"Summer of '63" Leadership Skills

July 1, 2008
Allen W. Baldwin reviews what the fire service can learn from military leaders at the Battle of Gettysburg and beyond.

In this article, we are going to get a philosophical and historical as opposed to the usual operational. Currently, I am instructing a "Managing Company Tactical Operations" course series. My class is a mix of seasoned officers, chiefs, young aspiring firefighters and a few new officers. We spend a lot of time talking about leadership and its importance. With all of this discussion, I began to think about what is out there to help develop these folks into great leaders and to further develop our own leadership skills.

Some people will say that great leaders are born, while some will say great leaders are a result of having great people around and supporting them. Whatever your definition of a great leader or how they are "born," I am sure you will agree that great leaders keep learning and improving their skills. We could look up the definitions of "leader" or "leadership" in a dictionary, but I find it easier to form my own definition of a great leader. There are people within the fire service who exhibit the true meaning of leadership and what it means to be a leader through their beliefs and actions. These are people I admire and try to emulate based on there abilities to lead and set positive examples. Chief Charlie Dickinson, Chief Dennis Rubin, Chief Billy Goldfeder, Chief Alan Brunacini, Dr. Harry Carter and DCFD Firefighter Jackson Gerhart are just a few of my fire service leadership role models. These people, whether officers or line firefighters, show certain qualities that set them apart from the rest -- they earn our respect and we trust them with our careers, our safety and maybe even our lives. Think who you would add to your list as fire service leadership role models.

Further research led me to begin considering what would happen if we look "outside our box," beyond the fire service, for time-proven leadership styles. As I thought about where to look for additional information and materials on great leaders to learn more and help to develop future leaders of the fire service, it dawned on me that I needed only to look right in my own backyard for examples of great leadership.

My backyard borders the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park and I am just about a stone's throw from the monument of one of the greatest military leaders, Robert E. Lee. Here was a leader who could keep an army focused and believing in a cause for almost four years under varying conditions. Even after their defeat at Gettysburg, Lee's men stood behind him and would have continued the battle. Why? Lee was a proud man, but also humble in most aspects. He demanded loyalty from his staff and army and in return gave loyalty and respect to those who supported him. Lee also believed to a point that he and his army were invincible, which is probably what got him into trouble at Gettysburg, along with ignoring the advice of some of his trusted staff, in the end as any true leader does. Lee took the responsibility for his men's failures along with his own. There are many excellent books on Lee and his staff that show his style of leadership and deserve a look.

Two other great leaders at Gettysburg who deserve our attention are General John Buford and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Buford saw where the fighting would take place and where it could go if deliberate defensive actions weren't taken. With that vision, he led his men into a lopsided battle to hold their position and slow the enemy down until help arrived and the situation could be controlled. Buford accomplished this by looking at the big picture and realizing if he didn't hold this position, the fighting would be worse and even more lives lost. He knew the gravity of the situation, what had to be done and the sacrifices that might have to be made. He used his experiences and knowledge to form this vision. If Buford's men had not believed in his leadership abilities and in him, would they have been able to hold the "high ground"? Is this not unlike what we do by holding the fire in check until the rest of the assignment arrives or making a stop and holding at a trench cut?

Chamberlain is another notable Gettysburg commander who also realized the importance of his men's position and why they had to hold at all costs. He realized that if he abandoned his position, the enemy would go by and overtake the federal army, endangering not only his men, but possibly the entire federal army. Chamberlain dug in and took a stand following his senior officers' initial orders to hold at all costs. Had he not had the respect and trust of his men and treated them as human beings, and set the example that if it was good enough for the men it was good enough for me, they might not have risen to the task on that day in July on Little Round Top and followed him down the rocky slope unarmed except for a bayonet. Talk about devotion to a leader -- it doesn't get much better than this; your men taking action based on a gutsy, instinctive order without questioning it.

