Leadership Begins With Following

From a Photo by Arthur Fellig.  Fall River Photo# 091

"Fall River" by Arthur "WeeGee" Fellig. Used by permission, the Gordon Archive.

Brother, let’s have a cup over leadership. 

Leadership is a battlefield. Let me just get that off my chest. I’m not saying this because of anything that has occurred recently, I’m not grinding a pet peeve here. This is something that is often on my mind. It’s not easy to be good at leading firemen, nor is it easy to follow bad leadership.

There was a time and still is in places where you became a “leader” because you had been there longest. Simple as that. Whether union driven or not, there those departments where seniority is king and new guys shall not apply. And whoa to he or she who dares tread on what is owed to the senior ones. Qualified or not.
There are also those departments where there simply isn’t anyone who has been groomed to lead, has no desire, no background or no experience. Yet someone must fill the seat. Someone has to be responsible around here.

Then there are the exams which “qualify”. If you can pass that civil service exam, then you’re it! Highest score wins!Leadership potential is not a part of the picture.   Not as far as I can tell. Sure, they ask you on the oral boards, “What would you do if you found two of your company members fighting in the firehouse over whose turn it is to wash the engine bay floor?” 

How many good men have walked away from the fire service, or worse yet, have stayed and become bitter employees through the auspices of the excellent leadership available to them?  I know of too many. Perhaps you are one of these.  Things aren’t going well.  You’re disgusted with the people you work for, they aren’t motivated to be good firemen like you, they don’t show any Brotherhood in their veins, they don’t get it!  Perhaps as this New Year dawns, you’re contemplating where you are in your career, where you want to go and you’re thinking you deserve better, you want to work in a “Real” firehouse, where duty, pride and tradition are all that counts and it sucks in this department and no one is listening to you!  You’re right, they probably aren’t.  Chief types and your company officers, your peers, few of them are going to continue to put any credence in your thoughts and opinions if you become “embattled”.  I’ve learned the hard way that when you decide to pit yourself against the Authority Having Jurisdiction, ….you’re on your own.

Lots of things can be attributed to poor employee morale and performance.  But many of our problems as employees can be removed or at least diminished through good solid leadership AND “followership”.

“BAhh!” you say.  “Followership? Nothing doing!  It is their job to lead ME!”  But it isn’t.  It is their job to manage.  If we’re fortunate, if we are truly blessed, we will be led.  It is not ordained.

Look, brother.  You and I.  We know how to be good firemen.  We know how to follow someone we respect.  But how do you follow those you don’t?  That is what makes you good at what you do.  It’s easy to be obedient and productive under good leadership.  But how much more refined you become when you are working under management, instead.  In the absence of good leadership, we are left with who we are.  We are exposed.

Good leaders are first, good followers.  Look at it like this.  The apple is said to fall close to the tree.  If true, and if you harbor bitterness and resentment, if you struggle to view the department or the job as “owing you your due”, if you find yourself more concerned about what is best for you, versus what is best for the department, then you are going to lead in the same way.  Not that caring for yourself is a bad thing, but so many decisions and stances are taken over what is best for your “career” instead of simply doing the right thing.   If the above conditions are true of your character, I mean the real you, not the one you show to others, then you are the apple, and you won’t fall far from the tree.

Front Seat, Engine 1, Orlando Fire. 2010

The Officer Seat. Not everyone who sits there is qualified or deserving. Will you wait to sit there before you begin to learn about leadership?

I would encourage you to choose a different path, or course.  It is not the easy one.  But to train yourself to be a good leader, especially in the absence of a good teaching environment, one should have an excellent understanding of how to be good at following.  This attitude is one in which the leader need not be skilled or exceptional at all, can even be a bit of an ass.  But you will find some satisfaction in your job again, and you will not be constantly fighting the system, which leads to a burned out mental state, which in turn leads to being less than you could have been when your turn finally comes.

A wise man told me there are four types of employees (regardless of leadership styles). 

1.  The problem child (He’s going to fight whatever you do).

2. The rule follower (He will do what he is asked and that is about it).

3. The trusted advisor (He who will do as you ask but will also tell you what he thinks about what is going on).

4. The teammate (my terminology) This is the guy that does what he’s asked, gives his constructive opinion and also sees where the leader is going and tries to support him.  This may be for no other reason than that he wants to be supportive of the department or company and not tear it down.  It may be because he sees where the leader is going and agrees with it, or it may be that he sees where the leader is going and he naturally wants to be a part of it, move the ball forward and get into position to make things happen.

