Leadership in modern America is under siege. Private industry is so focused on making money that leadership skills have been distorted to achieve the new "goals". Public service is so focused on saving money that many fire departments "leaders" are willing to reduce service levels well below accepted norms. The result is a void in the leadership hierarchy that is hurting the basic fiber of many fire departments.
What makes a good leader? Can anyone be a leader? Are leaders born or are they made? These questions have been asked for centuries and many answers have been offered. Most times you can recognize a leader when you meet them. They have this magic combination of qualities that people find attractive and want to be around. I have found that there are eight elements of effective leadership, or eight qualities that a real leader possesses.
Integrity is the first and most important of the elements of leadership. With integrity you are basically an empty suit (or uniform). Integrity is the little voice inside you that tells you when you are not telling the truth, or taking an action that you know will unjustly hurt someone. We all know someone that is masquerading as a leader and has no integrity. That is the guy that may have great rank or responsibility but is not very respected by his peers or subordinates.
Integrity can be illustrated in the phrase, "Say what you mean and mean what you say". Sounds really simple but it's not always so easy to live by. Try living this phrase for just one day. All day, no matter who you talk to, no matter what the subject, only say what you mean, and mean it. A true leader should have little trouble with this assignment.
Initiative is the second element of leadership. Nothing happens in any organization, public or private without someone taking the initiative and getting things going. A real leader will be the one that gets the ball rolling. Remember going over to your buddies house to help him put a new roof or to clean up after a block party. Who was the guy that interrupted the coffee break and said, "let's go, let's get this done". He was the leader. He may not have even been the guy that you thought was the leader that day but he was the leader. It works the same way down at the firehouse. Those with initiative are bound to rise to positions of leadership. Don't confuse this with being the boss or supervisor. Many times the boss is just that, the boss, but the real leader is one of the other people in the group.
Often, there is more than one leader. A BIG leader at the top of the organization, making policy and generally guiding the organization through the entire world, and a local leader, down in the trenches with the workers. Like the chief of department leading the entire department and the lieutenant leading the firefighters at the firehouse. Whichever you are you will need a barrel full of initiative to get and keep your people going.
Innovation is a mandatory element of fire service leadership because of the nature of the work that we do. Each and every situation we face is different. We could even have a fire in the exact same spot, in an exactly similar building at exactly the same time, as the fire we had 24 hours earlier, and the operation would in some way be different. It could even be dramatically different.
The reasons are many but I will name a few. We may have a different crew respond to the second fire.Firefighters and officers with a different set of previous experiences and training that might take different actions with similar conditions. The weather could be different, causing the fire to spread inside and outside differently.
The units or companies that respond could be from another firehouse or even department, resulting in apparatus and tactical differences. The point is that to be an effective leader you must learn to innovate and react to various conditions that you may be faced with. Each and every situation you come up against will require that you innovate for the set of conditions and problems presented.
Insight is a quality that may take years to develop. Leaders must have insight into their organizations mission statement, a real understanding of exactly what it is that we are supposed to be doing, and who we are supposed to be doing it for. The mission of the average fire department is to provide emergency service to those that require assistance with sudden dangerous, unhealthy or inconvenient situations. Most of us, leaders and non-leaders alike can pretty easily recognize the situations where our assistance is required.
Sometimes not all of us can see why we were called to handle a specific situation, especially at 3am, and we would like to withhold service. Like a leaking water faucet, in a tub, at 3am on a Monday morning. A firefighter that is worn out from working at two fires in the past 5 hours might not want to deal with the faucet call, but the teams leader, the lieutenant will surely recognize the fact that this is an emergency to the caller and it needs to be handled. Every firefighter in every department realizes that we have to attack a fire in a bedroom, but dealing with the less than urgent or not so important calls for assistance are the territory of the true leader.
Interest in what is going on, how it is being done, and who is doing the work is another important hallmark of leadership. To be actually and genuinely interested in the work at hand is mandatory for effective leadership. How could anyone expect the "leader" of a group or company to produce good results if they are not interested in what is going on or what the outcome will be? Another term of having an interest in something is "caring". If the boss does not care about what is being done, he will probably not be providing leadership of any value. This is not to say that the job won't get done right by the poor leaders subordinates, because it just may happen that way. In this case, the leadership position will shift to one of the subordinate workers, one who cares about what they are doing, and the work will get done. The boss is not always the leader!
Inspiration is hard to put your finger on but when it's there it's hard to hold onto with both arms. Inspiration is a thought or feeling that drives us to take action. Inspiration is an internal drive that helps or even forces us to get up and get something done. Arriving at a working fire and confronted by a parent who states their child id trapped in the house is a moment full of inspiration.
Reviewing the after action report of a fire department operation where a firefighter or civilian is injured or killed because of a lack of procedure, product or personnel could inspire a person to take further action such as request changes to take place or equipment to be provided. Leaders must posses this inspiration and nurture it in their people as well. Having one person on the team inspired will not produce very good results. The people that lead their teams must constantly inspire everyone around them to achieve and even lead themselves.
Intensity is a quality that not all leaders have, but one that all great leaders need. Intensity is the level, the speed, the height, the depth, the drive to get the job done and to get it done right, exactly right! Everyone knows of a firefighter or lieutenant in their fire department who is intense. Not the guy who is anal that nobody wants to work with, but the guy that everybody wants to work with. The guy who is the first to get up from the coffee break to get back to testing the hose, the guy who will stay out on the apparatus floor until midnight, fixing a roof saw that broke that evening, the guy that builds a training prop in the firehouse so the new firefighters can learn a critical skill.
Add this quality of intensity to the company's leader and you can see the level of performance, dedication and efficiency go through the roof. Additionally, when the leader of a group is intense about his work and the mission of the group, it is contagious. Before long, others in the group will be exhibiting similar behaviors and the level of participation and achievement will flourish.
Information is an important element of any business but it is vital in the fire rescue service. Information about buildings, procedures, manpower, apparatus availability, tactics, response routes and dozens of other equally important topics must be transmitted to every member of every team or company. This information sharing can be as simple as roll call exchange of information at the beginning of a tour, or it can be a notification to other companies about a dangerous condition uncovered in a building that other fire companies may encounter. It can be notifying the firefighters about an upcoming lieutenants exam or sharing study tips that they can use to score high and get promoted.
Information sharing is a continuous process that going both up and down the chain of command and horizontally as well. Casual conversations in the firehouse and urgent radio transmissions on the fireground are all forms of information sharing. Leaders must master the art of information sharing and utilize this avenue of communication to better prepare their subordinates for the tasks at hand and those that lie ahead in the future.
With just the information and guidance from the previous paragraphs you can enhance your abilities as a leader or begin your quest for a leadership position in your department. I will answer one of the questions from the beginning of the article now. Leaders are NOT born, they are MADE.