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I was presenting a leadership program in a suburb of Denver, CO, with my buddy Rick Lasky, retired chief of the Lewisville, TX, Fire Department, when a young firefighter came up to talk with us. He was enjoying the program and told us that the stories we shared and the points we made applied to his company and his department. He was happy to hear that some of what he was doing as an officer and a leader in his department is in line with what we had done in our own departments.
Then he said something we have heard before: “Too bad the wrong people are here.” We asked him what he meant and he said that although our leadership program was great and the lessons were valuable for company and chief officers, the people in his fire department who really needed these lessons were not in attendance. When he said, “the wrong people are here,” he really meant that the officers who attended the presentation agreed with and practiced many of the skills and leadership concepts we were talking about. It was the officers who did not attend who should be here. They needed these lessons. They needed to learn the how to talk to their firefighters. They needed to learn how to set a better example for their crew.
We’ve heard it before
As I’ve already stated, Rick and I have heard this before. Actually, we hear it often and this is what we told him: The right people were there! We told him that he and many of the other company and chief officers in attendance are the movers and shakers of their companies, their departments and the American fire service.
Every fire department can be broken down into three discernible groups of people. The percentages are not critical, but the concept is important. There is a small group of people at the bottom of the “quality” scale, maybe 10% of the total. They come to the firehouse, do the bare minimum and go home. They can be volunteer or career firefighters, but their interest and passion are in the cellar.
Then there is the largest group, maybe 85%, who enjoy being firefighters, attend drills and functions and do what they are told and sometimes a bit more. They are the largest group in the organization and they fill most of the seats on fire apparatus around the country.
Then there is the last group, those who are at the top of their game. They are the “five-percenters” at the top of the roster. These people are always doing more than is required. They are the firefighters, company officers and chiefs who come up with ideas about how to use the new saw, store the forcible entry tools or use the stream from the tower ladder basket. These are the people asking the lieutenant at the start of the shift what the company drill will be about that day. They are the officers who submit suggestions up the chain of command to improve the department’s response capabilities or high-rise tactics. They are the chiefs who stop by each firehouse after a difficult or dangerous operation and thank the troops for their efforts and dedication. We told the young firefighter that the right people had attended the seminar – and he was one of them.
Not every officer and firefighter in the audience is one of the top 5%, but they are there in large numbers. The rest of the crowd is the middle 85% who make up most of the people in our departments. The good news is that many of them are on their way to the top.
We told our new friend that not only was he obviously one of the top performers, but that along with this A+ rating comes a responsibility. When you are one of the top people in your organization, you must constantly be on the lookout for new members. You must talk up the fact that you are going to a training event and ask the younger firefighters whether they are going. You must bring back the handouts or magazines or books you pick up at a seminar and share them with your crew. You may be the person who lights the fire in a couple of firefighters in your company. You may be the one who leads just one or two of the 85% to join you at the top.