How Can You Lead if You Cannot Teach?

Many of you have known me for a long time now. You know what motivates me and you also know the heart and soul of my true passion in this life. Let me suggest that it is time to return to my roots and paint a new version of an old picture. Let me lay it all on the line here.  It is my fervent belief that if you are really a leader, you must at some point wake up and smell the coffee (or in my case, the cigar smoke). If we are leading people, you and I are waist-deep in the midst of the knowledge business.
 
Whether it is in the gathering in of a wide range of facts, the monitoring of the latest technical trends, or in the arena of influencing human interaction, you must be aware of the latest and the best ideas on doing this thing we call firefighting. And you must learn to share and play well together in school. Doesn’t that sound like something your kindergarten teacher was trying to tell you oh so many years ago?
 
Some of the saddest examples of leadership deadwood that I ever met were people who never shared what they knew. I guess the best way to categorize these people is to lump them all together into a general class of human sub species known as knowledge hogs. I have bumped into people like this time and again as I move through my career in the fire service.
 
These people are not hard to identify, once you catch on to them. You see them at many of the big fire service conferences. They are paying rapt attention to the words of every speaker. They grab two or three copies of every handout, and the badger the sales people in the exhibition halls to learn everything they possible can about the latest in technology.
 
Now you may be saying, Harry, what is so bad about that type of behavior? Don’t we want people to do that? Yes we do. But the part of the equation that makes these people so useless occurs upon their return to their communities. It is an event which is easy to spot and sad to witness.
 
These are folks who could become a real source of help to their departments, many of which paid the tariff for these knowledge hogs to travel far and eat at the finest restaurants. But they don’t, because the keep everything they learn to themselves. They get some weird sense of self-importance from the fact that they can go amongst their associates saying to themselves, “… I know more than you do."
 
But Harry, you may be asking, who would be so selfish? Trust me, these books are far more numerous that you might imagine. They are out there and they are a drag on our organizations.  In their minds they feel quite important, but in their organizations they are a real source of hard feelings. People like this do sometimes arrive in positions of leadership. Whether by civil service test, political appointment, or by ballot, they sometimes gain positions where they can spread their doctrine of selfishness.
 
These folks are dangerous my friends. I say this because they like to gather similar selfish souls unto themselves. Then you have a clique made up of self-righteous "Knowledge Nazis". They have enough knowledge to do many good works, but they keep it to themselves, because they feel that it gives them power over those who do not know as much (or so the Knowledge Nazis think).
 
Just remember that a person with a thirst for knowledge will seek out the necessary sources to quench their thirst. But think of the divisive nature of an environment like this.  A good leader is a sponge when it comes to knowledge. They are always out there sucking up the widest possible array of knowledge.
 
But remember, in order to be effective, a sponge operates in two ways. It can suck up a great amount of fluid. But if you want to be able to use the sponge a second time, you must squeeze the fluid out and go back for another load.
 
As I said at the beginning of this visit with you, a good leader is a teacher. Just what do you need to know in order to become a good teacher?  Remember that a good teacher is one who can create an environment wherein learning is a prized activity. Perhaps a good place to start would be a basic definition of what learning is. How can you teach if you are not aware of how learning occurs?
 
According to the fine IFSTA text Fire Service and Emergency Service Instructor, learning is relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of acquiring new information, skills or attitudes from or through an experience. Once an individual has gained that experience, they then improve upon it through practice.
 
Experts in the field tell us that learning is most likely to occur under conditions of focused attention and deliberate effort. What this means to you is that when people are motivated to learn, for reasons that are very important to them, they will learn. The stronger the force of the motivation, the greater will be the level of learning.
 
As a leader interested in sharing knowledge, it is your duty to insure that conditions exist which allow for this change in behavior to occur. To accomplish this, you must understand what motivates people. Then it is critical for you to create an environment wherein those motivational opportunities exist. In other words, you must create a departmental mindset wherein education and knowledge are valued commodities.
 
Bear in mind that a great many fire chiefs and administrators are still scared of knowledge. As practitioners of the Ancient Art of Mushroom Management, they hold information to a minimum. An enlightened fire department is a threat to their weak hold on power. Needless to say, these are not effective leaders. Be aware of the difficulties of working in an environment like this. Trust me when I say that it is tough. Do not let this stop your personal drive for learning excellence.

To assist you in your development of a learning environment, you must understand the various types of learning that can occur. Perhaps the most expensive and least effective is our old friend, Trial and Error. It can be expensive, time consuming, and unsafe. Put this method on the back burner. It can kill and maim its practitioners.

But be warned. There are still people out there who practice this ancient and costly style of our old friend; "Trial and Error Learning". Avoid these people like the plague. And if you find yourself in such a place, practice an active form of knowledge acquisition. By as many books as you can about firefighting and read them as quickly as is humanly possible. Then pray that you do not get killed or injured in the interim.
 
You need to learn how people learn. By understanding how people learn, you can develop a more effective approach to teaching. You can create bite- sized pieces of learning that can be easily digested by your students. Some of these might involve discovering new information, facts, and ways of doing things. Once your students know about these things, and can explain them, you can move on to assisting them into translating these facts into new and related situations. The ability to transfer knowledge to new situations is a good sign that relatively permanent learning has happened.
 
What am I saying here?  Being a leader is one heck of a lot more than standing up in front of a bunch of people and barking orders at them. You need to learn as much as you can about people and how they behave. You must learn as much as you can about how people learn. You need to gain knowledge in all of the areas of the service system in your community. You must become adept at the technical ways in which the sharing of knowledge can occur.
 
You must then share. It is my contention that if you cannot share knowledge you cannot lead people. I say this because it indicates a certain level of selfishness that will preclude you from ever being able to care enough about people to lead them. If it is your intention to lead, then it is my intention to keep kicking you in the butt until you become proficient in sharing knowledge. My 46 years in the business have taught me this lesson and it is my intention to keep sharing it until the Good Lord calls me home. Take care and stay safe.

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