Leadership is an art form that requires equal amounts of creativity, empathy, boldness, timing and moxie. Certainly there are vast amounts of science and psychology available to the practitioner of leadership, but in the end, the glue that holds it all together, and even allows it to soar, is formed through the trial-and-error (yes, you will make mistakes along the way) process of getting out in front and leading others. Many say that leadership is not for the timid and shy, but we disagree. Every great leader in history had to start somewhere – be it young, old, tall, short, timid, shy or bold. A great example of this is in the recent movie that illustrates the life of King George the VI and his personal struggle to overcome a speech impediment and lead his country to defeat Hitler. So, what is it that leaders seem to possess and how did they become leaders? Those answers follow with our concepts that outline the art of leadership and deal with empowerment, development and employment.
We believe that every firefighter, regardless of rank, time on the job or type of fire department, can become a leader. There, you heard it stated here; you have our permission to be a leader! Much of this empowerment is simply a state of mind. There is no reason why each and every person reading this cannot become a fire service leader in whatever you do at your own fire department. It starts with you here and now!
If you recall the working definition of leadership for this series from last month’s column; leadership focuses on a leader, who through transactional, relational and collaborative processes, influences (and is influenced by) others positively toward common, accepted and ethical goals. Your commitment to become a leader, then, starts with being a positive influence on others. This means showing others the way through action and attitude. Albert Schweitzer once said that “example is leadership” and your own positive, influential example is powerful! So, seize the day, step up to the plate and take on the challenge of the mantle of leadership.
Now at this point you may be saying to yourself – “Hey guys, that’s great stuff if you work for the Utopia Fire Department, but at my department they tell me that they’re paying for me from the neck down and that they’d prefer me to keep my thoughts to myself.” We hear you, but keep in mind that the traits of leadership come from inside – it doesn’t matter how bad things are around you, it’s the attitude and actions that you display that make you a leader.
We believe that leaders are made, not born. Through personal experience, we know this to be true and as time passes we can see that there is always more to learn on the wide and deep subject of leadership. We both recently graduated from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program and can attest that the well for leadership is indeed full and ready for all to draw from it. In that four-year program, we had four 2-week long courses each year on a wide array of topics geared for fire service leaders. Each course also required an extensive research paper on a topic that needed to be addressed within our own fire departments. Through the entire experience, we were armed with numerous great leadership concepts, theories and applications that we were encouraged to put into practice back home. Did this program send us home as great leaders? The answer is no, but it did put us on the path – and we encourage all to join in with us. The point here is that one is never too old to learn and develop.
One question we asked in our first survey was whether leaders were born or made. The results from 85 responses were that 76.5% stated that leaders were made and the remaining 23.5% stated that leaders were born. While these results are not too surprising, this question would have most likely had different results a century ago. Back then, the prevailing thought on leaders were that they were born with certain traits that sealed their fate as future leaders. This was known as the “Trait Theory” and the “Great Man Theory,” but this began to change with the advent of leadership studies in the 1940s after World War II.