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The Golden Rules for a Small Unit Leader

When I was in the military I use to hear two principles reinforced over and over again. I first started hearing these principles after my first promotion. I can remember many chiefs and officers walking up to me and congratulating me. They would offer their congratulations and then they would say two things to me. I will continue to hear these over the next few years that I spent at that command. I heard them again at my next promotion, I heard them after getting advice, and I heard them when I would share my frustrations with my supervisors looking for guidance. These two principles I have lived by as a company officer in my own department. I will be forever grateful to the military leaders I had that were tough on me, mentored me, and passed on what it meant to be in a position of leadership. 

The two principles I speak of are quite simple:

1. Look out for your people.

2. Remember where you came from.

Allow me to elaborate on each one. When I say look out for your people that comes in many forms. First and foremost, you need to look out for their professional development. Train them! Push them and inspire them to want to be great firefighters. This can only be done if you took the time to develop yourself first before you stepped into your role. I heard a sad story the other day about a company officer who told one of their firefighters “I don’t need to know how to do that, I am the captain. You are the one who needs to know it.” How ridiculous is that? Above all else you need to lead by example. You want to be a credible leader, and they need you to be one as well. Looking out for your people also means holding them accountable. I make it clear to my crew that I will back them up 100 percent if they are right, but I will hold them 100 percent accountable if they are wrong. Sadly, looking out for your people is transformed into covering for them. This is not leadership and it will only hurt them in the end. So, look out for your people. Build strong relationships and genuinely care about them. Know when to offer tough love, know when to be firm, and know at times its ok to be a human being and be someone’s friend or buddy. This doesn’t have to go away when you become the boss, just know how to temper it when and if needed.

Remembering where you came from is another extremely important principle. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard firefighters say “They have forgotten where they came from that’s for sure.” In fact throughout my time in the military an in the fire department so far this may be the number one gripe I see that people have with their leadership. Remembering where you came from, to me, comes down to empathy. You have to be able to place yourself in someones isles shoes, and remember what is was like when you wore shoes of the same kind. I will give you a specific example. In my organization when you get promoted you no longer ride an ambulance. We are a combined Fire and EMS department that provides our own transport. Occasionally I put myself in the medic rotation to help the guys out. Why? Well for one thing it helps keep my nose in the protocols and allows me to practice perishable skills, and the other is I get a better understanding of what they may be working with or against. Lets say one of my guys comes to me with a EMS reporting issue. They may have a legitimate gripe that often times gets morphed into someone just complaining. If I put myself in a position to have my hands in that program on an ambulance I can better understand their frustration. Might it just be complaining? Sure, but there could be a real issue as well. Really what remembering where you came from comes down to empathy. Remembering how you felt when you were brought into an office to be disciplined. How you felt when a performance evaluation was delivered in a poor manner. Remembering what you wanted to see from an officer when you were a firefighter. It truly boils down to empathy. I am not talking about the empathy where you own someones emotions as your own, coddle someone and then make irrational decisions. I am talking about the kind where you empathize with the situation, pay attention to facts and make decisions based off of logic. 

Not everyone reading this may have had the luxury of working for a great officer or supervisors as you moved through the ranks. Not everyone has access to officer development programs in their organizations. Maybe you were the only one that invested in your professional development while your co-workers sat in the recliner. I am confident that in the absence of many other things, if you lead by these two principles you are more than halfway there when it comes to being a good officer and a great leader. So in all that you do, look out for your people and remember where you came from.

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