Good Followers Make For a Better Leader

Many times over the past five years, I have written about how you can become a better leader. This has been a tremendous journey. Let me assure that there is a great deal more to come. However, I want to shift gears a bit for this month's visit with...


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Many times over the past five years, I have written about how you can become a better leader. This has been a tremendous journey. Let me assure that there is a great deal more to come. However, I want to shift gears a bit for this month's visit with you.

Let me suggest to you that as good as any leaders might be, they will be made that much better when they are surrounded by effective followers. Far too many officers I have met and worked with over the years have put far too much stock in themselves and their own skills. As important as any of these skills are, they may come up short if the leaders fail to ensure that their followers are the central focus in their working lives.

Certain people arrive at the status of effective follower based on their own efforts. They know what they want to be, they know what it takes to be good at that job and they apply themselves to the job at hand. These are the people who form the rock-solid foundation of your organization. These people are so obvious in their value to your organization that they are sometimes taken for granted. They are always where they should be. They always give you 110%. Their mistakes are infrequent. In short, these are the people who keep your organization running.

Many of these outstanding people want no part of a leadership role. They are pleased to be a part of your fire department and derive great satisfaction from their active participation in the day-to-day tasks that must be accomplished. They will spend their entire careers proud to hold the title of firefighter.

Let me share an example of this sort of person with you. One of my good buddies in the Newark Fire Department was a fellow Vietnam veteran. His name is Bob Langevin. He entered the fire department in February 1974. Had the city not taken away our chief's aides in the early 1990s, Bob would have been my aide.

Like a number of us from that generation, he was a firefighter in a northern New Jersey volunteer fire department. He knew what he wanted to do with his life and he was able to live his dreams through his service in the Newark Fire Department. He wanted to be a firefighter.

I often heard him tell people that he did not want to be an officer. Bob never studied for a captain's examination, yet he had an intimate grasp of every aspect of the firefighter's position. He just wanted to be the best firefighter he possibly could be. He was resilient, knowledgeable and dependable, and he could work for hours on end at a job. He was perhaps the best truck company firefighter with whom I worked in the city. When he retired in 1999, he left a great legacy.

I could not tell you how many younger firefighters looked to him as their role model. He closed out his career with me at the Fire Training Academy. His willingness to share what he knew made him a natural at working with the recruits. His reputation made him an effective instructor with the regular line units that passed through the academy for in-service training. They guys knew that he had served his time in one of the busiest units in the city. You just knew that he would always be there.

It is these twin attributes of reliability and dependability that frequently cause such people to blend into the background. You don't have to spend a great deal of your leadership talent on them, so you come to count on them. There is a danger in this. You can cut them off and hurt them.

You need to recognize their value and involve them in the day-to-day operations of your department. Solicit their advice and rely on their feedback. Many times, the younger, less-experienced people will use these veterans as the conduit to the powers that be. A few words from a young firefighter to a veteran can usually make their way up the chain of command in a quiet way.

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