The Real Leader Is A Student

In my continuing search for better leaders in the fire service, my journey now takes me in another, new direction. In my May 2001 Command Post column, I spoke of my deep and abiding belief that truly great leaders are teachers, people who willingly...


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In my continuing search for better leaders in the fire service, my journey now takes me in another, new direction. In my May 2001 Command Post column, I spoke of my deep and abiding belief that truly great leaders are teachers, people who willingly share what they know. It is critical for you to create a knowledgeable team, if you are to succeed as a leader.

During a quiet period, I went over my notes on the topic of leadership. There were a number of responses to my original reader survey that served as the basis for this series of leadership commentary. Each added a layer of knowledge and understanding to my own personal view of leadership. They allowed me to grow as an instructor, writer, and lecturer.

Let me share a few more of those thoughts with you:

Do you see a trend forming here among these comments? It is fairly obvious to me that the people who shared their leadership thoughts with me think that knowledge is a good thing for a leader to possess.

The quest for knowledge started early in my life. My father and mother firmly believed that a strong, solid education served as the basis for improving our lot in America. Three of my four my grandparents were immigrants. They came to this great nation and earned their way by the sweat of their brow. My uncle was the first to earn a college degree in the family in the 20th century. I was the second.

Oddly enough, my success in the fire service world came as a direct result of my failure at an outstanding American institution of higher learning. I was a work-study scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Although the Ivy League did not give out athletic scholarships, it was my play for a championship football team in high school that surely got their attention.

My grades were OK, but definitely not straight A in nature. Folks, I am here to tell you that I was not ready to learn. I was too immature to understand the great opportunity that had been thrust upon me. As a consequence, I succeeded as an athlete, fraternity member and party boy. Unfortunately, I failed miserably as a student. My old high school English teacher has often said that I had the talent, but lacked the motivation. As a matter of fact, I still see Fred Hazlett at our monthly Masonic Lodge meetings. I have made sure that Brother Fred has shared in my writing success over the years.

After flunking out of Penn, I found myself cast into the draft pool in June 1966. Trust me, gang – in 1966, you were either in college, physically unfit to be drafted (4-F) or on your way to serve in the rice paddies of Vietnam. My motivation in joining the U.S. Air Force in August 1966 was quite simple. I felt I had a better chance of surviving any time I would serve in Vietnam if I were serving on an air base, rather than out in the boonies.

It was during my time in the Air Force that I found my life’s work. I discovered that I loved being a firefighter. I found that it was a way of life where I could devote myself to helping others, and have a pretty good time doing what I came to love. I also discovered that learning as much as I possibly could was the way to get ahead.

I was blessed to be able to learn my trade at one of the finest fire schools in the world, the U.S.A.F. Firefighting School, which in the far-away days of 1966 was located at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. It was the Air Force that allowed me to hone my firefighting skills in places as widely separated as the Arctic region of Alaska, the steamy climes of Vietnam and the Philippine Islands. Oh, and they also sent me to a place called Arkansas.

It was during the 18 months of my career, spent near Fairbanks, AK, that I received an early appreciation for experience colored with education. The superintendent of the Eielson Air Force Base Fire Department back in those times was Chief Master Sergeant Joseph Haider, a man known throughout the Air Force fire service in that era.

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