Know Yourself

Ok, the Joe is hot..lets evaluate the probie’s coffee skills. I have with me the FDNY Probationary Firefighting Skill – Coffee Making check sheet, obtained from Brother LeBlanc. We can check things off while Probie makes another pot and we talk a little about my favorite topic, ….”Leadership”. I promised I’d continue with Leadership Principles and I intend to. But I wanted to polish the first principle before we move on.

Leadership Principle No. 1 “Know yourself and seek improvement

If you’re wearin’ a bugle, do you remember your first night as the CO? I remember my first night on duty as a company officer. I had pulled plenty of shifts bumpin’ up, but this was my first night as the assigned company officer. I can still remember it crystal clear.. Nothing happened that night. Except if you had lingered near my bunkroom, you probably could’ve felt my pulse through the wall. It was pounding that hard until I fell asleep from mental exhaustion. I don’t know why the thoughts didn’t hit me earlier, it wasn’t until I lay down in the firehouse that night, my first night as an officer. Part of it is my conditioning. I hold officers in high esteem, I expect them to perform, devote themselves to the profession and to their people. I set high marks for those above me. And I am frequently disappointed and realize I set the bar impossibly high. Or did I? All I can say is I expect the same of myself. What I struggled with until sleep took me, was the thought that was pounding in my head, “I am responsible for anything that happens tonight.” That thought cost me some sleep. I’ve known a few officers who noted the same experience, even when they became officers late in their career. Suddenly the game has changed. Suddenly you OWN those lives ridin’ on your rig…You must account for them.

The thing I admired about Phil, was that he always led from the front. He was in his turnouts, cold and wet with his boys! He always challenged me to keep growing, learning and to take an honest, humble look at myself. Photo used with permission.

I don’t know about you, but as a young fire officer, I felt as though I had not been properly prepared for the task at hand. The testing process had evaluated my head knowledge, but lacked any real evaluation of my practical skills. There was no certification available, no training. Just time in grade and are you a lead medic? Did you make engineer?.OK, you can test. That was a long time ago, its different now in that department. But still, there are departments that continue to promote in house or imported firefighters that have very little or no training for what they are expected to do. Its often learn as you go in this job, so I lay there, evaluating all my training, all my experience and trying to find some shred of self-confidence. Now anyone that knows me well, knows I do this with everything. I self-eval, perhaps to a fault. I usually stop when someone says, “Knock it off, you know what you’re doing”. But that night, and many after that, I lay awake identifying all the areas that I felt inadequate. From then on, I began attacking everything I thought I was weak in, whether it was tactics, or organizational skills, time management or training evolutions. I went after it with a voracious appetite. Back in those days a popular saying that I’m sure you’d remember was, “Let no man’s ghost claim I let him down”. I took that to heart and lived by it.

Needless to say, my driver immediately asked to work for someone else, and various others found ways to get away. No one wanted to work for the new guy on the block who wanted to train all day and act like we cared about the quality of our work. Other officers reminded me with increasing irritation that we had a low run volume, fires were rare, “this ain’t New York!” I imagine I was somewhat difficult to deal with at times. But I was driven. I didn’t want to be caught unprepared. I didn’t want to deliver mediocre performance. I dreaded the day some new kid would look at me the way I looked at the officers when I was new and wondered where they had got the idea they deserved respect. Respect is earned, its earned through merit. There is no other way. It can be given, when not earned, but otherwise, it must be earned.

Some of the victims of my early days as a Company Officer. They always gave me their best. Old Engine 4, left to right Beauchamp, Bishop, myself, Logan (kneeling), Richardson and our resident Afrikaner, Lombard. Circa 2000.

Eventually, a group of guys that wanted to train hard and work out their profession found their way to my company and we mixed well together. It was a good time. Lots of training, sharing ideas, buckin’ the system, we had fun. But those early days as an officer were tough, and they were tough because I was not satisfied with status quo. A condition I seem to be plagued with, I think it runs in the family.

One of the things that helped me to get a handle on this was the Fire Officer 1 certification process. I do not believe that certification is the end all be all. But its a start. I was one of two in our department to go through it for the first time when it became available to us, the department certification process was in its infancy. So much so, we were just handed the 13 text books and told to read and test. There was really no way to know what would be on the test, so I had to read everything. And I think that was a good thing, although perhaps not efficient. I absorbed a lot of material. Now days you sign up, go take it for two weeks at the local training center, some retired chief or instructor tells stories and reads power points, and then you test. Two weeks and you’re an officer. Well, it took a HELL of a lot longer than that when I did it. But, I was going at my own pace. Nor am I bashin’ the learning of some fine officers. But I think all of us here recognize that certification is not the end. It’s only the beginning. Just like FF I, its meant to provide a foundation, but that is where the fire service falls down. Nothing comes after that, except more certifications. In between, you should accumulate experience to add to knowledge. But in this day and age, that rarely is the case. Certifications DO NOT a competent leader make!