Do we ever have to make gutsy decisions at emergency incidents that could have negative consequences? Lee, Buford and Chamberlain had different styles of leadership, as did the numerous other military leaders at the Battle of Gettysburg. Take the time to visit with these folks through any of the many books that have been written on each of them to gain additional insights to developing and improving leadership skills. Think outside the "fire service box" to help improve your skills.

If all of this seems like ancient history and you prefer a more modern approach, another military leader who details leadership skills and styles is Lieutenant General (ret.) Hal Moore, who with reporter Joseph L. Galloway wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once...And Young, which later was made into the movie "We Were Soldiers," about a November 1965 battle that took place during the Vietnam War (see www.lzxray.com). Moore delivered these remarks to his troops: "I can't promise you that I will bring you all home alive, but this I swear: When we go into battle, I will be the first one to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead, or alive, we all come home together. So help me God."

Moore offers tactical leadership insights that we can apply to our battles. Some of these insights include conduct in battle, four principles that we can apply to our business (and maybe we should put on an index card in our bunker coat pocket to remind us). The principles are:

  1. "Three strikes and you're NOT out!" A leader can do two things -- contaminate his environment and his unit with his attitude and actions, or he can inspire confidence.
    • Must be visible on the battlefield.
    • Must be in the battle.
    • From battalion commander on down, brigade and division commander on occasion.
    • Self confident.
    • Positive attitude.
    • Must exhibit determination to prevail no matter what the odds or how desperate the situation.
    • Must have and display the will to win by his actions, his words, his tone of voice on the radio and face to face, his appearance, his demeanor, his countenance, the look in his eyes. He must remain calm and cool. No fear.
    • Must ignore the noise, dust, smoke, explosions, screams of the wounded, the yells, the dead lying around him. That is all normal!
    • Must never give off any hint or evidence that he is uncertain about a positive outcome, even in the most desperate of situations.
  2. "There is always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor -- and after that one more thing, and after that one more thing, etc."
    • In battle, periodically detach yourself mentally for a few seconds from the noise, the screams of the wounded, the explosions, the yelling, the smoke and dust, the intensity of it all, and ask yourself, "What am I doing that I should not be doing, and what am I not doing that I should be doing to influence the situation in my favor?"
  3. "When there is nothing wrong, there's nothing wrong except -- there's nothing wrong!" That's exactly when a leader must be most alert.
  4. "Trust your instincts." In critical, fast-moving situations, instincts and intuition amount to an instant estimate of the situation. Your instincts are the product of your education, training, reading, personality and experience. When seconds count, instincts and decisiveness come into play. In quick-developing situations, the leader must act fast, impart confidence to all around him and must not second-guess a decision. Make it happen! In the process, he cannot stand around slack-jawed when he's hit with the unexpected. He must face up to the facts, deal with them and move on.

There is much we can learn from great military leaders. We have only scratched the surface here. Take time to look at major conflicts such as the Battle of Gettysburg for the good and bad leadership examples. Learn from the mistakes and wins of these leaders. Next, take a look at what kind of leader you are and what style(s) you would like to have. Look at what you think makes a great leader and then go after it to hone your skills.

After reading all of this, you may ask what does all of this have to do with fire-rescue operations? It has every thing to do with them. The company officer, the chief officers and the incident commander set the tone for the incident and how it will go. How the incident goes depends on what kind of leaders you have at the front.

ALLEN W. BALDWIN is manager of operations and incident response for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. He is a firefighter/EMT with over 25 years of service as a volunteer and career member. Baldwin is assistant chief of the Gettysburg, PA, Fire Department and a past career chief of the Chambersburg Fire Department and is nationally certified as a Firefighter II, Fire Officer IV, Fire Inspector II and Fire Instructor II. He is currently enrolled in Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. Baldwin has an associate's degree in fire science and administration from the Community College of Allegheny County and a bachelor's degree in public administration form Point Park University.

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