The Journey: It's a Matter of Trust

May 25, 2010
This article continues our discussion on the journey to fire service leadership. As I said in the first article, it is the journey to leadership that builds our character. Our character is shaped along the way by all the twists and turns on the path of life. It is our character that we will rely on when we reach our destination. In this installment we will be discussing trust.

This article continues our discussion on the journey to fire service leadership. As I said in the first article, it is the journey to leadership that builds our character. Our character is shaped along the way by all the twists and turns on the path of life. It is our character that we will rely on when we reach our destination. In this installment we will be discussing trust.

For the fire service officer to be effective he or she must be trusted by their subordinates. People will not follow your orders if they don't trust your judgment. That goes for administrative and emergency situations as well as personal and professional matters.

For volunteers, where the path to promotion is generally through election, building trust probably started the day you joined. Did the members trust you enough to allow you into the company? When you were in, did you listen to orders? Did you follow directions? Did you learn your job? Now that it is your turn to give the orders, do you know what to say and how to say it?

Election can be an affirmation of the members trust in your ability. Now you must prove that their confidence has not been misplaced. Can you do the job they elected you to do?

For career officers, a promotion comes from scoring a passing grade on a civil service test. Promotion often means transfer to a new station, a new area of town, and a new set of people. This may allow a new "boss" to exercise his or her new rank without the people "who knew you when." But it also means building trust all over again.

There is, however, a built in level of trust in that you had to be smart enough to pass the test. Admittedly, I wonder how some guys did!

Trust often begins with some small administrative matter. Even if the request sounds trivial you must treat it with great importance. Remember the issue or request was important enough for the individual to bring it to you. Treat it with the same importance they feel for it. If you give the impression through word, action or body language that you are somehow bothered by the request, it is likely that you will be "shut out" by this person and never gain their trust. As you build trust, expectations from the members will become greater.

How you handle a person's personal needs will determine whether or not you can be trusted. Things told to you in confidence must never become public knowledge.

Issues that affect a person's job performance, for example, must be dealt with privately. The old adage is true, praise in public, punish in private. A discussion of poor performance is a private matter. It does not have to be a punishment. Merely suggesting a member review their forcible entry skills if they had trouble forcing a door may seem like a simple thing, but if it is mentioned in front of the group and it effects their status among the group it could be devastating to them. Praising his or her work when they forced a door quickly with out excessive damage or asking them to instruct the other members on the technique will elevate their status among the group. It will also elevate them within his or her own mind because you have recognized their work and they have been rewarded for it.

Asking another member if "everything is OK at home," if you have noticed they seem distracted around the firehouse, shows a level of concern. If you have noticed a change in behavior it is no one else's business. You will build trust by showing genuine care and concern for your members well being.

The level of trust a member requires from you on personal issues may be two or three times more than required for routine matters. Depending on the level of privacy they feel for the issue.

On the fireground you will build trust by being competent. In firefighting, trust is proportional to the risk and exponential to the hazard. Let me explain, because it sounds like a friction loss calculation. In the fire service we calculate "risk versus reward" in our minds.

Going into a burning building is always risky, even for "food on the stove," but how much greater is the hazard when the building is fully involved? Or built of lightweight construction? It is a lot harder to get people to go into a hostile environment by telling them, "I'll be right behind you," than "follow me." They are looking to you to get the job done and bring them back home. When you demonstrate you have the skills people will begin to trust your judgment.

I grew up understanding that "everyone came from somewhere." Now that sounds like Yogi Berea, but its not. What it means is, everyone doesn't have the same experience. Everyone came down a different road of life to get to where they are now. As a leader you must deal with the experience that you have and move on. If you have gaps in your education it is too late now. You must go with what you got. This may mean putting "it" on the line sometimes. That is OK; everyone is not good at everything.

Let your people assess your strengths and weaknesses. Your strengths will let you speak with authority because you have "been there, done that." Your weakness will allow you to be humble. You must be honest with your people. If you lack experience in a particular area, own up to it. Human beings are a very perceptive species. They can tell when someone is faking it. The more technical the skill the harder it is to fake anyway. It is better to let them know than let them down! This is one time when you must check your ego at the door.

Trust develops both ways. As their leader you should not count on subordinates for every aspect of your job performance but it does allow you to recognize their skill in a particular aspect. Firefighters are one group of people that want to be respected for their skills. If a leader has respect for their skill then he or she will have confidence in their ability. Conversely, if the members don't think their boss can recognize their talent how will they view his/her judgment?

Trust cannot develop without a positive perception of judgment.

As your personality and leadership style become "known" to your members they will be drawn to you. People will always be drawn to a "known commodity" rather than the "unknown." Even with flaws, people would rather know who they are dealing with.

Trust is built by being concerned, competent and caring. Trust is precious. What takes years to build, could be destroyed in seconds. Trust should never be taken for granted. A wise chief once told me, "take care of your men and they will take care of you."

As always, stay safe.

Questions and comments are welcomed, send them to [email protected].

Look for the next article, "The Journey: Know How to Say Thank You."

CHRISTOPHER FLATLEY, a Contributing Editor, is a 20-year veteran of the FDNY and a lieutenant currently assigned to Ladder Company 21 in Manhattan. Chris has twice served as chief of the Blauvelt, NY, Volunteer Fire Company and is currently the assistant chief and training coordinator. He is a nationally certified Fire Instructor 1 and is an instructor at the Rockland County, NY, Fire Training Center and holds a degree in fire protection technology. He is a Master Exercise Practitioner on the Exercise Design Team through the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. You can reach Chris by e-mail at: [email protected].

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