Investing In Our Future

Aug. 1, 2003
I am very fortunate. I get to travel all over the place and meet people from literally all aspects of the fire service. We visit about lots of things, and on everyone's list of concerns is the issue of developing future leaders in fire departments and throughout the fire service industry. There is going to be tremendous turnover of fire service leaders in the next 10 years, and one of our generation's greatest responsibilities is to ensure a strong cadre of men and women to step into those positions and assume key leadership roles.

I often ask audiences at conferences how many of them have 25 or more years in the fire service and plan to retire in the next 10 years. Two-thirds (or more) of the people in the room raise their hands, and it doesn't matter whether the audience is primarily career or volunteer members. This will create exciting opportunities for advancement for our junior people - but it creates quite a challenge for those who will be leaving the fire and life safety industry in their hands.

There are many aspects of development that should receive attention, and they are all important to preparing our future leaders for success. Following are just a few to think about:

Education. We're not doing future leaders any favors if we "pooh-pooh" the importance of formal education. Our professionalism and readiness to assume supervisory, management, and executive level positions is judged by some on whether we possess college degrees. Associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees and, for some, doctorates are critical to preparing people to assume leadership and management roles in the fire service, just as in other professions.

Training. Technical training and certifications are important to a person's success, no matter what position he or she holds. We all know that a person simply can't compensate for incompetence. We need to be able to perform our duties and play our roles, and training helps ensure that we can. People who think they're "fully trained" in our business are dangerous, to themselves and others. We must encourage our future officers to stay current and stay competent, attend training and get (and stay) professionally certified.

Experience. As we all know, experience is not a reflection of the number of days or years we show up; it's a result of all that we were exposed to and what we learned from that exposure. Sometimes, seniority and experience have little in common. We, as current leaders who will eventually vacate our positions, must pass along our experience and put future officers in positions to gain critical experience of their own. That can be a difficult challenge. People don't just learn by listening or watching - they also learn by doing. Therefore, we must let them "do it" and coach them to be successful.

Interpersonal skills. Superstar leaders all have a few things in common, and one of those is their ability to select the right people, inspire them, motivate them and have open communications with them. They simply deal well with people. The leaders who struggle the most, no matter what field they're in, haven't figured this out, or don't care to.

Leaders lead primarily by example, and most of what they achieve results directly from the individual and collective efforts of others. Leaders cannot afford to ignore this reality. People tend to make a long-term commitment to the fire service and they have long-term memories. The way leaders act out their respect for people has a lot to do with the respect they get in return. This concept is a "rite of passage" to the rest of what we learn about leading people.

Integrity. This is another key to successful leadership development and performance. People don't trust leaders who are dishonest, and the clock starts on measuring honesty long before people assume leadership positions. Those who aspire to leadership positions must be concerned about their reputation for integrity and their credibility from the very beginning of their careers. Trust is critical to leadership; it's hard to earn, easy to lose and even harder to get back! This concept is another "rite of passage" to leading others.

There is not a lot of good information and guidance available to help us with the development and mentoring of future fire service leaders. I will continue to share what I have developed in hopes that you will find it useful. All who occupy leadership positions received help getting there from somebody. We owe the same to the next generations of leaders.

The fire and life safety industry as a whole has significant challenges ahead, and it always will. Quality leadership, capable management and good supervision will be key elements in successfully meeting those challenges. We need to invest in the future, and one critical way we do that is by investing in future leaders. Thanks for your help!

Dennis Compton, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has more than 33 years in the fire service. He was assistant fire chief in Phoenix, where he served for 27 years; and fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for 5 1/2 years. Compton is a well-known author, speaker and educator, and the recipient of several national awards. He has chaired the IFSTA Executive Board and the CFSI National Advisory Committee, and serves on the board of NFPA, as well as several other boards of directors. Compton serves as a national advocate and executive advisor inside and outside the fire service.

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