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The Journey: Leader's Listen

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch would ask people at meetings and speaking events "How'm I doing?" You can bet that a crowd of New Yorkers would not be shy in their responses. They would let him know exactly what they thought, even if it wasn't what he wanted to hear. By asking the question and then listening to the response, it gave people the feeling that their voice could be heard. This honest criticism of his performance must have worked -- he served three terms as mayor.

Could you walk into your firehouse and ask the same question? Do you really want your people to tell you how they think you are doing? If you are the type to shoot the messenger, they may tell you what you want to hear. If you are the type of king that wants to know if he has no clothes, you may get an honest response. I bring this up because those who surround themselves with "yes men" are not getting a true picture of their performance. I have always felt that I can't fix it if I don't know it's broke. That goes both for the organization and myself personally.

If you want honest feed back then you must be ready, willing and able to accept it. This also means acting on it. This does not create an opportunity to cast blame on others or make excuses. You asked, we told you, now fix it! If you are an officer you can make changes in your organization. The higher you are in rank, the greater your ability to effect changes if you are ready to listen. There is nothing worse than watching a once great department go down hill just because the leadership lost the ability to take a critical look at itself. If not treated early, a small sore can feaster and become a cancer, spreading through the organization and eventually leading to its death.

Listening to the feedback from others may allow you to do your own personal "reality check." Get your own personal "how'm I doing." Don't bury your head in the sand. If you ask for advise and respect the person who is giving it, they are telling you for your own good. This could be done in private with one of your trusted advisors until you get comfortable accepting criticism, if any of us ever do. Don't assume that no one is complaining just because you don't hear the complaints.

Listen closely to what you say and how you say it. The tone and volume of the messages carry as much impact as the words. Did your reply to a question sound condescending or sarcastic? If you were screaming when you said it, then all the energy was probably wasted because you were just "tuned out."

Developing interpersonal skills is a key to leadership. But, at its most basic is the rule "to treat others the way you would like to be treated."

Everyone sees things differently. But every organization has the person who is like the barometer for the company. They can tell when the storms are building and they can forecast clear weather and smooth sailing. Most of the time, he is not the guy who screams the loudest. They are usually the ones pushing the two fronts together and creating the disturbance in the atmosphere. The barometer is usually the guy who is the quietest. He sits and watches and knows when to bring the umbrella! Some may say this example is very accurate because we can't change the weather. We may not be able to change the weather but we can change the climate in our organization. Find the barometer and ask them for the forecast.

Brokerage firm E.F. Hutton had a successful advertising campaign years ago. They captured the thought that you need to listen to the people who know what's going on. It implied that Hutton had his finger on the pulse of the market and how he could reasonably predict trends in the market. It said, "When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen."

I figured out who was the barometer and I have had the pleasure of having persons like E.F. Hutton in my inner circle. When they spoke I listened and I have always valued their opinion. I didn't always agree, but I always listened.

It is from those individuals that I have developed the philosophy that, I won't say, "I told you so" but, I will say, "I did tell you." What does that mean? It means, I won't try to impress you with my brilliance or my ability to foretell the future. I am no E.F. Hutton. It does mean I know what will probably happen based on my experience. If you ask my opinion I will tell you but I will never rub your nose in it.

It is often said that the mark of a great leader is in their ability to surround themselves with great people. Marine General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognized this. In his speech to the cadets at The United States Military Academ in West Point in May of 2007 he commented, "When I found out I was going to be Chairman, the first thing that crossed my mind was who was going to be my Sergeant Major." He continued, "there was absolutely no way I wanted to do this without having a very special and talented senior enlisted person whispering in my ear and telling me when I was headed off on the wrong path." The general made these comments to illustrate the special bond between a second lieutenant and their platoon sergeants. In the fire service it may be between the company officer and his chauffer or the chief and his aide. Advice and council are necessary for effective leadership.

Every leader will have to make decisions. The real key to effective decision making is based on what you know and when you know it, but also, how well you understand the ramifications. This is where advisors earn their money.

How do you select those advisors? This is not one of those times when you keep your friends close and your enemies closer. For me the most important qualifications are loyalty and honesty. I want someone to be loyal to me and to the organization.

First is loyalty to me. I don't want what we discuss in the office to be bantered about the kitchen table or to be spread across town like a wildfire. If you respect them and they respect you, that won't be an issue. Second to be loyal to the organization. That doesn't mean you drink the "Kool Aid" or walk in lock step. It means we share the same goals for the organization. We want it to succeed. We also want to leave it better for our service. It also means, depending on how dysfunctional the organization, we are ready to make the tough decisions and stick by them.

Honesty is essential for an advisor. When I ask for your opinion I want to know what you think, not what you think I want to hear. We discussed "yes men" earlier.

Many times an advisor will need to be a subject matter expert. Use them when you need to but don't get bogged down in the details. Sometimes the best solution is the simplest. Always keep the goal in mind.

Effective leadership comes from effective communications. In this article we have discussed listening. We have just touched the surface of communications, with tone, body language and of course, the words themselves. I hope this has brought some insight and improved your ability to listen. People are not programmed to listen when they are talking. So if you shut up and listen, you may become a more effective leader.

As always questions and comments are welcome. Please email cflatley9711@ msn.com. Trust me, I will listen. Stay safe.

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. You can reach Chris by e-mail at: cflatley9711@msn.com.

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