When I am fortunate to present sessions around the country that are related to leadership, team-building and professional development (among other topics), I like to include what I believe are fire officer best practices.
Here are five “commandments” that I discussed recently at Firehouse Expo Direct, all of which are relevant now and for many years to come.
1. Possess courage under fire to be a leader in today’s fire service and, particularly, in today’s world. “Courage Under Fire Leadership” is a phrase that I have come to embrace, particularly after hearing Worcester, MA, Fire Department District Chief (ret.) Mike McNamee share the horrific events from the famous Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire on Dec. 3, 1999. He was the initial incident commander who then transitioned to the chief who was responsible for interior operations. He made one of the most difficult decisions of his career, if not his life, when he put a stop to the rescue efforts that were underway for his department’s missing members. He literally put his hands across the door to the stairway going up and had to scream to the firefighters who were ready to go search for their missing mates that he was calling off the search. He already knew in his gut that they lost six firefighters, and he didn’t want to lose any more. I encourage you to learn more about those tragic events and the tremendous leadership that he exhibited, as painful as it was. He had the courage under fire to be a leader and to make a decision that many wouldn’t have been able to make because of peer pressure and fear of being ridiculed.
If ever there was a time to have to possess courage under fire as a leader, it is now. So many distractions can take us away from our core, our mission, our vision and our values, among other things. As fire officers today, we are in dire need of that leadership that begins at the firehouse.
2. Do your job. Normally, I would share this as No. 1, because it covers everything, right? Yeah, right, easier said than done. Doing your job is both simple and complex, depending on whom you ask. It almost is like saying, “Use common sense,” “Do the right thing” or “Do things right.” Each of those phrases can be interpreted in different ways, with some very extreme definitions, depending on the other person’s situation, beliefs or values.
3. Establish expectations. If you don’t provide direction and expectations to those who you are fortunate to lead and serve, how do you expect them to be the best that they can be and be the individual who you are proud to have on your team?
4. Hold others accountable. Expectations only are good if you take the time to hold others accountable when they don’t meet the expectations. Although it’s easy to share and discuss expectations, it’s more difficult to hold others accountable, because, to some, you now are another word that starts with “a.”
5. Realize that leadership and teamwork don’t start at the top; they start at the firehouse. It’s true: Leadership must start at the top. However, even if the fire chief does a great job of sharing his/her vision, empowering others, building bench strength, creating policies for best practices and leading by example, the fire chief only is as good as his/her crews on the front lines and at the firehouse. If the officers at the firehouses aren’t being the leaders and supervisors that they are expected to be, how can one expect to have a cohesive and dialed-in team that’s ready to rock and to do the best that they can for the community that they should be proud to serve?
Yes, 2020 definitely seemed like a year during which the hits kept coming and coming. One thing after another: a pandemic, budget cuts, politics, wildfires, hurricanes, deaths of many prominent individuals, and, oh, yes, let’s not forget the threat of “murder hornets.” What’s next? The role and responsibility of a fire officer (company officer or chief officer) never have been more challenging and will probably continue to be extremely challenging for years to come.