A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves ~Lao Tzu
Recently, a close friend and fire service brother posted an old picture of me on social media. I was a young assistant chief acting as the operations officer on a residential structure fire. When I saw the picture, I thought, “Where in the world did he come up with that picture?” I mean, we didn’t even have digital photography back then! I chuckled to myself and began to prepare for the comments that surely would follow. Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the fly, right?
Then something else came to mind. Somehow, after over two decades, I was still able to recall the fire and many of the details about that night. I was a young and inexperienced chief officer. I reflected on the night and what transpired…how much I learned. Everything went pretty well. Yes, there are always lessons to learn and things we can improve upon both personally and organizationally. But as I recalled the incident, what stood out most in my mind was how well the crews had performed – an aggressive attack was mounted at a difficult fire, things got done, no one got hurt, and it was because of their performance.
Then, they started…the comments I knew were bound to come. Except, they weren’t at all what I expected to see. Instead I read: “They were good times when you were assistant chief.” Thanks, I said, adding that my job was easy considering the level of talent I had the privilege to work with. Then another one…”we had great direction”...
So, what’s all this got to do with anything, almost 30 years later?
None of us in the fire service will ever reach our full potential alone. It’s easy sometimes to lose sight of this fact; but the reality is, whatever I have been able to achieve in the fire service has had a lot to do with the influence of my mentors, my peers, and the firefighters I have had the privilege to work alongside. They all mattered then, and they still do now. So, here I was telling these guys that it was their talent, skill, and dedication that made my job easy (especially considering my lack of experience at the time), yet they were essentially chalking up our successes to effective leadership.
In the fire service, there’s a circle of life. At the end of the day, we depend on each other, regardless of rank, to excel. As we strive increase our knowledge and skill and to develop our leadership traits (which have nothing to do with the color of your helmet), we improve ourselves and inspire others to do the same thing. This is how we really give back to the service—how we leave it better than we found it. We cannot concern ourselves with whether we are recognized for our actions. It’s unfortunate, but some of us may never even live to see how we have impacted those around us. Trust me though, you do. You set an example every day, whether you like it or not.
When I was that young assistant chief, I went through “trial by fire” on more than one occasion. Back then, I had no idea how much my actions and words were influencing my fire service brothers and sisters. Thankfully, those tests were passed in large part due to the skill and commitment demonstrated by those I had the privilege of working with at that time. I’m as grateful for them as I am for my mentors that guided me when I thought I knew better.
It’s the fire service circle of life. Don’t break the circle. Think about how your fire service journey has been positively impacted by someone around you. You’re doing the same thing for someone else. Your impact will be felt for years to come. Do the right things, and do the right things right – regardless of the color of your helmet, and you will leave the fire service better than you found it.
Dan Kerrigan is co-author of Firefighter Functional Fitness: The Essential Guide to Optimal Firefighter Performance and Longevity and Assistant Fire Marshal, East Whiteland Fire Department (PA). With over 29 years in the fire service, he is a passionate advocate for firefighter health and fitness and regularly researches, presents and is published on firefighter fitness, health & wellness.
Dan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College, Neumann University, and Immaculata University. He was the 2014 recipient of the IAFC-VCOS Emerging Leader Scholarship sponsored by Dr. Richard Gasaway.
Connect with Dan on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter (@dankerrigan911) and FirefighterFunctionalFitness.com