Leadership - More Important Than Ever Before

Aug. 14, 2006
I can’t remember a time, however, when the fire service was called that they did not respond and finish the job, whatever the cost or effort. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, I just have never seen it. That time may be coming however, and it’s going to be hard to do, let alone accept.

We are still at war. Disasters are looming and occurring ever more frequently and a pandemic may visit us well before we are ready. Considering our risk and exposure to any number of tragedies, accidents, or events, we as fire service professionals must be vigilant in our efforts to protect those we work for and with.

In order to do this adequately, strong leadership is essential. The public we serve looks at us to be the experts (if we may use that term lightly) for most if not all of the things that occur which are unpleasant and emergent. Who does the public call when they are having their "worst day? Generally, the fire service is somewhere in the mix. It's interesting too that when many businesses, service providers or even police departments are overwhelmed by workload or call volume, they simply don't respond. I can't remember a time, however, when the fire service was called that they did not respond and finish the job, whatever the cost or effort. I'm not saying it hasn't happened, I just have never seen it. That time may be coming however, and it's going to be hard to do, let alone accept.

Leadership has been stated in many different ways:

  1. The point at which you disappoint someone at a rate just below his or her threshold for giving up
  2. Becoming
  3. Ambition first and foremost for the institution, not ones' self
  4. Do what must be done for the best to evolve
  5. Making the hard choices
  6. Being tough
  7. Integrity and grit

Good leadership in the fire service can sometimes be tough to find. Here are some things that leadership is most likely NOT:

  1. Being liked by everyone
  2. Not rocking the boat
  3. Consensus
  4. Arrogance
  5. Fearless
  6. Egotistical
  7. Unbending

Why is leadership more important now than ever before? Our fire suppression force is young. Those of us who have been around a while have gained some good experience on what used to be much larger and more frequent incidents. These old lessons have been integrated into various manuals and curriculums that we now teach. Good prevention and education have minimized these events over the last few years minimizing our younger officers' abilities to learn and gain experience.

Oddly enough, most things are cyclical. Remember, history tends to repeat itself. Since America Burning was released in the early 1970's, we have collectively done a lot to reduce the incidence of fire and explosions. However, there are bigger issues brewing.

There is an unscientific opinion about what we call the Political Fire Cycle. America Burning emphasized the need for resources and staffing to slow our fire problem and we have done pretty well since 1970. However, we have done so well, many policy makers are now questioning why we are doing what we are as they "can't see" any consequence. "Why do we need a Public Education program when we have an insignificant number of fires?" The problem is they were not around to see the hard work that was invested years ago to grow those very programs, which in turn, have resulted in the decreases they are touting. Our fear is that this will cause policy makers to question credible efforts in an effort to save money amidst all the fiscal pressures for other community infrastructure.

The net result may be a cataclysmic and unnecessary loss of property and life due to a resurgence of big, bad events. Without strong, proper leadership, this could happen. Strong leadership will be necessary to try and hold onto our critical resources as well as accomplish tough objectives as resources and people are lost or redistributed.

In the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, he cites a statement made by a powerful and remarkable leader, Mr. Darwin Smith who said" I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job." This statement should be part of our individual mission statements.

Leadership is never easy. You aren't leading people when things are going well. They are typically managing themselves. It's when things go bad that leadership occurs. Generally, this involves making hard choices and decisions that don't please a lot of people. It may even involve getting the wrong people off the bus, and getting the right people on, as Mr. Collins suggests.

Leadership is becoming. As Dr Katherine Beatty and Dr. Richard Hughes state in their book Becoming a Strategic Leader, ".. leadership is a process of never-ending individual, team and organizational learning." Never stop learning! If you think about it, the more we learn, the more we find we don't know. Be the best student you can be.

The fire service is ripe with egos. These can be a strong attribute or a detriment to our success. Abraham Lincoln never let his ego get in the way of his primary ambition for the greater cause of a struggling but great nation. Never let your ego become more important than your credentials. Mr. Collins, in Good to Great, shows how huge egos have cratered many great organizations.

Those who try to be liked by everyone will disappoint far more than they will entice. Mediocrity and hypocrisy demoralize people who are star performers. Good leaders must be recognized and enabled. Mr. Collins states people are not your most important asset, the right people are.

Learn from your mistakes, and admit them. Be accountable and responsible as this sets the tone and the example. People are willing to forgive as long as you are honest and accept responsibility for your actions and learnings. Leadership is usually not easy, or fun. However, it is critical to our mission and our job. Leadership does not always mean being alone but rather enrolling the right number and type of people to do the right thing. In our job, we are either leading, or following. Both are important. I would offer though that this year, leading is in greater demand. People are counting on you.

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