The Courage Required of a New Leader

Often in my travels and teaching, I am asked by both young and aspiring officers what it takes to be a good leader or how to become a good leader. I usually respond to that question with a question -- "What do you think it takes to become a good leader?"

Most respond with the typical answers-- knowledgeable, fair, hardworking, etc. While those are good traits, but let's dig a little deeper into the meat of leadership and where it begins.

Let's start by replacing leadership confusion with leadership courage. This piece of advice was given to me a long time ago by retired Chief John R. Leahy Jr., of the Pennellis Suncoast Fire Department in Florida. It took me many years and a few more good mentors to figure out exactly what this truly meant. But, I finally got it and it wasn't all that hard. So let's focus on replacing leadership confusion with leadership courage.

Don't Let Your Fear Confuse the Department's Plan
I can remember a time when my efforts were focused on myself and trying to be the best I could be. Many young and aspiring officers get caught up in this drama. They believe that the better they become, the better they will be as a leader.

There is some truth in this statement, but the meat of being a good officer is much more than having numerous certifications and qualities. You must balance these good components with the courage to believe and support the department and its mission. Finding out the hard way that I could possess many good traits and qualities was not the total answer. In fact, it was the smallest portion of the equation.

After several years of floundering, I finally learned that the most important component in being a leader at any level is being on board and supporting the efforts of the organization. So often I see departments with individuals who are constantly rowing against the fire chief, trying to go in other directions rather than the pathway set out by this individual as they try to fulfill the mission. Our fear creates conflict in our lives. The fear is of many things, mostly of change.

The business world is a place of constant change. The fire service is part of the business world whether individuals want to believe it or not. I will guarantee that if you look at any department across the world it is run some what like a business. There are budgets, personnel issues, accounts payable and accounts receivable. If that is not a business I am not real sure what else it could be.

So, with a fire department being a business, we should expect constant change. If you look across the United States, fire departments are faced with stories of mergers, layoffs and restructuring everyday. No matter the scale, when these kinds of changes hit the work place, the literal, situational shifts are often not as difficult for individuals to work through as the psychological transitions that accompany the change. As organizational transitions occur, they affect people. These are the individuals who have to embrace a new situation and carry out corresponding change. Leaders find themselves in roles of having to sell these changes.

Don't Let Your Confusion Cause You To Miss The Department's Goals And Mission
Fire departments have mission statements and leader philosophies posted throughout the fire stations. But, walk in and ask a firefighter, or even better a fire officer, what their mission statement says and I will bet that they can't tell you, much less live it.

As a leader you must follow suit with the philosophies set forth by the fire chief. Generally these goals and philosophies have an end result in mind. However, with our disciplined attention to detail and to focus on the mission, the end results all too often fall short of the goals.

As a young leader, have the courage to embrace the leadership philosophies. For a while you are guaranteed to receive ridicule and be called a few choice names. However in the long run you will find that you will become well respected for your consistency and diligence by most.

Don't Let Your Confusion Influence Your Obedience
With any successful department comes a strong vision. This vision is generally set forth by the fire chief. As a young or aspiring officer, you must embrace that vision. Think about it. If the leader has no idea what the organization is to become, he or she cannot expect the people to know. No vision causes misalignment and confusion among the members of the organization. Not supporting that vision is just as detrimental to the organization and your leadership ability.

Vision is in direct proportion to accomplishment. The more you envision, the more that can be accomplished. I know by now you are saying this is not how it works! Well, I used to think that as well. I used to see my vision instead of the department's vision. The end result was a catastrophic failure personally and a drag line slowing the organization down.

Have the courage to obey leadership and the mission. These folks are probably not as stupid as you want to believe. There are many factors that play into the formula that you may not be privileged to know or even understand. Again fighting, questioning or rowing against the forward progression can result in a delayed or failed mission.

If you are beginning to see the light as a young or aspiring officer or you are an officer who is trying desperately to mentor a young counterpart, you may be asking yourself "What do I do now?" Well it is as simple as 1, 2, 3.

  1. Refocus on the department and the mission - Begin by putting the department first. As you do this and the success of the department occurs, you will see that your success increases proportionally. By being diligently focused on being a team player in leadership you will see that you will develop good qualities and traits. Most of all you will gain respect as you have the whole at heart rather than you as an individual.
  2. Release a gift - Each individual has a gift to give. It is the desire to share that gift that doesn't always exist. Start thinking of the department more than yourself. By devoting your talents to the department and others you will reap the rewards. Ask not what the department can do for you, but what you can do for the department is a good philosophy to follow.
  3. Reach out to everyone - Your ability to help others supports the true mission of the fire service: "to protect and serve."

By taking responsibility for your actions and taking some of the heat off of the team, the department will be able to excel to great level. Most importantly, you are part of the solution, not part of the problem that leads to failure.


DOUGLAS K. CLINE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a 28-year veteran and student of the fire service is the training commander with the High Point, NC, Fire Department. Cline is the first vice president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and is a well known international speaker presenting a myriad of programs. Chief Cline is also a highly published author, including Company Officer Test Preparation Guide Book with a scenario training DVD. He served as the technical content adviser and contributing author for the Rapid Intervention Company Operations text published by Delmar Cengage Learning. Chief Cline is the host of Firehouse.com's Training & Tactics Talk podcast series and was a guest on The Leader's Toolbox podcast on Radio@Firehouse. To read Douglas' complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Douglas by e-mail at dcline11@triad.rr.com.

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