A mentor is defined as a trusted counselor or guide, someone who may be an influential sponsor or supporter. A coach is one who instructs or trains. These are terms that are used everywhere in our culture of leadership and personal development books, podcasts, and lecture series. A mentor is viewed as that old sage who takes us under their wing to give us little snippets of wisdom and tweetable quotes. The personal coaching industry has a large market share in business circles and seems to make you feel that you’re a failure if you don’t have one. Or more!
There is certainly a time and a place for all of us to be mentored or coached. Just as importantly, it should be a goal of each of us to become a mentor or coach for those who are a few steps behind us in the journey of life.
Sometimes, though, our firefighters really just need a parent. A parent can be described as one who nurtures, raises up, or cares for a child. Being the biological birth individual is not a requirement to parent someone. The connotation is that of taking someone who is new at something like life or the fire service and giving them the tools needed to survive.
An officer first and foremost must protect his or her young firefighters. We do this by teaching them the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to achieve our mission’s goals. But we also do this by getting them set up with the proper job-related insurance policies, compensation packages if applicable, and making sure they have the required certifications in order to function. We look for ways to protect them on the job physically and emotionally. It is our responsibility to guard them against the many dangers they may not even know exist.
Every parent has experience with children who experience temper tantrums, our personnel is no different. They will at times get upset with the amount they must learn, how little they get to go on the “good runs”, or that their lack of seniority gives them very few good vacation picks. They will have meltdowns when they are belittled by their bigger brothers and sisters, and they often gripe and complain about the old guys on the department who seem to be holding them back from achieving deserved stardom. As officers, we must hear their concerns and complaints while maintaining the discipline that is necessary to effectively serve the public. Allowing these temper tantrums to get out of control will undoubtedly lead to bigger issues in their careers.
Good officers don’t belittle or chastise their young firefighters when they make mistakes. They should not expect perfect hose deployments, ladder carries, or medical assessments. Instead, they use these failures as opportunities to teach lasting values such as honesty to admit mistakes, motivation to improve a skill, and compassion as they treat their clients who are suffering. The officer takes them aside, shows them where the mistake occurred, and helps them overcome their challenges.
These are the same things that parents should be teaching their children. Yet too many parents/officers fall into another defeating category, that of being a helicopter parent/officer. We have all dealt with the parents who think their child can do no wrong, who do everything for them or fail to teach them to think on their own. When the officer always bails his crew member out of trouble or continually assists them with every assignment they set that member up for failure to thrive in the future.
Every family unit has rules that exist so that the family can live in harmony as a close-knit unit. There is a natural order of authority that needs to be followed; when the children run the parents there is generally chaos and dysfunction. Likewise in the station, the officer is by position the authority (whether or not he or she is deserving of it is a topic for another blog post!) Give crew members enough time and they will find ways to test the boundaries of the officer or push back against the established rules.
They need to be led in such a manner that there are consequences for inappropriate actions and rewards for positively contributing to the overall good of the unit. Firefighters are not inherently bad or looking to create problems typically, it’s just that they don’t always see the big picture or the ramifications of their actions as the officer does. Many times the officer must be the adult in the room and stop the pranks, dictate the course of action, and maintain the peace so that all can flourish.
Mentors and coaches typically come along later in a person’s life whereas the parent is there from the beginning. A parent is the first one that the child looks to for safety and to satisfy the basic needs in life. So, too, is the officer. He or she needs to be a source of information, protection, and guidance for a firefighter. They need to be willing to get down in the dirt and spend hours going over increasingly challenging skills with their firefighter and teaching them how to become a seasoned veteran.
The biggest satisfaction a parent can have is to see their child grow up healthy, confident, capable, and productive. They do everything they can to see that their child has the proper training to someday be good parents themselves. The officer of a crew should not be viewing his members as subordinates but rather as future officers (parents) of their own crews (children). The members that you parent today will someday be the ones that are parenting others. In our world, we can not afford to hurt future firefighters by failing the firefighters under our command today.
If your parents were not that great, I’m sorry. If your officers have been poor examples to you I can sympathize. Do not let their examples keep you from becoming the good officer/parent that your crews/children need. Learn, apply, grow. You will make mistakes. Own up to them and move on. No parent or officer is perfect. Do your best to change the cycle of bad officers in your department.
If you would like to discuss parenting, being an officer, or you just simply need to vent, I’m willing to listen. You may reach out to me by email here.