannot expect that type of parenting in schools or jobs to have the same effect. Now I am not saying that there are not a few who are on the fence teetering from one side or the other but overall it is either instilled in you based on a value system you were brought up by or you watched a family member accept that role of leader and you were mentored by it whether you realize it or not. We can tell someone what the important elements of leadership are, but unless they buy into it they will never fully become the leader they could be. We can teach people to become great managers; but it is much harder to teach someone to be a leader. My $.02
Where does the typical firefighter learn and develop good leadership skills?

I feel strongly that the fire community needs to do a better job developing its leaders, beginning at the basic firefighter level and continuing throughout the firefighter’s career. It seems more often then not, a firefighter is promoted and is expected to “figure it out” with no leadership training to fall back on. I believe we need to start teaching the followers how to lead at the basic level progressing to more advance training as the member advances in rank. Developing a multi-level leadership program is a step in the right direction to addressing this shortfall.

A good multi-level leadership program should include different levels of training from the least (follower) to the most complex (organizational leader) levels. A basic course in human factors should lay the foundation, with firefighters advancing through courses focusing on the transition from followership to leadership, firehouse to incident and advanced incident leadership. The program could include and incorporate self-development courses, assessments, and on-the-ground training.

What role do the company officers and chiefs in a department play in this search for leadership skills?

Company officers and Chiefs should focus on a factor commonly cited in accident and fatality reports: leadership. Though current training addresses various aspects of leadership, a coordinated approach to leadership development within the firefighter ranks has been slow in coming. Senior officers in the fire service should aim to change this and develop leaders who can make timely decisions in high stress situations that get the job done without compromising firefighter safety.

The leadership development program could be developed and benchmarked based on some of the best practices used by outside organizations with a long history and much experience in developing leaders. These organizations have invested a lot of time and money and expertise in building a leadership program that graduates people who are effective decision-makers in high-stress and high-risk situations.

It is my opinion that strong and effective leaders must be cultivated, rather than simply trained, but we have to understand creating an environment where leaders are incrementally developed (cultivated) will take years.

Firefighters will develop as leaders over the lifetime of their career, and in turn, will help develop new leaders.

The leadership development program is an investment – in time, money, and management support – that will help people make decisions that result in effective work that, ultimately, increases the safety of firefighters and the public from fire.

We all know well-developed leaders make and communicate effective decisions that reduce misunderstandings and strengthen teamwork in high-risk and high-stress situations typical of firefighting.

A new approach to developing leaders in the fire service means good decisions that will ultimately help increase firefighter and public safety.

“Safety is a result of doing things right, and doing things right is a direct result of effective leadership.” ~unknown~

Debora R. Lewis
Well said Will.

Debora, the problem in my department I see is the formal upper "leaders" come across as not wanting anyone below them knowing as much or more than themselves therefore they retain the "I'm the boss intellect"
I agree wholeheartedly in your comments and have been trying to start a mentoring program here but keep hitting the wall described above. Not sure how to get over that wall.
Todd

Will Vaigneur said:
Truth is there are very few leaders in the fire service. We have developed organizational structures that put people in positions of influence, but rearly are those guys leaders, they are managers. Managers more so than leaders model the behavior of those that came before them. You follow people for what they believe in (values), what they have accomplished, what they know, or what they can do for you (these are the weakest followers). Leadership skills can be taught to make leaders more effective, but leaders are leaders. Good leaders can make managers appear to be leaders. Leaders are the guys that decided what game you were going to play at recess in grade school, they decided where the group would hang out in high school and what the group was doing that weekend. I have heard numerous stories of war where young kids just out of high school step up in battle and make key decisions that yeild positive results when officers have been killed or have not made a decision. The kids were leaders before they got there, not born with it, but have learned as a young kid how to influence those around them to accomplish their goals. They were trained in strategy and tactics in boot camp, but it is a special skill to get other people to do, what you want them to do, because they want to do it. What we have to do is get better at recognizing these guys and groom them on their way up. They can be just as effective as a negative leader as they will as a positive leader, people just follow these guys. Everyone is not Officer material and everyone does not have what it takes to be a leader. Sorry.
Todd,

We only have control over things that we can influence and anything formal only slows you down.

