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Horvath: “I knew I was going to have to adapt”

In her first day on the job as a recruit firefighter, Cheryl Horvath, now Division Chief of Operations for the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, Ariz., was confronted by three men who, in separate conversations, told her that she wasn’t cut out to be a firefighter and wouldn’t succeed. Horvath, who’d come to the fire service through a circuitous route and became a firefighter at age 32, had never encountered such an  attitude in any of the other jobs she’d held. As she put it, she realized very quickly that “I was going to have to adapt.”

As her current position reveals, Horvath not only adapted, but succeeded. She gave the keynote lecture at the Opening Session of FDIC this morning in Indianapolis.

Using her own career as an example, Horvath outlined three steps to what she calls “purposeful leadership” and how they pertain to the fire service:

Step 1 is being a follower, and it correlates to being a firefighter in the first years of your career (although Horvath acknowledged that to some extent, we are followers our whole lives, as we need to be constantly learning). For Horvath, this was a period of intense training and honing her craft. “I didn’t want to show any weakness,” she said.

Horvath entered Step 2—leading people—when she promoted to company officer.  The job then shifts from training yourself to training others—making sure everyone has the skills and abilities to do their job safely. An important lesson Horvath learned during her 8 years as a company officer:  perspective. “When you become too passionate about something, you lose perspective and are no longer a leader,” she said.

Step 3 came for Horvath when she moved to Tucson and promoted to Battalion Chief—and became a leader of leaders. “I was an outsider coming in,” she noted, and her ability to listen, learn new technologies such as positive pressure attack and CAFS, and build trust proved central to her success.

Now, Horvath is operating at the top of the organization, supervising battalion chiefs and heading up the operations division. Her final words of advice to men and women who aspire to a career of leadership: “Give support and give time.” Recalling an earlier anecdote about how the world consists of elephants and mice—who, even in the same room, have greatly different perspectives and priorities—Horvath said that true leaders are those who can bring the elephants and the mice together and get them to work for the betterment of the organization.

Also at the Opening Session: Capt. Eric Hankins of the Yuba City (CA) Fire Department received the Ray Downey Courage & Valor Award. Hankins was off duty when he came across an attic fire in a residence in the early morning hours of Jan. 12, 2009. Without PPE, water or back-up, Hankins rescued a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old girl from the flames, then stayed to help the responding crew fight the fire. Accepting the award, Hankins noted that “To have my name in the same sentence as Ray Downey’s is beyond belief.”

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Shannon Pieper is deputy editor for FireRescue magazine.

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