Good Followers Make For a Better Leader

Sept. 1, 2005

Many times over the past five years, I have written about how you can become a better leader. This has been a tremendous journey. Let me assure that there is a great deal more to come. However, I want to shift gears a bit for this month's visit with you.

Let me suggest to you that as good as any leaders might be, they will be made that much better when they are surrounded by effective followers. Far too many officers I have met and worked with over the years have put far too much stock in themselves and their own skills. As important as any of these skills are, they may come up short if the leaders fail to ensure that their followers are the central focus in their working lives.

Certain people arrive at the status of effective follower based on their own efforts. They know what they want to be, they know what it takes to be good at that job and they apply themselves to the job at hand. These are the people who form the rock-solid foundation of your organization. These people are so obvious in their value to your organization that they are sometimes taken for granted. They are always where they should be. They always give you 110%. Their mistakes are infrequent. In short, these are the people who keep your organization running.

Many of these outstanding people want no part of a leadership role. They are pleased to be a part of your fire department and derive great satisfaction from their active participation in the day-to-day tasks that must be accomplished. They will spend their entire careers proud to hold the title of firefighter.

Let me share an example of this sort of person with you. One of my good buddies in the Newark Fire Department was a fellow Vietnam veteran. His name is Bob Langevin. He entered the fire department in February 1974. Had the city not taken away our chief's aides in the early 1990s, Bob would have been my aide.

Like a number of us from that generation, he was a firefighter in a northern New Jersey volunteer fire department. He knew what he wanted to do with his life and he was able to live his dreams through his service in the Newark Fire Department. He wanted to be a firefighter.

I often heard him tell people that he did not want to be an officer. Bob never studied for a captain's examination, yet he had an intimate grasp of every aspect of the firefighter's position. He just wanted to be the best firefighter he possibly could be. He was resilient, knowledgeable and dependable, and he could work for hours on end at a job. He was perhaps the best truck company firefighter with whom I worked in the city. When he retired in 1999, he left a great legacy.

I could not tell you how many younger firefighters looked to him as their role model. He closed out his career with me at the Fire Training Academy. His willingness to share what he knew made him a natural at working with the recruits. His reputation made him an effective instructor with the regular line units that passed through the academy for in-service training. They guys knew that he had served his time in one of the busiest units in the city. You just knew that he would always be there.

It is these twin attributes of reliability and dependability that frequently cause such people to blend into the background. You don't have to spend a great deal of your leadership talent on them, so you come to count on them. There is a danger in this. You can cut them off and hurt them.

You need to recognize their value and involve them in the day-to-day operations of your department. Solicit their advice and rely on their feedback. Many times, the younger, less-experienced people will use these veterans as the conduit to the powers that be. A few words from a young firefighter to a veteran can usually make their way up the chain of command in a quiet way.

Each one of these individuals can be a powerful force for good. These are the people whose talents should be used for mentoring the newer members of the department. Some are outstanding firefighters. Others are top-notch pump operators. Still others are wizards at rescue and extrication operations. Do not forget those whose forte is in the world of the emergency medical services.

Here is where their talents can be tapped into and passed along to the new people who most need their assistance. Most will not want you to make a big deal about who they are and what they do. However, do not slight them when the time comes to dish out the praise. The occasional pat upon the back and kind word will do wonders.

Now let me give you a bit of advice as to how you may be able to create a future generation of reliable organizational members. As I have often stated in my classes, this is not rocket science. I know a rocket scientist and he assured me that the creation of leaders is not rocket science.

What it does take is a will and a way. I cannot provide you with the will. Only you can decide to labor mightily to create a new generation of competent co-workers. Perhaps, however, I can guide you in deciding what you will need to do in your life environment. Think of the ways in which you interacted with the best leaders for whom you ever worked. How did they treat you? What did they expect from you? What was it about them that allowed you to grow as a member of their teams?

I cannot tell you who the one best leader is in your life, for that experience is a part of your background, not mine. I do not know who your role model is, but I know that mine is a distillation of about five different people. I used parts of each of their leadership styles. I use the same method in my leadership classes when I ask the students to think about the best leader they can remember. What made them a great leader? How did they act? What did they do and how did they do it? I then ask my students to think about emulating that person. In this way, you will perpetuate the good things that they taught you.

The effect is the same. If you live as the role model of a concerned and caring leader for your people, they may well begin to emulate you. More than that, if they see that you exhibit a sincere and abiding concern for them, they will start to work even harder on your behalf.

If you want respect from your people, then you must show them respect. If loyalty is a necessary component in your department, then you must show the people that you are loyal to them. Be supportive and encouraging. I suggest that you must allow your followers the freedom to try new and innovative ideas. If they fail, be there for them and help them find the better way for their next attempt. If they experience success, allow them to enjoy the spotlight. Do not take credit for their work.

During the past two decades, I have heard from hundreds of people on the topics of leadership and follower-ship. Firefighters are rarely reticent about regaling me with stories of the best and worst in the way of leadership. Based on their responses, I would suggest the following as actions that you leaders out there should consider making a part of your operational modus operandi.

  • Trust your people until they give you a reason not to
  • Ask for their opinions and be sure you listen to what they are saying
  • Stand by them in times of trouble
  • Remember that nobody likes a fair-weather friend
  • Delegate as much and as often as you can
  • Be honest in every interaction
  • Do not have a hidden agenda

Let me also suggest that you do not want to create mindless robots that exist merely to cater to your every whim. You must let people express themselves openly. If they fear the consequences of voicing their views, they will shut up as tight as a clam in cold water. That is not conducive to the creation of caring and resourceful co-workers.

Do not think of the people with whom you work as subordinates or followers. If you think of them in that way, you will come to treat them in that manner. It is sort of like the lines from an episode of the old "Honeymooners" TV show. Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden character is treating Art Carney's Ed Norton character in a particularly rough way. Ralph shouts to Ed, "I am the boss and you are nothing." Ed's response is a classic, when he replies, "I guess you know what that makes you, the boss over nothing."

As a leader, you must always treat your coworkers as fellow human beings. Let me once again ask you to do nothing more complex than treat people as you would like to be treated. It is not any harder to portray than that.

The same holds true for the way in which a follower treats a leader. Both the leader and the follower have a hand in making their relationship work. Neither should ever complain if they fail to take advantage of their opportunities to succeed. Every day must be faced as yet one more opportunity to improve your abilities as a leader and follower.

The interplay between people in functional positions of authority and those who operate in positions of a subordinate level must always be clear, concise, honest and straightforward. Let me offer another critical thought to you. It takes courage to be a good leader. It takes even more courage to be a loyal, faithful follower. Never forget that.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Dr. Carter is an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. A fire commissioner for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through his website at [email protected].

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