Recently recieved an email from a former member, “Cap, miss hangin’ out with you, these guys don’t seem to have any drive to train or get better at the job!”…Not the first time I’ve gotten a note like that. I responded with encouragement and the belief that this particular Jake would put things right in time, given patience, some good coffee and the tact that comes with earning your place and gaining the respect of your peers. Not easy, but certainly doable. It takes time to find your rhythm in a new organization. I love these little brothers of mine.
Its late in the afternoon and cold. But its been a good day. Accomplished some good training with both companies, practicing the idea of constantly sizing up the situation as it changes while still doing the routine things that must take place. At extreme cold temps, creativity on the part of the company officer is required to keep the company active, learning and ready for business. We suffered through two months of severe cold, getting as low as -54 at times. That kind of cold can knock the hell out of efficiency and morale. So whenever there is even a small crack in the weather, we need to be out and shakin’ a leg to get the blood moving. Plus, having picked up some probies, the more time dealing with the weather and brutality of the Alaskan winter the better.
Now the hose is drying on the rack, turnouts hung on the rig, boots positioned for response… ready for a run. The smell of good food is wafting though the hall as dinner is being scrubbed up in the beanery. I’m at my desk in the bunkroom, working on training reports, my nose sniffling from the afternoon in the cold. Icycles are still melting and dripping from my moustache and my left ear tip hurts a bit while it thaws up to room temp. But I hear a noise coming from out behind the house and I realize I’ve known that sound for a good twenty years.
The sound of clanking dawg pawls. Its like sweet music in a way. Clang, clang, clang, knock..the dawgs are locked. I don’t even have to look outside, I know whose out there and what he is up to. He’s one of the senior firefighters on my platoon and he is practicing his single-man ladder throws. Like many excellent firemen I know, he is somewhat short and built like the “brick house”, but long ladders are a challenge due to sheer length and lack of maneuverability. Taller guys really don’t have to try that much with ground ladders, but the rest of us have to do it often to be competent and work at it to be really good. It isn’t necessarily a matter of strength as I’m sure many of you are aware, but more a matter of skill. Cody is a paramedic student and therefore is mentally spent much of the time. Anything he does, Cody does all the way. He is also the president of a firefighters association and is doing a fine job of it, yet he is still finding time to go outside after the day is over and regardless of the temperature, tossing ladders for exercise. Where can we get more of these guys?
There have been many times I have taught the subject of ground ladders. Its one of those topics that everyone looks around for someone else to teach and for good reason. Its technical, but an art at the same time. And if it “ain’t yer thing”, well, …you should target it for improvement. So that’s how I ended up teaching it. But that’s a topic for another day. Its always thrilling to watch another firefighter take something you have taught them, embrace it and excel at it. There is nothing wrong with the young buck exceeding my skill either. That is as it should be. But in this case, the “Sound of Clanking Dawgs” has, over time, become an indication to me that leadership is flourishing here. Because tonight Cody isn’t out there alone, sometimes others join him, sometimes its the new guys, soaking in what he is learning and passing on. Good stuff. There is an art to ground ladders, and he is onto it. It has become a means of communication between the probies and himself, a way to cross the gap and help them learn to embrace the job. He couldn’t do that of course had he not first spent the time it takes to develop himself into a good fireman, capable, skilled, aggressive and committed. He has spent time listening to guidance from me on how to lead in this way, and isn’t afraid to be given correction. Although he isn’t necessarily aware of it, this fireman is actively and aggressively pursuing the first of the seven “Leadership Principles”.
“Know Yourself and Seek Improvement”is the first of seven leadership principles as old as the hills, taught by the venerable leadership manufacturing organization known as the United States Marines. I know, you’re thinkin’ “Here he goes again…OOORAHH!” But really, there is a reason Marines excel as leaders. The list of notable Marines is very long. So bear with me..
Although Cody is using ground ladders as the path, his intention is to lead the way in physical exercise and job expertise. By doing so, he is acting as the informal leader of my company, supporting my intent and role as the company officer. Unsuccessful at reaching the young guys one way, he has tried another and found success. By being really good at a tough and daunting fire ground task, and encouraging them to follow his lead. He is non-threatening about it, casual and encouraging. Matching my leadership style with his own. But once again, without mastering the skill, this tactic would be of little use to him. He knows I support his effort and that he is free to be a leader within the unit of our company membership.
The Corp explains the first Leadership Principle as “making an honest evaluation of yourself”, weaknesses and strengths, going after the weaker ones and shoring up the strong ones. Improvement on all counts being the main goal. In addtion to this, the Corps adds the following list of improvement strategies:
1. Make an honest evaluation of yourself to determine your strong and weak personal qualities. Strive to overcome the weak ones and further strengthen those in which you are strong.
2. Seek the honest opinions of your friends or superiors to show you how to improve your leadership ability.
3. Learn by studying the causes for the success or the failure of other leaders.
4. Develop a genuine interest in people; acquire an understanding of human nature.
5. Master the art of effective writing and speech.
6. Have a definite goal and a definite plan to attain your goal.¹
Out there in the night air, “the sound of clanking dawgs” means to me, the beginning and shaping of another fire service leader. Another email showed up the other day, its said, “Cap..spent the day with the whole company outside throwing ladders! It was awesome to hear the “Sound of Clanking Dawgs!” Another small victory for the fire service. My job in this formation of new fire service leadership is to help remove the barriers to growth, provide mentoring and discipline, guidance and clarification. Then let go. Experience is needed for growth as well, but we all know how the world has changed. Experience continues, but it isn’t always down the “long dark hallway” as often as it used to be. Sometimes it comes from an old friend through an answer to your emailed call for advice.
I am now and have been since I was a young Marine, a student of the “Art of Leadership” in an effort to improve myself, to keep from doing harm to those I lead and to see them also succeed in leading others. In frustration at the lack of leadership I have seen over and over again in this generation, I have tried to put these leadership principles into practice, trying to push back against our floundering society. I know I am not alone, and I believe the fire service will see improvement in its efforts as this generation begins to take the reins, for leadership must be the subject of our pursuit! I can think of no greater method of knocking down the Line of Duty Death count than by creating an excellence in leadership that will guide the fire service clear of these tragedies. In the next several months, I intend to delve more into the seven Leadership Principles in the hope that you will join me and find them as refreshing and meaningful to your career as I have. Pour yourself a cup o’ Joe while your at it, we both have a long way to go. After all, isn’t this what being an officer is about? Lead me, brother.
“Without leadership, change is unintentional. With leadership, people come together and decide collectively and deliberately whether and how to institute change. No subject is more compelling or worthy of study.”²
–Dean Sandra Peart, Jepson School of Leadership Studies
¹Leadership Principles http://leadership.au.af.mil/sls-skil.htm#marines
² Six Essential Elements of Leadeship, Col. Wesley L. Fox (Ret.). MCA-USNI Press. 2011