This article continues our discussion on the journey to fire service leadership. As I said in the first article, it is the journey to leadership that builds our character. Our character is shaped along the way by all the twists and turns on the path of life. It is our character that we will rely on when we reach our destination. In this installment we will be discussing trust.
For the fire service officer to be effective he or she must be trusted by their subordinates. People will not follow your orders if they don't trust your judgment. That goes for administrative and emergency situations as well as personal and professional matters.
For volunteers, where the path to promotion is generally through election, building trust probably started the day you joined. Did the members trust you enough to allow you into the company? When you were in, did you listen to orders? Did you follow directions? Did you learn your job? Now that it is your turn to give the orders, do you know what to say and how to say it?
Election can be an affirmation of the members trust in your ability. Now you must prove that their confidence has not been misplaced. Can you do the job they elected you to do?
For career officers, a promotion comes from scoring a passing grade on a civil service test. Promotion often means transfer to a new station, a new area of town, and a new set of people. This may allow a new "boss" to exercise his or her new rank without the people "who knew you when." But it also means building trust all over again.
There is, however, a built in level of trust in that you had to be smart enough to pass the test. Admittedly, I wonder how some guys did!
Trust often begins with some small administrative matter. Even if the request sounds trivial you must treat it with great importance. Remember the issue or request was important enough for the individual to bring it to you. Treat it with the same importance they feel for it. If you give the impression through word, action or body language that you are somehow bothered by the request, it is likely that you will be "shut out" by this person and never gain their trust. As you build trust, expectations from the members will become greater.
How you handle a person's personal needs will determine whether or not you can be trusted. Things told to you in confidence must never become public knowledge.
Issues that affect a person's job performance, for example, must be dealt with privately. The old adage is true, praise in public, punish in private. A discussion of poor performance is a private matter. It does not have to be a punishment. Merely suggesting a member review their forcible entry skills if they had trouble forcing a door may seem like a simple thing, but if it is mentioned in front of the group and it effects their status among the group it could be devastating to them. Praising his or her work when they forced a door quickly with out excessive damage or asking them to instruct the other members on the technique will elevate their status among the group. It will also elevate them within his or her own mind because you have recognized their work and they have been rewarded for it.
Asking another member if "everything is OK at home," if you have noticed they seem distracted around the firehouse, shows a level of concern. If you have noticed a change in behavior it is no one else's business. You will build trust by showing genuine care and concern for your members well being.
The level of trust a member requires from you on personal issues may be two or three times more than required for routine matters. Depending on the level of privacy they feel for the issue.
On the fireground you will build trust by being competent. In firefighting, trust is proportional to the risk and exponential to the hazard. Let me explain, because it sounds like a friction loss calculation. In the fire service we calculate "risk versus reward" in our minds.