This is the beginning of a series on fire service leadership traits. I'll be borrowing heavily from the Marine Corps Leadership Traits and Principles, because they have direct application to our mission and purpose. I have never been in the military, but I was enrolled in Marine Corps Junior ROTC in high school. On my transcripts, the official name of the class was listed as Leadership Education. It was in MCJROTC that I first encountered the 14 Leadership Traits and 11 Leadership Principles that the USMC uses to instill a strong foundation in its Marines. Likewise, we can use these lists as a guide for how we in the fire service should be living and leading.
It's hard to pick a starting point for a series on leadership when there are 25 different traits and principles from which to choose. They are all important, but I chose unselfishness for this first article because I believe it to be THE most important trait that any fireman should have. If one has attained unselfishness, it is impossible not to have many or most of the other traits on the list. When it comes down to it, unselfishness is the basis for everything we do. It is the cornerstone of our foundation. We exist for others.
The fire service is not a profession for superstars. There are no Lebrons or A-Rods or Gretzkys in this business. Don't get me wrong; we have no shortage of standout performers. But think about for what we know the “star” firemen: their work for others. Firemen don't get recognized for how quickly they put out fires. They don't get awards for the sheer number of grabs they've made. They're known for how hard they work for others. They receive awards for risking their own lives for others. They're memorialized and immortalized for the work they've done to improve the level of training and proficiency of other firemen. I've got no idea how many fires Andy Fredericks put out before his life was cut short on September 11, 2001. What I know is the impact he has had on me and countless other firemen who have read his thoughts and wisdom. He and many other fire service leaders have tirelessly shared, unselfishly, the knowledge gained through research and experience.
Unselfishness to the Marine Corps means putting the team before yourself. Much like each individual fireman should put the citizen before himself, every fire service leader should put the team before himself. We already know that if a brother goes down in a fire, there will be no shortage of men fighting to get him out. But off the fire scene, are you putting your crew before your own personal wants and needs? Are you, as a driver, lieutenant, captain, or chief making decisions based on your own desires? While certainly many decisions are not up for debate or democracy, do you regularly put aside and sacrifice your own wishes for the betterment of the crew? I won't get into specifics, because it doesn't take Buddhist monk-level introspection to know if you are an unselfish leader.
One way to fix this problem is to lead from the front when the going is rough and lead from behind when there's glory. That means that a unit officer should be leading his crew into battle on the fireground, from the same position of danger they face, instead of hanging back and pushing his men ahead. This does not in any way mean that an officer needs to engage in task level work on a fireground. It simply means that the supervision and leadership should happen in the same place in which the rest of the crew is working. The opposite of this should happen when a unit receives recognition or praise; the officer should be pushing his men ahead and into the spotlight while he drops back. There is no small amount of humility that one must possess for this to happen. But because the team comes before self, it brings an unselfish officer joy to see his crew thrive, perform well, and be recognized for it. That unit cohesion and performance should be the reward that an officer seeks instead of his own notoriety.
So if you read these words and they sting a little, try to pay better attention to your men. Their personal and professional lives and well-being are important to the smooth operation of any crew, on and off the fireground. I myself am guilty of selfishness at times. It is human nature, and it is extremely hard to overcome. Humans throughout history have survived by looking out for “number one.” As a leader, however, your own survival and success, professional and operational, depend less upon yourself and more upon those around you. As such, the “number one” for whom you look out must be the citizens you serve, and then number two is your team. You have to be willing to bump yourself down the list to number three or lower. Only when unselfishness is attained will your men respect and trust you to lead them. When they know that they come before you in your mind and heart, they will be an unstoppable force willing to follow you anywhere and do anything.