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Whether you occupy the right-front seat on a full-time basis or you are just filling in, you are expected to do certain things and make certain decisions. Leadership skills are necessary because you are working to accomplish goals through other people. This is one important aspect of leadership.
Let me make a simple observation. Some people are better leaders than others. Let me now ask you a critical question. Why is this? Is this luck, fate, education, experience or a combination of some or all of these? Effective leadership comes about as a result of hard work and a strong set of personal values. Those who experience the most success are those who spend the time learning the principles of effective leadership, then take great pains to maintain and refine those skills and principles.
Some people think being a leader is simply a matter of barking out orders and yelling at people. This could not be more incorrect. The formula for leadership success is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement. Some people also work to continually refine their leadership style based on their experiences in life. They see what other people in position of leadership do, then select what works and discard what seems to turn people off.
The traits we look for in our leaders have much to do with mental characteristics and moral attributes. When selecting and developing our leaders, we need to emphasize that such people must behave in a respectful and morally correct manner. People in positions of leadership must have an even temperament and act in a calm and rational manner. We are not looking for foul-mouthed, brutish people. No one likes to follow people who are constantly shooting from the hip and going off half-cocked. Leaders need to serve as a rock-solid foundation for the actions of the other people riding the rigs with them. Leaders should be calm and even in their demeanor and act as a fulcrum during stressful situations.
Successful leaders must exercise sound judgment and make logical decisions based on the facts that are available to them. Some decisions, such as those on the fireground, must be made quickly, while others in non-emergency situations should be studied and analyzed to ensure that the proper data has been gathered for the making of that decision. Successful leaders exercise sound judgment and make rapid analyses of the available information and alternatives.
Effective leaders are enthusiastic about their work. Show your troops you love what you do. This commitment is contagious. It spreads to subordinates, who, in turn, derive a similar level of satisfaction from their work.
Such leaders build an aura of trust and stimulate creativity among the work team. They do not toss cold water on the troops once they get them thinking and acting. They guide rather than herd or drive their people. They work to influence the behaviors of the people with whom they work.
Good leaders are dependable. Both the boss and the guys know that the word of such effective leaders is their bond. People have no reason to doubt those leaders who earn the trust of their associates on a daily basis. People who work for leaders like this are well aware that they will receive valuable direction and solid backing in all of their labors.
Knowledge is critical. It is most important for leaders to fully and completely know and understand their jobs. They must also know the jobs of the people with whom they work. How can leaders tell followers that there is a problem with the manner in which they are performing their jobs if they have never learned what those jobs look like when it is properly done? This is incredibly important for any organization’s success.
Leaders must also be able to solve daily problems as they arise. Letting things slide is one sure way to guarantee future fire department failure. In working the leader/follower equation, leaders must be fair and impartial at all times. They must concentrate on their subordinates’ concerns, while shunning any sort of favoritism toward members of the work group.
I urge all people riding the right-front seat to remember that their followers work with them and not for them. This is a simple grammatical distinction that can pay great dividends to people in leadership roles. When the troops are in there taking a beating, you will not see a true leader sucking down a cup of coffee at the fireground rehab center or warming up in an out-of-the-way spot. You lead from the front or you don’t lead at all.
Leadership doesn’t just happen
A good leader is also diplomatic and tactful in dealing with people both within and outside the fire department. Mutual trust is important in the fire service, because we must all depend on one another to perform as a team in threatening situations and environments.
People depend on their leaders and the leaders most certainly depend on their people. Conscientious fire service leaders exercise an appropriate level of concern for the safety of everyone with whom they work. Each person is unique. While some people need a great deal of supervision, direction and guidance, others do not. Learn how your people tick so you can provide the proper level of individualized supervision and leadership to each.
True leaders encourage group participation in the planning phases of their work and provide each person with as much responsibility as they believe their troops can handle. It is critical for leaders to remember that one of their primary responsibilities to their people and their organizations is the development of a corps of well-trained, dedicated and motivated followers. To ignore this role is to guarantee failure within your fire department.
Maintaining the proper balance between authority and democracy requires a wisdom that does not come easily to some people. However, the effort it takes to provide that balance will be rewarded by the high success rates exhibited by people working under such leaders.
If you wish to become a leader, put forth the effort to learn as much as you can about what leaders are and what they do. If you are a leader, work to be the best you can be. Leadership doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it.
HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark Fire Department as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and life member of the National Fire Protection Association. He is vice president of the Institution of Fire Engineers-USAmerica. Dr. Carter holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.