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In my April column, I shared some thoughts about how the newly promoted chief officer should think, act and perform. It is my fervent hope that you chose to remember the part about caring for your people; otherwise, this month’s column will have little or no value.
As a newly promoted chief officer, you have been moved into a critical new role. Bear in mind that the promotion might have come as a result of a civil service test or the annual election in your volunteer fire department. It matters not because the results will be the same. Not only are you now responsible for the safety and well-being of your people, you are answerable for their training. If your people cannot perform, I assure you that you will be the first person to whom the department leadership will turn looking for an explanation.
Learning comes first
What is the first thing people who wish to teach must do? Learn. They must learn about many things, not just the topics involved in firefighting, EMS, hazmat or whatever may be the case. They must first (and most importantly) learn about themselves. Then they must learn about other people.
They must work to learn as much about the how and why of people’s actions as they possibly can. Why do I suggest these things? I offer this advice because of my hard-won experience as a fire officer in both career and volunteer assignments. The circumstances of the situation dictated the responsibilities which I was required to perform.
Some of my greatest problems as an officer came about as a result of my own mistakes, which were made worse by a poor reading of the actions and attitudes of the people around me. Many times, what I perceived as acceptance was a mere tolerance of my actions. That was a very hard lesson to learn. People will put up with a great deal when they perceive that a person’s position requires it. But the results will not be very good. This is a terrible thing to find out; however, when you discover it, you have taken a true first step on the way to success.
Unless you learn and grow as an individual, you will never do well as a supervisor or fireground commander. You must want to help others if you are to be an effective leader. Further, you must like to help people and want to see them succeed. I have learned the hard way that an inward focus really turns people off. Turned-off people are not happy people. And unhappy people do not enjoy their work; therefore, they do a bad job.
What are some traits you must assess within yourself? A short list would include:
- Confidence in your abilities
- A willingness to learn
- Strength of character
- Enthusiasm for the task at hand
- The ability to speak, write and listen effectively
- Knowledge of the fire protection field
- A vision for yourself and your place in the world
The first on the list is critical. If you do not think you can do something, people will sense this ambivalence and you will fail. How would you like to follow an officer into battle who blows his whistle and yells, “Over the top, I guess”? Leading by example works best.
You must always remain in search of knowledge. It is important to read books, attend seminars, conduct after-action critiques and look for new facts wherever the opportunity presents itself. Your unwillingness to learn will manifest itself in a team that does not value knowledge. The person who shuns knowledge also leads by example – bad example. Be proactive in your quest for knowledge.
Your entire reputation as a fire officer will rest on whether people sense in you a person with strong values. You must also display a dedication to those principles which guide your daily existence. Let me share with you those things which guided my personal and professional life for the past few decades.
- Faith in God
- Love of family
- Loyalty to my people
- Determination to get a bit better every day
- A sense of self-discipline, for how can you ask people to do something you cannot display yourself?