Let me begin by saying there are two sure fire ways to fail as a leader in the fire service. One is to DO without ever thinking and the other is to THINK without ever doing.
You and I both know people who habitually take action before developing a sound game plan. They are what I call “Ready/Fire” people. They don’t take the time to aim at the target they just shoot like a chimpanzee holding a loaded assault rifle. They DO without ever thinking. The end result is always much less desirable than everyone had hoped for and usually calls for the response of a clean-up crew.
“Ready/Fire” people are reckless, but at least they take action. Another type of person you and I both know is the one who seems to never make a decision – ever. I call them the “Ready/Aim-Aim…” people. These are the people who THINK without ever doing. Preparation is great. It allows a person or team to work on a game plan while mapping out how they will navigate their way around all the potential challenges they may encounter along the way. I firmly believe in preparation. Abraham Lincoln once said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." Take note that Lincoln made it clear that he planned on taking action with the remaining two hours.
Ready/Aim-Aim people always fail in leadership positions because leadership is about action, not position. The first question that I ask when I try to help RAA’a overcome their reluctance to act is, “What do you think prevents you from pulling the trigger?” The answer to this question often varies from uncertainly, to incompetence, to fear. Some people are afraid to fail. In our industry this is extremely dangerous because these people tend to train less than others because they don’t want to fail anywhere – even on the training ground. If you fall into this category, I’d like to encourage you to get on the training ground and fail as much as you can. Make mistakes so you can learn what can go wrong and determine how to overcome challenges. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of your team members and put people in positions where they can utilize their talent, skills and ability. If you approach this correctly and learn from your mistakes, failure on the training ground leads to success on the fire ground.
There is another very real reason why many RAA’s fail to take action. More than 70% of Americans say that at one point or another in their career they have worked for a micromanager. I knew a Captain who was incredibly frustrated with the way his Deputy Chief treated him, and rightfully so. The Captain was publicly criticized on a regular basis. If he and his crew did everything right with the exception of a slight and insignificant mishap along the way, all they heard about was the mishap (which of course was greatly exaggerated by the Deputy). One day, the Captain snapped and out of pure frustration and yelled, “I’m sick of this. I can score a 99 and you will still fail me!” The Deputy replied with, “What do you mean by that?” Honestly, if the Deputy didn’t understand that response he was more than a micromanager. He was also delusional.
Trust and Respect are cornerstones of leadership. Without them you are not a team. You are just a bunch of individuals forced to have to work together. One of the best ways for a leader to gain peoples trust is by identifying a problem, coming up with a game plan using input from all team members, and executing it. In other words: think, plan, and pull the trigger – “Ready/Aim/Fire!”
Step Up and Lead!
One additional thought. In the second paragraph where I was discussing Ready/Fire people, I wrote, ‘the end result is always much less desirable than everyone had hoped for.’ I wanted to share a quick thought about hope. If you have ever seen the Shawshank Redemption, you probably remember when Red said to Andy, “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Although it was an appropriate response given the setting of that movie scene, I don’t agree with that statement. Hope has been the very thing that has helped many of society’s greatest success stories hang in there when they felt like quitting. Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Yes, I do believe in hope, but hope is not a strategy.