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.
The friendships are built from the shared experience. In spite of our differences we all fight fires the same way. It doesn't take a catastrophic event like working together in the dust of the World Trade Center or the flood waters of the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. It is the contacts you make while attending a class or a conference and that experience is what makes us close.
In the past, firefighters would exchange the salutation, "see ya at the big one." Meaning if it was bad we would all be there, together. On Sept. 11 we were all together. I don't hear anyone using that phrase anymore, as one of the brothers put it. "We had the big one and won't be seeing a lot of friends for awhile." Now it seems we end our conversations with "stay safe." Which carries a whole lot more meaning and is said with more feeling and emotion because we want to see each other again, soon.
I have shared many stories in this series and tried my best to explain the traits of good leaders from my experience.
For many fire service leaders knowing whether or not you have made a difference is difficult to measure. The job was there before you joined, and will be there long after you are gone. The hope is that you have made an impression.
I have received many breaks along the way. I know I didn't do it alone. I like to think those breaks came from being recognized for my hard work. I have also had some difficult moments. No sour grapes, it was all part of the journey. Do I wish it were easier? Of course, I would be lying if I said anything else. If it is worth doing it is not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. The harder it is to achieve the more you will appreciate it because you have worked hard for it and earned it.
I would like to end with one more special thank you, to Jerry Knapp. A longtime friend and mentor and without whose advice I would have never put pen to paper. He told me many years ago, "Toph, (my nickname) don't rant, write! If you feel that way someone else has to.". With a head full of ideas and his positive encouragement I started writing. Armed with the editors' names of a few magazines I fired off some of my ranting, uh writing. The rest as they say is history.
I hope that in some little way I have made you better for my service. I hope that this "schmuk from the truck" has inspired you. If I could do it so can you. I am proud of my journey. I hope you can be proud of yours and it is my hope that you will have something exceptional to show for it.
CHRISTOPHER FLATLEY, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a 20-year veteran of the FDNY and a lieutenant currently assigned to Ladder Company 21 in Manhattan. Chris has twice served as chief of the Blauvelt, NY, Volunteer Fire Company and is currently the assistant chief and training coordinator. He is a nationally certified Fire Instructor 1 and is an instructor at the Rockland County, NY, Fire Training Center and holds a degree in fire protection technology. He is a Master Exercise Practitioner on the Exercise Design Team through the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. View all of Chris' articles here. You can reach Chris by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.