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Some Thoughts for the New Fire Service Leader

Winter in my world is often seen as the time of the new leader. In volunteer fire departments all acrossAmerica, January is the normal time for the new cast of leadership characters to step forward to be sworn in. It is, therefore, a time for all of us to think about what it takes to be a leader. More than that, it is important for all of us to think about the impact which leaders have upon our lives, both good and bad: positive and negative. 

Coincidently, winter is that time of year when I like to turn inward towards my office and my reference library. There is nothing better than a warm book and a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter's night. Please bear in mind that it is really too cold to head out to the porch and fire up one of my favorite cigars, so that I must of necessity confine myself to indoor activities. Such are the shortcomings of winter in a temperate climate.

Whether it is the books on my shelf, the articles I have archived over the years or a trip over the Internet, I like to spend my cold weather research time reflecting on one of my favorite topics: leadership. There are those who suggest that reading about leadership is the best way to learn about just what it is that constitutes the requirements for effectively being able to be in charge of others. There are others who put no stock in 'book learning'. It is for that reason that I want to visit with you today.

However, I want you to know that I firmly believe that all learning must involve some form of written knowledge. Many have been my critics through the years when it comes to my preoccupation with fire department training and education. These are the people who have lambasted me for all of my "confounded book learning."

Think about it my friends. Were any of you born with a special leadership gene or a special pocket of leadership talent in your brain? I think not. I have been in this business a long time my friends and I am here to tell you that knowledge is the base of every endeavor undertaken by people in society. So it is in the world of the leader. You start with the books and then move out into the world around you to put what you have learned into practice. 

Are there other ways to gain information on how to lead others? You bet there are. There are those who would tell you that much of what they have learned in their careers came about as a result of trying new things and either succeeding and moving on or failing and starting over again. This is called the trial and error process. It can be expensive, time-consuming, and highly ineffective,

Sometimes folks who claim to have learned in this fashion will try to convince you that they are totally self-made individuals. Let me assure you that the process of trial and error is one of the least effective and most expensive learning styles. Learning about leadership on a trial and error basis will probably increase the number of folks who do not appreciate your style of leadership (such as it might be). And the chances are good that these people are merely emulating what they saw other people do.

Each of us must come to an understanding of the need to begin the educational process for any topic or aspect of life in the proper manner. We must begin learning about what we wish to accomplish by reading about it. There is a certain baseline of knowledge which must be acquired in every endeavor in life before you can begin the actual practice of the processes involved. The State ofNew Jerseyrequires students to spend many years in school to acquire the knowledge necessary to graduate from high school. This gives you a baseline education, such as it is, to function in society.

Think about it my friends. The old process of on-the-job training was not very effective and led to a great many injuries and fatalities. I came into the fire service in an era where this type of training was on the way out. It has been a long time since firefighters were given their gear and assigned to respond to fires without ever attending a fire academy training class.

Such was not the case in the U.S. Air Force of the 1960's when I attended fire school at Chanute Air Force Base inRantoul,Illinois. Neither was it the case in the Newark Fire Department of the 1970's when I attended the fire academy as part of Class #1 of the new fire training academy. As a matter of fact, when I went on the Rahway Fire Department in July of 1972, they provided us with two weeks of in-station training before we were assigned to a shift. 

In each case were we provided classroom work and then given an opportunity to practice the skills which were preached in class. So it remains to this very day when our newest recruits are given the required training as mandated by each of our states. The formula is simple. You read, you learn, and you try. Mistakes will be made and corrections provided. So it should be throughout your career as a line firefighter.

So if this is the case with our wide range of practical skills, why is it that many people think that simply winning an election makes you an effective leader? This is a process which I have watched no for well over 40 years. I can recall the countless losers who were heard to say, "… yesterday I couldn't spell leeder, and now I are one." Trust me when I say that these folks were the source of a great deal of organizational unhappiness. 

Let me suggest that reading is a great place to start your journey to leadership success. However, there is another aspect which you need to reach out and touch. Look out at others in the world around you. Let me suggest that you can indulge in the ancient and honorable undertaking of observation.

Look around you. Look at the leaders in your organization and then look at the leaders of other organizations. Those things which make a leader effective cross organizational lines. I have seen effective fire officers, line foremen, team leaders, and academic department chairs. I have learned a great deal from these people.

However, I have also seen that in some cases the people in charge were satisfied simply with being in charge. It appeared that they loved giving orders and telling people what to do. This is not good and it is not bad. It just doesn't lead anywhere. These people just wanted to get things done and they gave enough orders to keep them out of trouble with their bosses.

Unfortunately, in many of these cases, the people involved did not wish to hear anything from the people they were tasked to supervise. They appeared to be just marking time in the fire station and nothing more. It was as though they were tending boats at a boat dock on a lake. When they came on duty, they accepted ten boats. They worked all day with those ten boats and at closing time were pleased to leave work knowing there were still ten boats tied up at the dock. They had no great ambition other than to avoid making mistakes or calling attention to themselves. Not a great way to live one's life. 

It is at this point that I must step forward and as another really critical question. Is just being in charge enough? I think not. They leave nothing behind to help others with carrying out their part in the organization.

Through my decades in the fire service, I have made a habit of studying the people with whom and for whom I worked. I like to think of myself as fairly average for a chubby old guy. If I like something, there are others who will probably like it too. If something offends me, I am guessing that others will be offended in a similar manner. Over the years I have toiled to gather operational wisdom from the people for whom I have worked. I have kept the good and ditched the bad.

As you might imagine, it has been my privilege to work for some really good people. Unfortunately, I have also labored under the yoke of some people who were neither nice not effective. Over the past several decades I have worked to emulate the positive things I have seen. I have also worked hard to avoid replicating the behaviors of those people in leadership positions who treated me like crap. The man that I am today is a composite of the many things I have learned since I first road an ambulance in Freehold,New Jerseyback in 1964. 

As we enter another new operational year, I want to urge you to spend some time reading and learning about your role as a leader in your organization. Nothing of any positive value comes about without a lot of hard work and studying. Let me close this piece with a gem of wisdom from George Washington Carver (1864-1943), a man known for his many contributions to science and society; a man who blazed a new path and set the standard for many others who followed.

"How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these." 

Please accept my best wishes for a safe, happy, and healthy 2013.