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Marketing can only be as good as the quality of what is being marketed. A fire department is a vital public service organization with the citizen at the center of its world. As we enter a period of challenge and scrutiny, we must examine our customers’ needs and determine whether our departments are structured to meet them. Only then can we create marketing plans that work.
Sounds simple, but it brings us to one of the most difficult challenges any organization faces: leadership’s ability to lead firefighters to organizational excellence and effectiveness for the safety of the firefighters and the community’s citizens and institutions. Leading firefighters means supporting them so they want to go to work every day and night, and so they know their leaders care about them so they can take care of every citizen they are sworn to protect.
Some of us are called to a profession or an avocation early in life. I truly believe it is a passion. If you look up the definition of “passion,” you will see the word “pain.” I believe this is because passion can take one to difficult places. It’s like when one of the most excellent fire officers I know, Greg Ahearn from Woodinville, WA, decided to take the battalion chief examination. He probably could have remained a great lieutenant his entire career. But he knew deep in his gut that if he did become a battalion chief, he could make the kind of contribution that his love of the fire service and his sense of personal excellence demanded. He passed that test and is now a great battalion chief.
I know this is true for those of us who love the fire service. When we are occupied in any actions relating to that profession, we are totally engaged in the task at hand, no matter how trivial, because we love every aspect of it. Every action a firefighter takes reflects on the entire fire service in the eyes of our citizens. We are called to a higher level of service – and expectation.
I have seen every kind of leader in many different organizations in government, private enterprise and non-profits. And with all of the books, seminars and everything else dedicated to this subject, it still comes down to a very few things. First, who am I? What do I stand for? How do I see the world and those around me? Specifically, how do I feel and think about the world of my community and my family? And how do I feel about the fire service? I am not referring to actions yet. I am talking about how I want to be. We are human “beings” first, not human “doings enough for me.” So knowing yourself well – who you are and what you stand for – is essential.
Then we come to how you are going to take that passion and apply it to what you love. Leading will always be a lonely job. You have to make tough, but fair decisions based on the needs of the firefighters and the community. This means understanding the processes that make the department “go” and being able to dip into the details when necessary if you don’t understand something.
Then comes the best part: knowing the capabilities and goals of each member of the department and knowing how to tap into the brain trust to bring the department (and the departments around it) to a higher level. Luckily, there is plenty of room for development in the fire service.
The good news is that there is a path to excellence, but it must be your department’s path, based on the peculiarities of your people. If it’s a consolidation, then the very cool, yet challenging thing will be to create a culture of the different departments. But it will always be the job of the leader to focus on the potential of each member of the department and what he or she can contribute.
The management consultant Peter Drucker said “the purpose of organizations is to enable common men to do uncommon things.” I would also say the leader’s goal is to make individual weaknesses irrelevant by leveraging all of the individual strengths. But I think what many people do not understand is that firefighters are not common people. They aspire to a higher calling as dictated by the profession.