The Black Helmet Perspective
“A must have consideration for volunteer leadership”
They’re situated in every firehouse across America. Men or women instilled into leadership positions who can’t carry the responsibility and duty in which a leadership position entails. For the volunteer service, the issue of leadership and promotions is one of incredible controversy and the disconnect that causes many to leave their department. We can quickly jump to the excuses and blame game for these issues, or we can honestly look at one of the main reasons why volunteer departments struggle. Plain and simple folks, it’s leadership. Leadership is the primary reason why volunteer departments at time can be so dysfunctional. A lack of vision, accountability, the ability to mentor and managing of people are some of the greatest challenges a leader will encounter.
The black helmet perspective can be one of the most powerful pieces of self-reflection in the fire service today. Why is this perspective one of the most essential pieces for continued professional growth? Simple, this helmet sees everything. It
doesn’t miss the leadership mistakes you’ve made, possible unethical choices you’ve engaged in, and it sees right through a lack of communication and vision. Those wearing black helmets bare the brunt of culture and climate ineffective leaders create.
Someday, with the right knowledge, experience base, and mentoring abilities, you too be wearing a different colored helmet. Be mindful that a change in helmet color shouldn’t trigger a change in your character color. You’ve probably personally seen, or encountered the downfalls of ineffective leadership. The same black helmet that shielded your body from injury, also helped retain poor examples of leadership from escaping your memory. The black helmet is a vault, a storage space of learned mistakes, success stories, and observed behavior.
Members donning the black helmet don’t forget the negative experiences they’ve had under an ineffective leadership realm. Nor do they forget the positive examples of mentoring and leadership leaders may have instilled upon them. As a leader, one must always consider this view. They must understand how the actions of a selected few impact the most valuable asset your department has, the ones wearing donning the black helmets.
Without modeling realistic leadership, establishing expectations, and demonstrating you can effectively manage personnel, you’ve already set the doomsday clock. Most volunteer departments don’t have an officer development program, or even promotional testing requirements. How can we honestly evolve and maintain an effective volunteer realm in this country if we are promoting the wrong people to leadership positions? To all the small town volunteer officers in this country, you must understand one thing, the “good ole boys” club is dead. Your expectations have increased tenfold. If you’re not going to lead by example, please, we beg you, step down. You are doing the fire service, your department, and your legacy, a tremendous disservice.
We couldn’t stress this issue enough in our recent leadership course. Very few members, especially new ones, can relate with what you did as an officer five, ten, or twenty years ago. Firefighters serving under you now, especially newer ones, only see what you are currently doing. So, if in fact your level of performance has diminished, so will your eventual credibility and potential respect with your crews. It’s either time to hit the reboot button or get out of the way. The longer you stay in a leadership position while maintaining a below than acceptable performance, the further you put your department behind.
You have to know how and when to ask for help, basically, a MAYDAY for your ego. If you’re not able to self-reflect on your own contributions from an outside perspective and be brutally honest with yourself, you are not meant for leadership role. When we stagnate, get complacent, or develop an attitude towards deviance, we pose a danger to everyone, that is obvious. However, may fail to see the long-term damage that can be done internally to an organization by the same factors mentioned above. Recalling your black helmet experiences in a leadership role can give you the immediate feedback you want. The challenge becomes, do you accept the reality of your own findings, even if it proves to be substandard? Self-reflection is messy. If we don’t rip the band-aid off from time to time and revisit where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we are going, forget about trying to lead from a position of influence when your ability to be honest with yourself is dead in the water.
All volunteer officers, especially department chiefs, need professional development. Exposure to fresh ideas, peer collaboration, and guidance on managing their department problems. Don’t be afraid to look outside the fire service when it comes to organizational growth, success, and sustainability. As a leader, you must always keep the black helmet perspective in mind and make it one our your top priorities. I’ll leave you with this final question, a question that I want you to openly reflect on. Would you, or would you not, be inspired to donn a black helmet under your own leadership realm?
Matt Beakas currently serves with Middleton Township Fire & Rescue in Northwest Ohio. He holds a Master’s Degree in Administrative Leadership and his primary mission is to bring mentoring and leadership skills from his education background to improve and strengthen volunteer departments across the country. He is the founder of “Enlightened Leadership.” A program of passionate instructors dedicated to improving leadership skills in volunteer departments. Check out his group on Facebook and Twitter.