THE DUTY TO LEAD - PART ONE
The duty of being an effective leader in today’s fire department is not an easy one. Notice that I referred to it as a duty, and not a task. When you accept your position as a company officer, you inherently assume the duty of leading the men and women under your command in a variety of environments. If this is news to you, than I hope it is a duty which you are willing to embrace. If it is something that you are already aware of, than I applaud your initiative and willingness to manage the additional responsibilities that this position requires.
I am a young company officer, and I have a lot to learn. While this statement certainly describes the author, it is a reasonable assumption that many of the people reading this article fit into the same demographic. One of the biggest “gripes” that we hear in the fire department these days is “the young kids are becoming officers, they are going to less fires than we did, they’re not ready to lead an organization, and the fire department is clearly headed for failure”. I’m willing to bet that there is not a company officer under the age of 35 who has not heard some variety of this statement. Although the nationwide decline of fire duty is a proven statistic, the fact of the matter is that less frequent fires do not unequivocally result in poor leadership. In fact, the only element of a fire department that consistently results in poor leadership is poor leaders.
I will preface this post by again stating that I am a young company officer and I have a lot to learn. That being said, I have learned a few useful pieces of information, typically derived from mistakes that I have personally made, that have helped me begin to fill the leadership shoes that were set out for me when I accepted a position as a company officer. I will cover each of the lessons that I have learned in a different post over the next few weeks. Let's start with the first one.
DON’T TRY TO BE SOMETHING YOU’RE NOT
Don’t ever forget that the fire department is filled with highly intelligent and analytical individuals. If you are currently a firefighter and think that accepting a promotion to a leadership position will change the type of firefighter you are, then you are sadly mistaken. Most of us who have been in this job for a few years have experienced the lazy/complacent/unmotivated firefighter who receives a promotion and slides into the chair at the head of the table, ready to swing for the fences! I am not saying that people cannot change their ways, but true change will be driven by an innate desire to be better at our chosen craft, not some type of epiphany that is received when you trade in your black helmet for a white one. And unfortunately, the falsely motivated officer who is looking for a “fresh start” will quickly find that in the real world, such an opportunity typically does not exist.
Firefighters should be promoted because they have something to offer their organization. In other words, new officers should not be expected to act like a different person due to their rank. Realistically, they will be the same person that they have always been, with the same values, work ethic, and skill level. The only difference is that they will now have the authority and responsibility to impart their values, work ethic, and skills to a company of firefighters whose lives depend on it.
For firefighters, this means that the time to develop proficiency in your job is now. You cannot wait until you are placed into a leadership position to learn skills that you will be expected to teach to a company. In today’s environment of less fires and more collateral duties, it takes even longer to achieve mastery of basic psychomotor fireground skills. If you do not have these skills down to a science, it’s time to start.
For officers, this means that a sincere self-evaluation is necessary. Are you where you need to be on the basics? If not, you need to work twice as hard as your crew to ensure that you can perform all of the skills that you expect them to perform. Have you consistently encouraged your crew to take part in productive company training? Do YOU partake in productive company training? Do you encourage your crew to maintain a high level of physical fitness? What is YOUR level of physical fitness? Remember, in order to be the leader of a company that performs at a high level, puts out difficult fires, and rescues civilians, you must personify the values, work ethic, and skills that make it possible.
What are your thoughts? The next post will delve farther into the importance of task competency as it relates to leadership, and the unfortunate effects that a lack of competency will cause, both in the firehouse and on the fireground.