Today, January 16, 2017, is the day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the powerful change that he helped bring about in this country. We often think of leaders as those in a position of authority, or holding a title or rank and possessing official power to enact their wishes or create change by issuing orders or writing policy. Dr. King had none of this. He had no official authority or power. Leadership has nothing to do with title, position or power, rather real leadership is about caring for and inspiring others to achieve greatness.
People in positions of authority, often have an idea of what they want to change about an organization, and how they want to go about creating that change. Even with the best of intentions, they many times go about this the wrong way. They create a “Ten point plan” or they issue policies, directives and procedures to tell the members of the organization what they need to do differently in order to create the change desired by the person in charge. While this plan may initiate good and necessary changes, often the people receiving all of these instructions wonder what this is all about, or where is this going? These physical changes in policy or procedures create the steps for the organization to take, but no one other than the person in charge knows where everyone is going with this.
Dr. King, the leader with no power or authority, stepped up to a microphone in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963 to speak. He could have taken this opportunity to tell the country exactly what they needed to do to work towards changing the culture of injustice at that time in history. However, he didn’t issue instructions or steps for everyone to take. He didn’t give an “I have a plan” speech, he gave an “I Have a Dream” speech.
He said, “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.”
He didn’t tell the country what they needed to do, he didn’t issue a plan, he simply painted a picture of where he wanted to go, where he wanted the country to end up, and what the destination for all of this looked like. He gave the country an inspiring vision. That inspiring vision allowed everyone to understand where the country needed to go, and what needed to be created. It got the nation on the same page, and helped everyone, from the government to individual citizens figure out how they could contribute to moving the country in the direction of this vision through their actions every day. It helped people to make everyday decisions as to whether or not what they were doing, or not doing today and tomorrow helping to achieve that vision.
It is the job of the leader to inspire others, and people, including firefighters, what to be a part of something inspiring, something bigger than themselves. Fire departments do many things every day and every year from responding to calls, inspecting, performing public education, interacting with the public, specifying and purchasing equipment and gear, developing and updating policies and operating procedures, budgeting, etc. While all these things in and of themselves are good, where is all of it going and is everyone moving in the same direction with everything they do? Is every company, station, battalion and shift in your department on the same page with where they are trying to take the organization? If not, where are you going to end up?
The vision developed by the leader should be a clear, inspiring picture of where we want to go, what we want to become or achieve. Create a picture of what the future will be like. It must be:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Inspire your organization. Paint a vivid and inspiring picture of where you want the organization to go, then get out of the way and let your people show you what they can do every day to get the organization there. You might just be surprised at what the power of that vision inspires them to do and achieve!
CHRIS LANGLOIS, is a Captain with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department and a 29-year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments. He has been with the Omaha Fire Department for the last 16 years, including over 5 years with the OFD Training Division. He currently serves as the captain of an engine company and is a Plans Team Manager with the Nebraska Task Force 1 US&R Team. He was the 2014 Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors- Instructor of the Year and was an FDIC instructor in 2013 and 2014. His national certifications include Firefighter II, Instructor II, Officer II, Driver/operator, Incident Safety Officer, and NREMT-paramedic. He holds an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in public fire administration, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership and is in the 4th year of pursuing his Executive Fire Officer certification.