A leader's experience will often be the true litmus test of their competence.
Ingrained in fire service leaders must be, among other things, care, concern and competence. In this article we continue our series on the leadership journey and we will discuss competence in terms of a leader's experience.
Competence is the most important leadership trait that a fire service leader must posses. Sounds simple. You want your leader to know what he or she is doing! By what scale do you measure competence? Does passing a test or winning an election mean you are competent? It may be the mechanism of selection but is it a true measure of competence?
A leader's experience will often be the true litmus test of their competence. This is, of course, if they have had positive experiences. By experience I mean the real experience, the "been there done that" kind. The kind of experience you actually get by actually working in the busy places, not just being there long enough to have a cup of coffee and get the t-shirt.
That is the experience that a leader falls back on when "it hits the fan." It's that knowledge that gets them through the tough jobs and brings everyone back. If you have experience, you will remember what worked and what didn't. Every leader has stories of events that happened to them. They will remember, "Oh, I will never do that again" or just a note to self, "Now that didn't work." These stories are not just in the fire service. Did you ever try to make electrical repairs at home? Did you ever cross the wrong two wires? Then you have one of those stories.
Firefighting is a technical profession that requires a certain amount of technique. This does not just involve hazmat or technical rescue. Structural firefighting has many disciplines that can be very technical. Forcible entry, proper ventilation, and hose stream practices are very technical. If you don't believe me, start a discussion with a group of firefighters on the fog versus solid stream fire attack. You will hear how technical and how much technique is involved in the application of water on a fire. How many gallons per minute should we flow? What pattern of fog stream, that is if you have resolved the solid stream issue! Do we advance the line "duck-walking" or "on our knees" or some combination? Or don't you care "just get in and put the fire out."
A leader needs to know this. The misapplication of water can cause steam burns. Improper ventilation can increase the fire intensity and endanger everyone in the structure. If forcible entry is not accomplished we cannot complete our mission of rescue and fire attack.
This experience cannot be faked. Either you have it or you don't. If you don't have it your people will recognize it. This is one time a boss may need to check their ego. If you don't have experience of your own you need to work with the guidance of your subordinates. Firefighters will help a boss through difficult times, they don't want to see any of their guys hurt because of an inexperienced officer, but you must listen! This does not diminish your responsibility as the boss, but it allows you to recognize their experience and the fact that they are here and they are doing it.
So what do you do if you don't have the greatest amount of experience? If you got to be the boss with out it, it may be tough to get now. This is where not taking the road less traveled will pay off (see "The Journey: A Commentary on Leadership."). As an option we can learn from the experiences of others. This is not the way all lessons should be learned. Recognizing the warning signs of flashover or structural collapse would certainly be best learned first hand, but as they are rare occurrences, we need to learn those lessons from those with first hand knowledge.