Marsha Gay Harden, the Oscar-winning actress is the spokesperson for Liberty Mutual's public fire education efforts through her public speaking, writing and on Liberty's website, BeFireSmart.com. Unfortunately, she lost dear members of her extended family in a house fire some years ago. She speaks from the heart, from the experience of one who has endured the tragedy many of us have witnessed. When she speaks about fire prevention, her audience listens. She has created the bridge of empathy; she has qualified herself. We have all heard it before: "It doesn't matter how many years of experience and knowledge you may have in a particular field, your audience will not care a jot about how much you know until they know that you care." Consistently search for ways to build the links of empathy and you will create the trust that will open you audience's mind for the message.
Create a Picture
The second critical skill is the ability to create a vision in the mind of the audience. If we are teaching a small group about safe behaviors in a fire it might be describing "the fire that didn't happen" because of the preventative actions that the group took before each member found themselves in the emergency situation.
Think about how many times we go through evolution after evolution in learning a new skill or tool. The purpose for almost all of our training is so that our actions become second nature when we really need to use the skill. It's the same way when describing preventative actions to a group of citizens. But is that the way the citizen understands the actions they need to take at the appropriate time? One way to assure this is to show how their safe future can come closer to reality if they practice the behaviors we are suggesting.
This same approach applies to leadership. Creating a compelling future for your department or your team that breaks down the worn out paradigms requires the dynamism of a leader who understands where you are now, how to get to that new place and what that place will look like when you have arrived. It is not always necessary for a leader to have come up through the ranks to articulate the mission and paint the vision for a great department as long as you know that the leader believes it with every fiber of his or her being. Frank Brannigan, the world-renowned expert in building construction and collapse for the fire service was never a firefighter or a fire chief, but he has influenced generations of firefighters, saving not only their lives but countless lives of our citizens through his many textbooks, instructional manuals, seminars and direction. His driving passion was his love for the fire service and fire protection. And his vision articulated communities with safe construction practices throughout the world.
Just Do it!
The final and most critical element of leadership communication is in inspiring action. This step is the one that I cannot emphasize enough. A mentor of mine and one of the most effective leaders in the history of the Walt Disney Company always said, "A leader's job is to do what has to be done, in the way it should be done, whether he or she likes it or not." There is not a firefighter today who does not understand that statement.
In many other fields and occupations, mediocrity can gain ground because, perhaps, in their minds the actions they should take are not that important. In our profession, lives are at stake. The margin of error is very small. This means that when we communicate we want to be as certain as we can that our actions define us and our vision.
It is also why that, as a profession, we are in a position to influence our department for the maintenance of our citizens' safety. The United States continues its reputation as having one of the worst records of loss to fire in the civilized world. Changing the paradigm of how the fire service approaches the fire problem will require an understanding of how we can communicate our vision of a fire-safe country to ourselves first so we can save the lives of future generations. How? Picture thousands of fires...that will never happen.
BEN MAY, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor,has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort. To read Ben's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Jameson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.