Lexington Chief Keith Jackson Leads by Example, Cares

He works out daily, meets and eats with his staff, shows up at fires and sometimes, maybe fueled by his nostalgia, he rides on the truck.

Feb. 09--It's 5:15 Tuesday morning, and Lexington Fire Chief Keith Jackson's alarm clock is ringing.

Jackson, a self-proclaimed gym rat, is out the door and on the treadmill in the gym at Fire House Station 1 around 6:30 a.m. By 9:30 a.m., he's leading an executive meeting that focuses on the division's budget, problems and future plans. Two hours later, Jackson makes his way to Station 5, where he talks with firefighters and reminisces about his time there as a paramedic.

This is a typical day for Jackson. He works out daily, meets and eats with his staff, shows up at fires and sometimes, maybe fueled by his nostalgia, he rides on the truck.

All of that is part of an effort to lead by example, set a tone and send a message that everybody matters. But it's also about establishing change and pursuing a larger vision.

Nearly three years ago, Jackson, 48, was asked to help a wounded department rebound.

Many of the department's problems were laid out in 2011, when then-newly elected Mayor Jim Gray received a 67-page report that outlined a multitude of issues that plagued Lexington's public safety agencies, especially the fire department. Among the issues listed were the former chief's failure to manage the division's budget, significant overtime expenditures, poor morale and a lack of leadership. At the time, Gray said the report confirmed symptoms that had existed for years. The mayor wanted a change, and in March 2011, Gray asked for the resignation of then-Chief Robert Hendricks, under whom Jackson served as assistant chief of administration. Soon after, Gray named Jackson interim fire chief.

Jackson took that role with no promise that he would be the chief, and he says he wasn't even sure he wanted the role. He took it, and in June 2012 Jackson was hired as the permanent chief, filling a void and etching his name in history books by becoming the city's first black fire chief.

Gray said he appointed Jackson because of his work ethic -- the thing inside that makes him resist the urge to hit the snooze button when that alarm clock rings at 5:15 a.m. -- and his diverse background as a leader. Jackson, the mayor said, possessed "the leadership and organizational skills that come from commanding 850 soldiers in Iraq, part of his service in the Army Reserves."

The ability to focus, "lead from the front" and make tough decisions is exactly why Jackson was the man for the job, Gray said. "Leadership is often about going against the grain, making tough decisions, taking criticism and push back," Gray said. "When I think of Keith, I think of these words: faith, family, friends, discipline, loyalty, country, community, service. Those attributes make for leadership, and they're why I appointed Keith Jackson to the role."

Humble beginnings

Jackson, who comes across as soft-spoken and somewhat reserved, will tell you that his leadership style reflects an upbringing that was fueled by the teachings of his mother and grandparents.

Jackson's grandfather, Richard Briscoe, taught him hard work. As a boy, Jackson wondered why Briscoe, now 89, got up at 4:30 a.m. when he did not have to be at work until 6 a.m. He later learned that his grandfather, a man who didn't graduate from the fifth grade, got up early to study before work. Jackson said his grandmother Cora Briscoe, 87, taught him love.

His mother, Beverly Miller, taught him perseverance.

"I did a lot of growing up with Keith," said Miller, 68, who had Jackson when she was 19. "He was a very easy child to raise. He's always been very quiet and shy. He was an old soul."

Jackson grew up in the '60s and '70s. He lived in two of Lexington's former housing projects -- Bluegrass-Aspendale and Charlotte Court -- with his mother, younger brother and twin sisters. (He has three other siblings on his father's side.)

Life was difficult.

Miller was a single mother who worked two jobs, so Jackson took on responsibility early. At 6, he said he watched his siblings and made "dinner" -- peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

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