What I saying is do not wait for your department to develop a mentoring program to start mentoring. Call it the "Underground Railroad." You can sneak those guys that you influence to freedom under the cloak of darkness with out your "leaders" even knowing that it is happening. They will sit up there in the Ivory Tower enjoying their great department. Leadership goes in all directions. A good leader will influence those below him , above him, and those beside him. (I use the masculine terms Deb because it gives it a better flow, no offense.) As you continue to give those around you the tools they need to make them successful, people will begin to take notice. Your circle of influence will increase. Just remember the more your circle increases the more important it becomes for you to ALWAYS be doing the right things. That is on and off duty. Salka and Lasky started out with only the ability to influence an Engine Company. Your management (I won't call them leaders) may be the last to notice the success of your mentoring program, but the guys that you mentor are what's important anyway. When you look out at the crowd at your retirement party it will not matter if your managers showed up to wish you well. You will be looking for the guys that you made a difference to and them being the best that they can be is thanks enough. This is a long way to say, the hell with management, mentor, lead, groom, develop,... make those around you better every day, you can call it whatever you like.
Will,
No offense taken in the use of gender specific pronouns. Throughout my military career and now my fire service career, brotherhood always included me!

I totally agree with your point, “Do not wait for your department to develop a mentoring program to start mentoring.” I am a firm believer in leading those placed under your charge as ones first priority, regardless of your department’s lack of interest in training you to lead.

I have found many officers and senior firefighters spend too much time “bitching” about issues they cannot change, all the time neglecting those who need their leadership the most. I try to instill in my guys to stop complaining and “fix” what they can at their level. I want them to focus on what is right in front of them, not what the other shift is doing wrong, or where the department is lacking. I want them to do the right thing, set the example, and walk the walk! I believe this is what our younger firefighters expect and deserve from its leaders.

I still believe we need formal leadership training throughout our careers, but I agree with you, make those around you better every day.

Debora
Todd
I also hit this same roadblock that you have mentioned. That can all change with you!
We had no formal traing for entry level Officers when I became an Lt a few years ago. I went up my chain in command looking for those answers. After hitting that road block I went outside the Department for training and stayed within our SOG's. I then asked to start a formal training program for upcoming officers. roadblocked again. So I then just started mentoring them in a way that it worked for our department. The results were great. We started having a company officers meeting to go over our events and info and we started meeting with our people interested in being promoted. We are training them in a way that it will help us on scene and also when we move up they will know what is expected of them in our role.
Remember a great leader does not have to know everything, the need to surround themselves with great people...

Todd Trudeau said:
Well said Will.

Debora, the problem in my department I see is the formal upper "leaders" come across as not wanting anyone below them knowing as much or more than themselves therefore they retain the "I'm the boss intellect"
I agree wholeheartedly in your comments and have been trying to start a mentoring program here but keep hitting the wall described above. Not sure how to get over that wall.
Todd

Will Vaigneur said:
Truth is there are very few leaders in the fire service. We have developed organizational structures that put people in positions of influence, but rearly are those guys leaders, they are managers. Managers more so than leaders model the behavior of those that came before them. You follow people for what they believe in (values), what they have accomplished, what they know, or what they can do for you (these are the weakest followers). Leadership skills can be taught to make leaders more effective, but leaders are leaders. Good leaders can make managers appear to be leaders. Leaders are the guys that decided what game you were going to play at recess in grade school, they decided where the group would hang out in high school and what the group was doing that weekend. I have heard numerous stories of war where young kids just out of high school step up in battle and make key decisions that yeild positive results when officers have been killed or have not made a decision. The kids were leaders before they got there, not born with it, but have learned as a young kid how to influence those around them to accomplish their goals. They were trained in strategy and tactics in boot camp, but it is a special skill to get other people to do, what you want them to do, because they want to do it. What we have to do is get better at recognizing these guys and groom them on their way up. They can be just as effective as a negative leader as they will as a positive leader, people just follow these guys. Everyone is not Officer material and everyone does not have what it takes to be a leader. Sorry.
Debora R. Lewis said:
Will,
“Do not wait for your department to develop a mentoring program to start mentoring.”


Debora

I've always found myself mentoring those that have what it takes to move up the line, it seems to me to be the natural progression from coaching them to be better a whatever level they are. At the same time, I went out and asked someone to be my mentor, because we don't have a mentoring program. I found one of the ex-chiefs who I admire and who had helped me in the past. I wondered what I would do if he said "no", but he was actually rather flattered, and, just as mentoring has stretched my capabilities, we both now get the benefits.
Leadership starts the first time you look up to a Fireman. It happened to me when I say a Fireman on a truck as a kid. I know where he was sitting is where I wanted to be in life. As I entered the Fire Service as a Junior FF/Explorer, the group leader took me under his wing and taught me what the "right things" to do were. As I have progressed thru this family, I have taken tips, ideas and skills to become a leader.
The part that came to brings it full circle is when you realize that "You" are now that guy that has to step up. Then all of a sudden its you that has to lead your people or company to the next level. For me it was the time to give back to what the Fire Service has given me. The skills I learned came from Officers or even other Firefighters. It may even be what not to do or don't be like the. But by taking all the bits and pieces from each of those people who influenced my development, I think it is what makes you that Leader..

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