In the last scene of the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," Tom Hanks' character whispers into the ear of Matt Damon's character: "earn this." True leadership is an earned privilege in any organization, or among members of a team. Just because someone is given a title doesn't mean he/she is a leader. And it doesn't matter if the leader has done some significant things in his/her last assignment, or the degrees he/she carries. Every new organization, and every new challenge requires earned 'currency' with which to ask the troops for the right to lead.
In each fire deprtment fire fighters have earned the right to be a part of a noble brotherhood. In rookie school many years ago my training officer, Lieutenent Scafeede, used to say, "there's no such thing as a bad fire fighter because the brotherhood will spit you out before you get that far." It's a bit more complex than that, and it doesn't always work that way, but most of the time fire fighters don't get in the fire service by accident. I wonder why this is not necessarily true for fire chiefs. It's a mystery, but we have all seen it.
Some years ago I had the privilege of being a Fire Commissioner with a great department: Woodinville Washington. Knowing I had landed in heaven, I found it to be one of the best departments in the country. Once in a public meeting a citizen made the comment, "You think your fire fighters can do no wrong. How can that be?" I told him, indeed, that it was true a far as I could see. I assumed that they would do no wrong unless, and until I observed it. I never did. Quite the contrary. I never saw such motivated and intelligent firefighters. Each one had the potential to be a leader, and, each was a leader in his/her own area of responsibility. I am sure it is still the same there today.
Leadership in the fire service is a bit different than in any other "business." The issue of life and death, and the driving passion of most fire fighters make most of them leaders. It goes with the territory.
So the man or woman who leads them must earn their respect. The chief is at the bottom of the inverted pyramid, holding up the department. This means that the fire fighters' well-being and the safety of all the citizens in the jurisdiction depend on the chief. In my opinion, it requires a healthy ego (not an overblown weak ego) with an unselfish, strong servant leadership orientation.
Here is a brave attempt you might make to see how you stack up as a leader. Ask your fire fighters the following questions:
1. Does our chief provide a vision of the department's direction and each fire fighter's place in that vison? Do we feel empowered to achieve the mission this vision paints by following him/her to achieve it, no matter where it leads? Did we have input in that vision and mission?
2. Are we motivated to follow our chief because he/she has earned our respect by respecting each of us; understanding and supporting each fire fighter's dreams and team's objectives to achieve the departmental mission? In other words, "Has he got our back?"
3. Do we respect his/her leadership for our department only, knowing that he/she has our best interests-and the safety of our citizens-at heart? Too many chiefs nowadays seem to want to save the entire fire service. Nothing wrong with that. The question is "what are their motivations?" And almost always this has very little to do with our department. Charity and leadership always begin at home. Keep it there and the rest will take care of itself.
The answers to thse questions are either "yes" or "no." Anything less than a "yes" means that you, Chief, haven't earned the title you carry. And remember, you don't just reperesent your department. You reperesent the entire American fire service leadership to every one you meet in this country and the world. I call it reputation capital. It must be earned, not marketed.