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 President Obama and took his place at the top in August.
Last week, Cochran shared the lessons he learned in his 28-year career with attendees at the 2009 Firehouse Central conference in Atlanta where he served as fire chief for about 18-months just prior to his federal appointment. The title of his session was "The Chief Officer of the Future." It was designed to provide aspiring fire officers with practical tips on how to advance their careers.
"Use me as an example," Cochran said. "You should believe it is possible for you to be the United States Fire Administrator, or the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or to be the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which all of you have the capacity to become."
Cochran said firefighters aspiring to become chief officers need to focus on their advancement from the moment they begin the first day of their career as a rookie in their first fire station.
"Success is where preparation meets opportunity," Cochran said. "That's success. We should be in a constant state of preparation, all the time, all the time, so when the opportunity presents itself, you've got it all going on. You don't have to go and try to build relationship with the community, to build relationships with politicians and build credibility with the people in the department. It's just already been built because you've been working on it all the time."
For Cochran, his ascension to the pinnacle of the fire service began with a dream as a five-year-old boy who wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.
"When I was a kid, I told people I wanted to be a firefighter," said Cochran, who added he grew up in Shreveport, La., in a Baptist community as a poor kid living in a modest shotgun house. "Grownup people said that if you want your dreams to come true, you have to believe in, and have faith in God, go to school and get a good education, respect grown up people and treat other kids like you want to be treated." He said that's the way he was raised and he carried those values into the fire service.
While it might seem easy to follow Cochran's recipe for success, it's not as easy as it seems. He said success requires sustained personal integrity and character.
Cochran said that when he went through the vetting process to get top level national security clearance for his new job, the investigators at the federal level spent a long time on personal integrity.
"They wanted to evaluate my whole life," he said. "They wanted to know how I treated women. They wanted to know whether I showed favoritism to African Americans because I am African American. They wanted to know how I participated in organizations that were predominately white males and how they felt about me and how I related to white males. ...They dug deep, deep, deep, deep and talked to people that I had forgotten about years ago. They wanted to know how I related to people. Thank God that they didn't find anything that could have cost me my opportunity to serve." And, that's why Cochran said it's important to keep your record spotless and your integrity intact right from the start.
Firefighters who want to become chief officers also need to align their personal core values with those of the fire service and the department they serve and do so selflessly, putting the good of others ahead of personal gain, Cochran said.
"What are your motives for being in the fire service," Cochran questioned rhetorically. "When your motives are authentic, and it doesn't get much more authentic than; ‘I want to serve people and I want to help people, and I am willing to lay my life on the line to do it, it doesn't get much more pure than that. ...When your needs are authentic and your motives are authentic, it drives you to assess your conduct and behavior to conform to the values of your department."
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.
"The objective is to add value to others," Cochran said. "You should always be thinking of ways to make your fellow firefighters, your engineer, your lieutenant, and your captain look good to the chief," Cochran said. "You should be saying I want more rank and more authority so that I can add more value to more people. Those people are never threatened, they have vision and they take advice from everybody including rookies when necessary. They are coaches and not dictators."
Even for all his hard work and achievement, Cochran said he still has shortcomings that he works on every day.
"I know I have done things in my life and my career that have contributed whole heartedly to my career advancement," Cochran said. "I also know that there are some weaknesses that when, and if I overcome them, I am going to be even more marketable for future opportunities. It takes a lot of courage to say that in a room full of firefighters, but it's important to be open and transparent. I'm telling you that, even though as blessed as I am, coming up as a poor kid from a shotgun house, with a five-year old's dream to the U.S. Fire Administrator, I tell you I have some weaknesses that if I were to overcome them, I would be and even better husband, a better daddy, a better U.S. Fire Administrator and we've got to accept that need for improvement in ourselves. ...It takes a constant focus to work on the things we know we need to improve."