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The Journey: The Little Things

In this series, we have touched on many of the major issues of developing leadership skills. To continue our discussion on the journey to leadership, I would like to take a moment to discuss some of the little things.

A leader in any organization is open to intense scrutiny. Everything you do is subject to examination. People will look at it through a microscope. Some things will look like they are being nit-picky, but they see it as an affront to their position. I was once called to task because I created a document many years ago of the company officer’s contact information. It listed the chiefs, then the captains, and then the lieutenants. Unfortunately, I had put a double space between the captain and the lieutenants. They saw it as insult and thought that someone looking at the document could assume that there was some separation of power and anyone referencing the document should not call a lieutenant. This was not intended and could not have been further from the truth, but that was the way some saw it.

In my defense, the document was produced on a typewriter without the benefit of computerized “print preview.” Even if I had noticed it, I may have let it go, because it would have taken an hour to correct. Back then, my typing skills were not what they are today; not that they are great now. Besides, who would complain about a double space?

The point is the devil truly is in the details. So, in this article, I am going to enlighten you on some of the bumps that I have hit in the road to that might knock you off into the ditches.

Prioritize – For every leader there will be challenges for their time, whether it is at work, church or home. My thanks to Chief Arthur Golden for clearing that up for me and setting me straight! Sorry just an inside joke. But when you are in charge, you have a list of duties and this is no time to tell “authority having jurisdiction” that the dog ate my homework or it isn’t done because I had to cut the grass.

You may have many commitments for your time at home, but you are still in charge and you have to get it done. Family is important and you have to work to live, not live to work, but you still have to respect the commitment you made to lead. When you swore the oath “to the best of your ability” it didn’t mean when you feel like it! You will need to have a balance. This is where the support of your family is important. I did say no great leader got there on his/her own. This is yet another example of the people who support you along the way.

Be a teacher – We have said that every leader has to plan for his replacement. This often means that the leader must be a teacher. When you are instructing your people, don’t read to them from the book or from Power-point slides. It will do nothing to express your knowledge of the subject or your experience. As a matter of fact, it will undermine any credibility you had and just become story time for you members.

Be patient – Not everyone came down the same road of life (I think I heard that somewhere). Not everyone will grasp concepts as quickly as others. Their skill sets may be different. Working with tools or tying knots may not be their forte. Give them time to learn. Getting visibly upset with them will only increase their anxiety and slow the learning process.

Know who they are – As a leader, you first need to know who your people are. Be able to recognize them and know their names (and how to pronounce them). People can be very offended when their name is mispronounced. This ties in with team building and saying thank you, but if you can’t get passed knowing who they are and what they do, how can you make them part of the team or recognize them for their effort?

If their names are going to be part of a printed document and you are going to be responsible for the content, proofread it yourself. This might sound like micromanaging, but if you are taking the heat for the mistakes, wouldn’t you rather see it beforehand. If you see it, you can correct it. If not, then you know what’s coming and you can take the high road and apologize for the mistakes instead of casting blame on others.

Be happy – I don’t know many firefighters who aren’t happy in the firehouse, but if you are one of those, put on the game face and look happy. No one wants to work with grumps, crabs or grouches. Those guys will have their retirement parties in a telephone booth. Do you want to be remembered as “grumpy old what’s his name?”

Leave your problems outside – When you step through the door of the firehouse, leave the problems on the apron. Your problems are your problems, not anyone else’s. This should not affect your leadership. Just because you are having a bad day, doesn’t mean everyone else has to.

Control the “Evil Twin” – You know the guy who looks like you, but doesn’t act like you. One day he doesn’t care about anything and the next he is strictly by the book. The guys won’t know who is showing up, Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. You can control him by being consistent.

Bend the rules when necessary – Rules were not meant to be broken, maybe just bent a little. (In extreme cases, they may be broken, because sometimes it is necessary to break them to get something done.) When you break the rules, it must be for a greater good. A good rule for rule breaking, if their can be such a thing, is know the rule you are breaking and the reason you are breaking it. We break rules sometimes for expediency. It is easier to beg for forgiveness afterward than ask permission. Breaking the rules will have a consequence. It may be easy to make light of begging for forgiveness, but the outcome of your action will figure heavily into the repercussions. When the rules are broken at a fire scene, most of the time the response is you will either get a medal or get called up on charges.

Keeping secrets – The fire service is no place for secrets. Knowledge is only valuable when it is shared. If you know something there is probably a good chance that someone else should know it too. You might not be around all the time. If you are the one withholding information that causes someone to get hurt or killed, how are you going to feel? Weak and ineffective leaders use knowledge as a weapon and see it as job security. They think if they share what they know, then they might not need me. If I am the only one who knows it, they can’t get rid of me. However, no one person is indispensable. The job you are doing was probably done by someone before you, and if not and it is important enough, it will be done by someone after you. How easy the transition depends on how much you have shared.

Rumor control – No one likes a gossip. If you are a leader, what you say carries with it built-in credibility. If you’re the man, your word is golden. Tell people what you know because communication is a key in successful organizations. Stick to what you can prove to be the truth. This can be difficult. There may be others giving you information with the intent to deceive you. Stick to what you know, or preface the comment with something that indicates you are not completely sure, “This is what I have been told.” It’s not a copout; it’s preserving your integrity!

Be prepared to leave – For most in the fire service, the job is a lifelong commitment. But there will come a day when you will not be able to continue doing the job you love. Injury or illness can change your plans. Downsizing, consolidation of departments, or budgets cuts can cause you to make tough decisions on what to do next. It sounds derogatory when someone says that guy was planning his retirement from the day he got on the job. For most of us, just getting the job is fulfillment of a lifelong dream that we don’t ever think about leaving.

However, the day will come for all of us when we have to hang up the coat for the last time. It will be an emotional time. What will you do with the free time, assuming of course you’re physically capable of using it? Stay as active as you can. I’ve been told when your time is up you will know it; I’ll have to let you know.

We will complete our series in next month when we talk further on the journeys end.

Until next time, Stay Safe.

  • See Chris Live! Lt. Christopher Flatley, will be presenting "Aggressive Interior Fire Attack: Critical Skills for the Engine Company Success and Safety" at Firehouse Expo, July 19 - 23, in Baltimore.

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: cflatley9711@msn.com.

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