The four types of employees might have many motivations, but what is important about the third and fourth employee is that they are an asset to the department, the company or squad.  It’s a mindset.  It takes discipline and fortitude.  It isn’t always rewarded or appreciated.  But in the end, you have performed your duty and supported the department and you have left something of yourself intact to give to the moment when things come together.

Leadership begins here.  Learning to be a good follower in even the worst of circumstances.  I have found that in time, this noble effort, this work ethic from another era, is very rewarding.  Someone is always watching, someone is always taking note of how you perform your job and the attitude you have as you do it.  Your daily contribution is measured.  True, the higher your standard, the harder you are hit when you miss the mark, miserable people love to see a good guy stumble and they don’t let you forget it, but that is also a part of being a good leader and follower.  Learning that you are just as susceptible as everyone else and therefore, just as prone to failure.  But you will also find among the eyes that are watching, there is one who is looking for just the right man for the job.  And when needed, they will know where to look.

These experiences create leadership skills that you can draw upon later.  And leadership from an unofficial level takes place all the time and is the realm of the good follower.  Drawing the rest of the group in the direction the leader wants to go in.   I’m not advocating blind obedience here.  I’m calling in temperance, good judgement, and like I mentioned earlier, fortitude and discipline.  To be the fourth employee, you need to develop these traits to help you perceive what is valuable and worth supporting  because it’s the right thing to do.  You won’t always agree with the one you’re following.   It may require stomaching something that just grinds your gut, but there is a time and a place to let fly with all that and in front of other company members or in front of the leader’s peer group are most often the worst places.  So these traits help you to position yourself to the best advantage of your team, regardless of whether it is the best course of action.  If the leader is leading you off the cliff, you may just find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the opportunity to be heard and keep things stable.  Even bad leaders will listen to those who disagree with them when they reach a crisis point.  But if you have fought them every step of the way, you won’t be listened to even then.

We’re talking about a balancing act.  I have waited my whole career to work for the kind of chief officer that I am working for now.   But he is completely on his own and ineffective if my peership and I fail to be the good followers that he needs us to be.  No leader will always please you, and sometimes they must take positions and actions that seem to make you the fall guy.  And sometimes, because of the trusted advisor or teammate that you have striven to be, it’s because they know you have broad enough shoulders, less ego to nurse and great heart, they know you can handle the job, so you are asked to take on whatever needs doing and be sure that you will see it through for “the love of the job”.

As for me, that is the kind of follower I strive to be.  I do not always succeed and my brethren would probably be able to list several of my setbacks.  But I continue to work at it and have a good record of doing exactly what I am talking about here.  It conforms to my understanding of service.  I can and do get a little animated and fractious about decisions that others make, things they do, or attitudes they take, but I’m learning to control that for appropriate times. I am passionate about this calling and if I want to be included, want to play a pivotal part, I have to put myself in position on the field.

Leadership is not taught adequately, if at all.  Management is often prefixed with “mis”.  Its is after all, mankind that is running the show.  And in the absence of good leadership, we are left with who we are.  We are exposed.  What will you find?

Love for the Job.

A love for the job. "Fireman" FOOLS Convention, Orlando, 2010


  • mecalvincasey says:

    Excellent post and so relevant regardless of your field or occupation, or life, for that matter!

  • Thanks for your support, old friend. You’re right, these principles apply in any field. Sometimes in ours they are hidden like gems of virtue, needing to be dug out and illuminated again. Thanks again! You’re everyday effort inspires me by the way. Keep at it!

  • hudchief1 says:

    I commend you for a well thought out and written article. Leadership is not an exact science and often quantified through trial and error. As a Chief Officer I dont profess to consistently lead by the book and often times its previous experiences that brings us to making tough decisions. Leadership is most sucessful when all levels of the organization contribute. Your right on target that we often look to those in the ranks that understand their role and committment to the organization. If in the toughest of times. I have seen many leadership articles that always takes aim at the leader. Your article clearly and effectively motivates all of us to look at ourselves and lead by example when others dont. Great Job!

    • Thanks for your comments, Chief. It is so hard to find quality “Leadership” training that gets down to the true issues that a company officer and his crew face. I have found in my own experience that it is a two way street. I really do believe in keeping the officer ranks accountable and that includes myself as a line officer. But I also believe there is a lack of expectation for the lower ranks. We are here to do a job, getting that job done requires everyone to work in a cooperative effort, in spite of disagreements. Once again, thanks for commenting.

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