Recently I spent some time reviewing the research files one my computer and was pleased to come across a really neat article on the basics of leading people within a volunteer environment. Let me suggest that they will apply to each and every type of fire department you will ever encounter.
The author of the piece in question devoted a great deal of time outlining a number of tips which he had gained from his personal mentors over the years. He suggested that his guides in life demonstrated a number of basic skills which an effective leader must develop and use.
In the first instance, he suggested that the leader must understand and define the current reality within which the leader and the follower are working. Other people might just call this an environmental scan, wherein the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the team are explored.
Let me suggest that each of us, regardless of our level in the organization must have a vision for what they want their level of the organization to accomplish. Once they have the picture framed for their troops, they must clearly explain why you are going work towards the reaching that vision.
The part that many among us tend to forget is that we must develop a good plan for getting there. Things do not just happen. Who among you would ever want to start a road trip without benefit a map (or a GPS)? You need to dope out the parts of the plan and the work to assure the group you can lead them there.
One of the most important things which leaders must seek to do at every level is to choose and develop other leaders for the future. When I was studying for the Captain's examination in Newark back in the 1970's there was a rule which was covered in one of the many textbooks that I studied. This was the 'three-position' rule. Within this rule it was suggested that each of us in a leadership slot was the concurrent occupant of three distinct positions:
· We were the occupants of the position we held.
· We had other, higher positions to which we aspired.
· We had a responsibility to train our replacement.
Think about the benefits of an organization which operated according to the parameters expressed within this rule. You would have people who were working hard to be good in their jobs. You would have people studying and training to assume higher-level roles within the organization. Finally, you would have a method of bringing along the next generation of leaders.
Once all of the plans and preparations have been laid out, you, as the leader, must be willing to take the first step toward future operational success. This is not an easy decision, but without it, nothing can ever happen. Let me suggest that you must be ready to go to battle on behalf of your team. The greater your success in laying out your leadership program, the larger will be the number of people who want to see you fail. That is just a fact of life. Be ready for it.
By now you may be thinking that these skills and abilities are strictly for those in the upper level of your organization. This is a common misconception. How can you become a good upper-level leader if you have not learned and practiced good leadership skills on your climb up through the ranks of your fire department? Do you expect to bumble along for years and then experience a sudden burst of brilliance? Let me assure you that is not how it works.
My entry into the world of leadership came early on. During the time I spent at my last duty station in the U.S. Air Force, I periodically served as the relief station captain. Trust me when I say that this was not an easy task. A number of the civilian firefighters and drivers were much older than I was.
These fine men were veterans of both World War Two and the Korean War. It was in that time and place that I learned the difference between ordering and influencing. Imagine having to supervise people who are older than your own father. It was then that I learned that suggesting courses of action and seeking feedback were both good ways to deal with this situation.
Over the years I have developed these skills in order to achieve some degree of success in many may different leadership roles within the fire service. I have learned that you need to start of with a minimalist approach to leading people and then add layers of assistance and guidance as the situation dictates. Some people work well with a minimum of supervision, while others must be held by the hand and guided in the right direction.
You must be able to work with both types of people, as well as all of the other folks who operate somewhere on the continuum of life between these two extremes. My successes and my failures have served to increase my knowledge of how to lead others.
Let me assure you that you will never succeed in becoming perfect at leading others. My suggestion to you is to remember that from the day of our birth until the moment of our death, each of us is a work in progress. As long as we live, there will always be one more change to succeed. To you who are active responders, that next time will come as soon as the next time you and your team roll out the front door en-route to your next call.
Your vision of where you team should be heading is critical to your team's success. Let me propose to you that your vision needs to be tightly focused around the role of your unit within your fire department's overall scheme of operations. Remember the limitations of scope on you and your unit's place in the department. Once you create this vision, you will need to empower your people to become a part of the efforts targeted to achieve future success.
Once this vision is created you have to sell it to the troops. It will be easier to sell if you had the help of your troops in developing the guts of the plan to reach your vision. Perhaps you can work to build a vision around becoming the best engine, truck, or rescue company in your battalion, district, or city. In order to reach this goal, you must develop a plan for achieving the objectives you select for your team. Ask you people for their suggestions on what must be done to create the plan to reach this goal.
Once this planning task has been accomplished you then have to sell yourself and your skills as being the person most appropriate to make the team's journey toward this vision and the approach goals a reality. The only way to build up loyalty is to show respect and reliability to your team members. You must always be there for them and support them at all times and in all places.
Your reputation as the person to lead your team on its goal-achieving journey is built one day at a time. It will not happen in one, sudden burst of brilliance. You need to show up every day, listen to the needs and comments of your troops and take care of them to the greatest extent possible.
One of your critical roles as a small-unit leader is to develop others who are capable of taking your place when you move upward in the world of fire department leadership. Think of this as training your replacement. You have aspirations. Remember that each of us has ambitions. You are not the only one. You are not at the center of the universe. You have a duty to help the people who are working with you to make you look good as a leader.
Let me suggest that you must work to uncover the dreams, goals, and aspirations of your people. Then help them develop a plan to reach their dreams. Let me assure you that people never, ever forget a leader who has helped them to achieve success in their lives.
An important part of your role as a right-front seat leader is to be an advocate and defender of the people who have been entrusted to your care. You will probable have enemies in your organization. None of us is universally loved. The same will hold true for the members of your team.
Let me also suggest that the more you succeed in becoming an effective leader, the greater will be the number of the people who are your adversaries. Jealousy is a terrible thing to encounter. Many times you will have people seeking to attack you and your team. They will seek to work in a sneaky, underhanded fashion. Many are the landmines you will encounter as you work to become a better leader. That's just the way it is. Suck it up and move forward for the best interests of you unit.
There is no 'one-best way' to become a better leader. Each and every day you need to be there for your team. Help them solve their problems and support them as they seek to become the best fire people possible. Drill with them and give them wise counsel as you handle the whole range of emergency operations to which your people and you are called.
After these calls, lead your people in a solid critique of your efforts. Ask each person how they feel about what was done. Ask for suggestions as to how things can become better. Then be sure to incorporate the suggestions of your people into your unit's periodic training sessions. Here is your motto:
In this way you will be able to get better. Do not just blindly keep doing the same old things in the same old way.
Now my friends, it is up to you to get off the dime and begin working to be a real leader. You are the only one who can make this happen. If you wait for a miracle, you will be disappointed. You will also be deemed a failure by your people and your bosses.