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Unchaining Your Leadership

I often look for ways to explain to young fire service leaders the paths to follow that will take them to success and to eliminate some of the pitfalls and struggles they will face if they don’t start out correctly and constantly work to get better.

Moving into the first step of leadership is the most important and also the most difficult step to take. It is often where the new leader is defined for their entire career. The first promotion is so much more than a pinning ceremony and a photo op. I believe it is either the beginning of the beginning or the beginning of the end, and the young leader determines which.

Some say that effective leadership seems to come naturally to some, while for others, leadership seems a constant struggle. Experience tells me that those who led well and led naturally were principled, well grounded people who possessed confidence and who created confidence in their team. They were noticeable by their leadership presence and by the quality of people who followed them.

The people that we lead, many of whom are informal leaders, adapt and adjust to the leader, regardless of the leadership style and how firm or flexible the leader is. Consistency in leadership is the key to success. People don’t adjust to inconsistent leadership, they resist it.

The coffee table is for communications and team building. It is not supposed to be where people try to figure out who the leader is today or how to deal with the daily leadership mood swings. This inconsistency will keep people behind you, but they will not follow you. There is a big difference.

I am reminded of a story that I apply to the leadership issues of the day.

As youngsters, too young to drive, my neighbor and I decided to become famous demolition derby drivers. We knew that an annual event held at the Richmond Fairgrounds actually paid money to the winner of the derby and we were going to win it.

We were given a 1958 Chevy station wagon and my neighbor’s Dad took us to pick it up. This car was a sure winner since it was built like a tank. It had a six cylinder engine and the transmission was three on the tree. She wasn’t pretty at that moment, but we saw potential under the mold and the leaves.

We used a hand pump to put enough air in the dry rotted tires to make it home and secured the wagon to the Plymouth Fury tow car with a pipe and chain. I climbed in behind the huge steering wheel of the Chevy and we began our five mile trip home and to our racing destiny.

About half way there, after leaving the divided highway, we turned onto the country road that would take us home.  As we came down a steep hill, I heard the loud clicking sound of the chain unwrapping from the front bumper. The chain and pipe began swinging wildly from side to side on the narrow road and they made lots of noise and sparks. The old Chevy, with no brakes, started catching up fast to the back of the Plymouth. Somehow, I missed the Plymouth and made it into a gravel drive and eventually came to a stop. We reconnected the chain and made it home.

With a hot battery and a few cups of gasoline down the carburetor, the engine started and she would run fine as long as the RPMs were kept up. We liked the RPMs up idea. As our Fathers watched, we decided to take a test run. My neighbor was driving and I rode shotgun as we went down a narrow path through the woods. At the turn at the bottom of a slight slope, the car slipped a bit on the leaves and our demolition derby dream was ended by an oak tree that we hit dead center and we broke everything from the front bumper to the windshield, including the engine.

I would have thought the previous owner of the car would have at least washed her up and taken better care of her, before handing it over to me in such a poor condition. My partner should have put on better tires and repaired the brakes. I inherited these problems and someone else should have done more to resolve them before I got behind the wheel. Weak leaders master the blame game with no shame.

Only my superior driving skills, planning and quick thinking saved the team from certain disaster and I should have received more credit, including my name being painted over the driver’s door. The race team was lucky to have me. Poor leaders love the mirror and do not understand the team, how it works or anything about oak trees.

Sometimes fire departments seem to end up like my demolition derby dream. Leadership neglects the strength of the people chain and they wonder why they find themselves constantly trying to steer an out of control run away.

Instead of building a race team and fueling it with direction and pride, they pour blame into the engine and expect it to run smoothly. They never grab on to the steering wheel and drive because they believe that the old car has too many issues, too much rust and will never again be a winner.

They are back seat drivers but most certainly not leaders. They write too many rules of the road and they believe that everyone has forgotten that they were leadership nightmares, a break in the chain and a clanking pipe, making lots of noise but never doing the pulling or contributing to the team or the deep seated desire of the team to belong to a winner.

These fakes want their name on the door of the car and their picture on the next race ticket and their RPMs go up each time that they see a TV camera or a travel agent. The mechanics, tire changers and the man pulling the load become unimportant and their investment to the team irrelevant.  Leadership is more than showing up on race day and complaining about the team.

If you want to drive the car, drive it. Have principles and values and they will define your results and the results of the group that you lead. Put together a team of people who have desire. If they have no desire for service, either get them off of your train or make them at least find another stop.

Great leaders realize the importance of networking and building positive relationships with other teams. They give credit to teams who win and they observe and try to emulate the winning effort. This applies in routine leadership matters and when observing the successful emergency operations of neighboring teams, who seem to always do what I like to call pretty work. Learning leaders last and they also ask for guidance and direction and they are willing to accept it, even when it requires them to take a dirt road or to make a YOU turn.

Is the chain holding you on or holding you back?

Enough with the horn already, grab another gear and let’s race.

Who keeps your tires up and services your brakes?

Coffee table critique everything.

Are your leadership principles sound and worth standing for, or steering you to rust?

Is it the chrome, or the next initiative, what’s important and what are you really good at?

Pipe dreams are just dreams, it’s all about the chain and connections.

Slick leaves and oak trees. Focus on the road.

What fuels your team?

Be a hot battery and fire it up.

Hey Crash, your name is on the door, but can you drive?

We can win this one.

Thanks for reading, caring and sharing.

Have a great day – it’s a GREAT day for it.

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