Most of us in the fire and emergency services would agree that leadership matters and is vital to the successful outcomes of any organization. We could also agree that many so called leadership gurus and fire service personalities are out on the circuit pontificating their tricks of the trade. There is certainly no shortage of people instructing or promoting their own “how to” guide to get other people to accomplish tasks that you want them to do. It can be said, that the old adage of “setting the example” is only half of the algebraic equation. So if we as leaders are challenged for “solving for X” what is the formula? The answer may be a lot simpler than we may think. In order to set the example we as leaders must first be the example.
I’m certain that there is much to agree upon with the qualities and traits that are necessary to exemplify true leadership. It would be futile to try and list them all within this blog post. So instead, let’s focus on a few that we as leaders have direct control over every day. Our attitudes, behaviors, and culture.
Our attitudes directly control the temperature of not only ourselves but everyone around us as well. Is it possible to maintain a positive attitude every time all of the time? Of course not! We are human, and as such there will be times that we have moments that we will want to choke out a poodle (inside joke). This is perfectly normal! Now before PETA gets their leashes in a bunch; no animals were harmed in the writing of this blog! The last thing I want is Sarah McLachlan making a commercial about me, but I digress.
We must remember that we are in total control of how our attitudes are perceived. Is it okay for our people to see us angry, burned out, and cynical? I say yes, but we must maintain our tact and bearing. For those who have served in the military you know exactly what I’m talking about. Think about the fireground for a moment. When things get hairy and the incident commander starts to lose their bearing by screaming on the radio does this not set a course of actions into play? Tensions rise and errors may occur. Same goes for our leadership profile. Be angry, however remain in control. Do not take that anger out on others especially those whom we are leading.
This is the Holy Grail of leadership! I have a huge problem with so called leaders who say that “I’m not here to be their friend, I’m here to make sure things get done!” As leaders, and as exemplified by the Navy SEALs we must be focused on the TEAM life. Does this mean that we have to be the most popular person on our platoon? In our organization? Of course not. If a leader has to tell you that they are the BOSS, they most certainly are not behaving like a leader. Collar pullers need not apply! “Without recognizing the balance between getting the work done and being popular, a leader will simply create roadblocks to leadership success and teamwork” (Karpluk & Quan, 2013, pg. 112).
The problem with being the popular leader or better known as a charismatic leadership style is this, the only people who will follow your lead are those who are likeminded and have a similar mindset. Albeit either positive or negative in nature. Our behavior is directly correlated to our attitudes. Once charismatic leaders are finished pulling rabbits out of their hats, their magic is gone. They’re out of tricks.
Being the example, is ensuring that our own actions are not inviting the wrong type of critic. Let’s face it, there are many critics out there just waiting for us to make an error in judgement. They lie in waiting like snakes in the grass awaiting the opportunity to slither in and spew their venom. We see this all too often on the inter-webs and throughout social media. Beware of the fire service rock star on social media! Their egos will soon reveal their true behaviors. “The do as I say, and not as I do!” “The first thing a leader must declare is not authority because of rights, but authority because of relationships” (Maxwell, 1993, pg. 118). Remember this: people “buy into” the leader before they “buy into” his or her leadership!
There seems to be a civil war in terms of the current culture in the fire service these days. There are great people who wish to see improvement upon how we do business. Sadly, these transformational leaders are under attack for their vision. “A leader’s job is to look into the future and see his or her organization, not as it is, but as it will be” (Viscuso, 2013, pg. 17). If we are to set a positive path forward we must not lose sight of the culture that we are fostering. As aforementioned, the inter-webs are bustling with opinions on how things should be based off anecdotal experiences. It doesn’t take long to see the word “aggressive” used and misused over and over again as a badge of courage or a vindication of culture.
How about we set a culture of aggressively taking care of those in our charge? Could you imagine the possibilities if we were to develop our people within the organization to become better people? Wouldn’t a better crop of people who truly have personal skills be better for the organization as a whole? My good friend Chief Steve Prziborowski and his organizations suggest that we should hire for character and train for skill. I couldn’t agree more brother!
Look for transformational leaders that are in the trenches. Quietly striving for self-improvement but most importantly, setting a path for others to join them along the way. If you have been following my writings hopefully a pattern has emerged. Surely, I can teach firefighters to force doors. What I’m striving to accomplish is having firefighters force their minds to seek continuous improvement. I truly believe that it all starts with our attitudes, behaviors, and cultures. Don’t focus so much on trying to set an example. Simply BE the example.
Karpluk & Quan (2013). Leadership Prescribed. Self-Published.
Maxwell, J. C. (1993). Developing the leader within you. Nashville: Thomas Nelson .
Viscuso, F. (2013). Step up and lead. Tulsa, OK: PennWell Corporation
John Dixon is a career fire officer with an urban fire department in New Jersey and has over 20 years in the fire service. He has earned his fire officer (FO) credentials from the Center for Public Safety Excellence and is a National Fire Academy Alumni. John has a passion for training, mentoring, and inspiring up-and-coming officers and firefighters. He has served as an Instructor with the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy, a member of Project Kill the Flashover, and currently serves as the NJ State Lead Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
You can contact John through his website: InstructorJohnDixon.com
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