This article is particularly difficult for me to write. Not because it is the end of a series of articles I have enjoyed writing and sharing with you, but difficult in that I don't see my role as a leader being over. I don't feel I have not reached the end of my journey. Thankfully, I still have advice to give. Maybe I have just moved into a new phase of leadership. This does lead to the question. Does your role as a leader ever end?
For volunteer chiefs your term may be over, but do you ever stop having input in your organization? There is always a delicate balance between butting into another chief's administration and providing advice. When it is your time to return to the "backstep" go gracefully. It is always better to be a "has been" than a "never was." Wait for your advice to be solicited. Maybe the new guy doesn't want your advice and feels it is up to him to clean up your mess. That is up to him, it's his office now.
In career organizations the day you walk out the door for the last time as a member is difficult. I have heard from many retired firefighter's who tell me, "Stay as long as you can - it is never the same once you retire." Most of the guys I have spoken to have one common theme: stay active, or as active as you can. As I am writing this I am reminded of a new study that showed some link between an active mind and body to the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. The research suggests that active people can delay the onset of symptoms of this terrible disease. I don't have any personal experience with the disease, but what a shame it would be to work your whole life, have a wonderful career full of memories only to forget them. It is difficult for some to adjust to the change, one day being a trusted and respected public servant and the next being "Joe Q. Citizen".
I met a retired friend of mine recently and I asked him how he was enjoying his retirement. He told me he has developed a new feeling, "If I don't do it today, I will do it tomorrow or the next day. Why? Because I can." He has become the greatest procrastinator. His retirement motto is, "don't do today what you can put off until tomorrow."
Retirement is an emotional time. But we will all have to hang up our helmet someday.
When are you going to be done as a leader? When have you reached the place when you say you have completed the journey? For many it is when you feel your advice is no longer accepted or treated as relevant. It may be when you decide to step back and see if the lessons you have taught have been learned. Time to pass the torch. When you actually stop giving advice is a personal decision. I continue to give advice to anyone who will listen. I feel that if tomorrow never comes I have done all I can to make the next generation better from my experience, whether they chose to listen or not. That is what I hope will be my legacy. I will never say, "I told you so," but I will be satisfied if at least "I did tell you."
Some guys have to hang up the helmet when they can no longer do the job physically. This can be especially difficult if the mind is strong, but the body is weak. Even some of the traditional "light duty" assignments in training require a level of physical ability. Now some of the instructor positions may also require train the trainer classes and certifications. Sending guys back to school after years have elapsed in their formal education can be prohibitive.
No one wants to be forced out of a job they love. For most of us firefighting is vocation not an occupation whether you are paid or not.
The difference between the fire service and other occupations is in the people you meet. I have had conversations with guys from other trades and other occupations. In other trades they make acquaintances. A group of guys may have met on a job site and worked together for weeks or months and become friendly. Maybe they stopped on the way home from work to socialize or maybe even hada family barbque, but they are not tight like firefighters. One thing that they all tell me is that firefighters build friendships. "You guys live together." The firehouse is a house and for some, a second home others and for most a place to meet our extended family.