Last post we discussed the process of orientation for leadership development, which was essentially relying upon operational manuals or standard operating procedures as the foundation for leadership. While these documents may be necessary for building the knowledge for rank and position (remember leadership is not a given with rank!), it is not a process for developing leaders of people. This process does more to build effective managers and not leaders who must motivate and cultivate people. Orientation leaves a void in the leadership paradigm but does provide the opportunity to introduce the process of socialization for our budding leaders. Socialization is the process of learning and developing a culture that is aimed toward the common defined purpose. The overriding theme in this process is that it is centered on people and not what is printed on department documents. Fortunately, we are given opportunities to demonstrate the skills learned from socialization daily in our profession. Examples span from the challenges and adversity faced on the fireground to the relative calmness of the firehouse kitchen table.
Let’s go back to our aspiring lieutenant who has now passed his examination and is freshly promoted. He reports for his first day in his new assignment at a firehouse at which he has never worked. His brand new shift gathers around the firehouse kitchen table to have their shift briefing at 0700 hours. All 15 sets of eyes turn to the new lieutenant for his first words of wisdom and leadership.
Is this critical moment for our leader outlined in the manuals? Before this moment, he was one of those 15 sets of eyes looking at the “Loo”; Now he is the boss and he must capitalize on this first opportunity to lead. As a fire service, we must be humble enough to ask ourselves if we have prepared our new lieutenant for this initial challenge. The answer is most likely we have not, and this is where our socialization process can assist.
When the new officer has been prepared for his new role through a mixture of the core principles of the orientation and socialization processes, he is ready for this challenge and greets it as an opportunity. At his first shift briefing, he seizes that moment when all fifteen sets of eyes of his new family are staring at him and offers, “What do you expect of me as your lieutenant?” This is the perfect demonstration of socialization.
The orientation process has taught him what the organization expects of him, but did not address what his new “culture” expects of him. Sure, he could rule with the iron fist and invoke adherence to each and every procedure of the department, but his shift already knows the rules. They may test him by pushing the rules every so often, but if that is consuming all of his time, he is not truly leading, he is just a custodian of the department rules.
His new culture is this group of dedicated firefighters who yearn to be led. They will offer a wide spectrum of skills, personalities, and idiosyncrasies that he must manage and guide to the common goal he sets forth. If the culture were highly functioning and successful prior his arrival he will be greeted with utter failure if he alters it solely because he thought he supposed to as an assumed part of a requirement of being a new officer. Now that we understand the difference between our orientation process and socialization process, how do we begin the implementation process? It’s not as hard you may think and only takes a few tools properly applied. To explain this process let’s use an example most firefighters who are parents can appreciate.
On a snowy day on the east coast in February, I was with my kids in a trampoline park watching them jump up and down and realizing this is the perfect example of leadership. You, the leader who has the knowledge, skills, and abilities coupled with the socialization skills to understand you lead people who have norms, values and expectations of you, are like this trampoline park.
This indoor park is covered with a massive roof that shields us from the 10-degree temperatures outside. As a leader, you provide this shelter for your people, offering that haven to them while they hone their leadership skills. For example, when you face a crisis - a house on fire with black smoke belching out of the front door, reported people trapped, and the heat keeping you inches off of the floor, do your people follow you without doubt or do they question their willingness to follow you? It is natural human chemical reaction of our brain that people want to feel safe and that is provided by having confidence in the person providing this feeling. As a leader, you should be demonstrating this long before this fire ever occurs. You’re investing in your people; teaching, training, and giving your time to them. This does not mean any person can simply seek haven under your leadership. Only those who are accountable to their actions, compliant to the established parameters (rules, order, S.O.P.’s), and aspire for greatness will have that shelter. If you don’t follow the rules of the trampoline park, you can’t come in and seek shelter and the same is true under your leadership. This is the essence of that shared relationship that must exist between the leader and his followers.
Going back to our leadership example of the trampoline house we can see the second part of leadership being demonstrated. Now that my kids have a feeling of safety and know the basics rules of the facility, they can now jump! Is this jumping 5’, 10’, 15’ in the air safe? Nope, but they are doing it anyway because they have faith in arena they are operating, faith in their skills and are striving for greater heights. They have been given the rules of the park and now are free to demonstrate their autonomy. The feeling of safety has led them to not operate under fear of failure but rather eager to seek an opportunity to achieve new heights.
We, as leaders, must create an environment where our people feel free to seek greater heights. They must know the boundaries of the job and then they must be fostered to strive for greater heights without fear of failure. Sure failure will come, in the trampoline park it is usually a misplaced fall or failed attempt at a flip, which culminates with a laugh, and an attempt to do it again successfully. In our world, we will surely fail but wouldn’t we want that to occur in the training and not on the fireground where lives are dependant upon our precise performance? Our people must feel a level of autonomy in completing the mission along with encouraging that constant craving to achieve mastery.
As you can see there is no mention of me soaring through the air with my kids, rather me just marveling at their prudent risk-taking. I don’t do it because my knee surgeon has convinced me that it is not a prudent idea so I leave my risk taking to other arenas. Is what they are doing ‘safe’? Is what we do in our job ‘safe’? Absolutely not, and the term safe is used too arbitrarily and without attention to it’s true meaning. The Webster dictionary defines safe as free from harm. There is not one aspect of charging into a house on fire that is the least bit “safe” regardless of the level of PPE, staffing, etc. you may have with you. As leaders, we should strive for teaching our people to learn and exercise prudent risk taking. When we literally interpret and falsely attempt to portray a safe fireground, it can appear more like risk aversion than being safe. If we are leading correctly, than we have already laid the groundwork and are teaching our people how to exercise prudent risk taking and not being handcuffed by misplaced terms. This begins with the leader knowing both the orientation process and the socialization process.
The weight on a leader is immense because he or she must be a daily learner in addition to being a dedicated teacher. If we are not learning every day, then we are not leading. Take a moment and analyze YOUR leadership style, not what your organization expects of you (orientation). What do you expect of yourself as the leader, and what do your people expect of you (socialization)? Leadership is not about the number of people you leave in your wake on your ascension up the ranks, but the number of people you have brought with you cutting through the waves.