We all know who they are. They dismount the engine, grab their tools, grab the nozzle, and stretch the line to perfection with the confidence we all strive for. The officers on scene take notice and all agree: “That person is going to be a great leader someday”. No disrespect to the seasoned officer onlookers, but someday?
Being a leader is generally something we all want. We all want to be that company officer everyone wants to work for, that battalion chief we love talking to, or that chief that everyone in the department respects. Becoming a great leader however, isn’t always something you have to promoted to become.
Like firefighters all across the country I had a career goal for where I may end up with regards to my rank. I was (and still am) fixated on becoming a shift captain. And also, like so many firefighters, I worked tirelessly towards that goal. I was under the immature assumption that if I went to class, got as much experience as I could, and chased down every certification out there, I would be promoted. As hard as I tried, I’m still waiting on that promotion. And I’m completely ok with that.
Am I the first firefighter to not be promoted? I’d like to think not. It’s all based on our perception. How do you answer the question: “Why do you want to be promoted?” If the best answer you come up with is “So I can lead people”, your likelihood of failing is great. I have learned over my short career that the ability to teach, motivate, and influence the lives of other people lies within a person, not on their collars. Being promoted will make you a leader yes, but how great of a leader you will be is determined by your ability to lead as a firefighter. The characteristics you assume now become who you are as a person and an officer.
Being that X-Box, Millennial, Generation Z, (or whatever I am this week), I understand leadership means different things to different generations. To me, and most of my generation, I view leaders as mentors, coaches, and decision makers, not always bosses. We view our officers as the people who make decisions on the fire ground and in the firehouse. But leaders, however, have the untaught method to get the most out of everyone, both in the firehouse and on fire scenes. A person who constantly reminds you that you can make a difference, drives you to stay focused, lets you know if you need to pick up the pace, tells you “your” place within the fire service and that your role is critical to the success of the department, that is a leader. My generation does question authority. We do ask why? We do ask “What’s in it for me?” This doesn’t mean we are rebellious and have no respect for authority. The surroundings we had growing up make us question things that other generations view as concrete. Not that we are being disrespectful, we simply just want to know why. If we cannot think of a different answer to the “why” question, we cannot move forward and learn new ways to approach problems. My generation does have pride in our business. We do take ownership seriously. Sure, there are some younger firefighters around that lack pride and don’t take ownership in their work, but not all of us. The younger generation does have a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to learn. Younger firefighters nowadays do want to succeed and become leaders, they just need direction.
To me, the title of leader doesn’t know a rank. The people and property we volunteer to protect have no idea what the color schemes on our helmets and shields mean, nor do they care. I have never once made a medical run and had the patient ask, “What’s your rank, age, and years of service?” There are firefighters who are leaders and those who aren’t. Some time ago I set out to develop a list of mentors to help me stay focused and guide me to where I wanted to be. After looking around, I found that most of the people, in the fire service, I strived to be like hold the rank of firefighter. A firefighter fits the leadership role whether they realize it or not for a number of reasons. First, a firefighter is usually very well versed in their skill-set. The firefighter is the person grabbing the tools and performing the task, allowing them to develop their own set of problem solving techniques. Second, a firefighter is usually the first person to make contact with the problem. Whether it’s on a medical call or stretching hose to the seat of the fire, the firefighter can sometimes be the first fire service representative to make a difference on scene. And lastly, the firefighter tends to be more approachable than any other members of a department. As the new age of fire recruits become more and more delicate, it’s easy to see why probies seek out firefighters instead of intimidating company officers. The ability to be a leader can and does come from all ranks. As firefighters we tend to sell ourselves short. We have the ability to make a difference, either on the fire scene or in our own firehouse. Whether it’s teaching our fellow firefighters or answering the call for help, we hold more cards than just being the person who puts water on fires. Take pride in being a firefighter!
Leadership training in the fire service is something that we all can benefit from. However, most training classes you see are geared towards the almighty officer. While officer leadership training is something that must always be taught within the fire service, why do we have to wait? Most of us have heard the quote, “A leader is only as good as their followers”. Normally leading a group of firefighters is a person (with the firefighter rank) that has the exact same traits as the best officer. These traits are sometimes learned and other times they are inherited.
Never let anyone tell you can’t make a difference from the back of that fire truck. Being a firefighter can be much more than putting water on the fire if you let it. Always strive for knowledge and never forget where you came from when the day comes and you get that well deserved promotion. Take pride in this business and always strive to lead from the back.