USFA Fire Administrator Shares Leadership Advice

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Perhaps there's no one better to teach lessons about what it takes to become a leader in the fire service than United States Fire Administrator Kelvin Cochran -- the nation's top fire official. Cochran was appointed to the position by...

Authenticity when dealing with people is also critically important to the cultivation of leaders of tomorrow, Cochran said.

"Part of professional development is interacting with people in such a way that once your opportunity comes along, you'll have more people celebrating your advancement than playing it down and shooting you down, Cochran said. "When a person's ways and habits are authentic toward people, even his or her enemies celebrate the advancement. Those who speak ill against them are convicted within themselves because they know they are talking about a man, or a woman of character."

Cochran added that "the successful firefighters and officer of the future are those individuals whose personal values line up with the organizational core values."

There are four essential skills sets firefighters need to develop and hone through their career if they chose to climb the ladder to chief officer, said Cochran, who said, technical skills, interpersonal skills, conceptual skills and administrative skills were all equally important to success.

Technical skills are front loaded in the beginning of a firefighter's career and change over the years as firefighters transition into top management. He cautioned the "whippersnappers" in the audience to pace themselves as they gain the technical knowledge and balance professional career work with personal life. Sustaining energy and enthusiasm is important to a long and productive career, as well as life after retirement.

But, Cochran said it's just as important for firefighters to "wean" themselves off the technical stuff as they move toward administration.

"And that's really hard because the technical training stuff is the sexiest stuff of being a firefighter," he said. "When you start focusing on administrative and managerial stuff and leadership stuff, that's not as sexy as cutting up a car, or rappelling off the side of a building. You know what I'm saying."

The ability to establish working relationships with others in the organization is absolutely essential, Cochran said.

"You limit your advancement potential when you do not have the capacity to relate to all people of various groups and backgrounds and circumstances," he said. "Interpersonal skills are the constant work that takes place throughout the career of a professional firefighter."

Public speaking is essential too, he said noting communities want to know their fire chief can talk in public and doesn't mind getting out with the people and working in the neighborhoods.

Just as there are attributes of a successful firefighter and fire officer, there are several pitfalls firefighters can fall into that will derail their career advancement plans.

Emotional instability, defensive behavior, lack of integrity, lack of interpersonal skills, and misuse of technical and cognitive skills, he said.

Angry outburst and behavioral mood swings show emotional instability, not a good quality for a leader, said Cochran who noted people who exhibit that kind of behavior "really don't have a shot if they don't change their ways."

Technically proficient firefighters who exhibit angry outbursts, despite their skills sets, are not good officer material.

"If they've got this stuff going on, they're not good firefighters," he said. "They might fight fires good, but a good firefighter is the person who embraces the entire scope of the personality and work ethic and the technical skills of their rank," he said. "...A good firefighter is the person who embraces the entire scope of personality, the work ethic and technical skills of their rank" – not just do one side of the work well.

Cochran also said there needs to be a balance in the personalities of chief officers. Some officers might be totally introverted and stay in the office the entire time of his or her shift, not mingling, not getting out in to the community.

Others might thrive on the attention and exhibit narcissistic traits where their whole existence is to seek approval and accolades of others, Cochran said.

The best candidates for officers can get out in the community, accept modest approval and include others in their administration, he said.