So I realized I needed to find experience. Not only more runs, more fires, but to draw from my past and make use of what I had learned in other places. I began to fall back on my training and the firefighting philosophy of the area I had come from. I started applying the Marine mentality I had learned in the Corps. I leaned heavily on my basics, which had been firmly ingrained, but differed greatly from the area I now served in. There were several text books I dog-eared the heck out of. The Internet came about and I found a wealth of information there. I also took classes, I sought out mentors, I sought out situations that put me outside my comfort zone. Since our small town holds only so much fire, you get jobs under your belt as best you can, so recognizing that was a weak spot, I adopted the idea that I would never stop learning. At the cost of seniority and retirement time, I moved myself to a busier department and continued to seek improvement.

“The House of Stags”, back in the day. Left to right, ..Foster, myself, Paddy Roarke, Jr. Mead and GB. Circa 2004

Over the years, this drive to improve has left its imprint. There are always those around you who are waiting to see someone lead the way. But how you lead is what makes or breaks it for you. Your drive for self-improvement, IF centered on your SERVICE to those you LEAD, will draw people after you. As you learn to lead, you begin to understand that you excel and improve yourself, by putting your people and your mission first. Your effort will be recognized by those who look to see, both above and below you on the line. Those looking for command presence within the department will gravitate to you, BECAUSE you are denying yourself on their behalf. I’m not talking about neglecting your own career welfare, but in the performance of your daily routine and emergency actions, putting the welfare and morale of your members before your own well-being. Yes, you put yourself on the line at times. But the return on your investment is ten-fold..

The thing that grinds on me is that so many of us make the grade, get the bugle, then just stop dead. Learning and self-evaluation begins to cease, most intensely in the area of leadership and follower-ship. Worse yet, many officers have reached their position without ever having learned anything about leadership, except the school of hard knocks. Therefore that is their understanding, …teach with blunt objects. Not overly affective with this new crowd.

I recently learned the word “entropy.” Among other much deeper ideas and definitions, it is basically the concept that eventually, energy runs out. A ball loses momentum, a comet will burn out, the Universe will eventually stop given enough time. Makes me think of some of the firefighters I have known. I don’t care where you are, it is the same. There are burned out folks who just can’t or won’t move forward anymore. There are those who feel left behind by the pace of change and those who resent change. I am often the latter. I will push hard for change, then when it comes, I don’t always welcome it with open arms. Speaking of change, we can’t help but do so as we get older. I don’t like that much either. And there are those whose passion for the fire service only included the drive to get hired. Once there, they’ve become part of the equipment on the shelves. When they’re on duty they do the job well, as in to the letter of the law. When they’re not on duty, …they’re living life to the fullest. I don’t knock the desire to have a good wage, enjoy great time off and all the benefits of being on the job, but failure to improve who you are as an officer will perhaps one day fail you. And then there are people who are driven,…. often in a direction that has nothing to do with improvement of the service you perform, but they are driven. These people don’t often look for faults in themselves, they don’t have time for that. Just get the job done, “anything you need to learn you should have already learned” A dedicated officer learns to balance these things. A dedicated officer seeks to balance these things within himself. Seeks to manage change and improvement in their career, in their departments and in their company.

Young officers will often repeatedly crash into peer groups with little tact, have to learn to temper attitude, speak less and take a good look at the message being sent. I have often and sometimes still do struggle not with my message, but how I send it…The Sparrow Crt. Fire, 2005. Used by permission.

Ok, here’s your homework. Take a look at yourself……let’s revisit the list:

If you are reading this blog, then you are probably willing to take an honest look at yourself. But are you willing to ask your brothers and sisters in the service to evaluate you, to identify your faults, your weak spots, your strong suits? We look in the mirror and often convince ourselves that we are doing just fine, even though we may be dragging around a broken leg. Others we trust and who have a best interest at heart will often give us a piece of the real picture, the one we are blind to, but need to see in order to grow as leaders.

  • Self evaluate. Using the 14 Leadership Traits, compare yourself to them and identify areas where you need to improve. This is an ongoing, life-long effort.

Justice, Judgement, Dependability, Initiative, Decisiveness, Tact, Integrity, Enthusiasm, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty and Endurance (Fortitude).*

  • Seek out the opinions of those who hold your respect, even if its going to hurt a bit.
  • Study success and failure, don’t just whine about what’s wrong, identify what is causing the dysfunction you are witnessing, then learn to avoid that trap. A serious student of his/her position will take the time to study the failure of leadership in several areas, not just the fire service. The military is an excellent source for this kind of study. History abounds with failure. Its value is the lessons it offers us if only we are willing to look.
  • Become interested in people. I was recently talking with another brother who pointed out that he and I shared this trait, and he felt it contributed to who we are as leaders and I have to agree with him. Studying people helps give you a foundational vantage point for listening, comprehending and engaging those you lead.
  • Become masterful at writing and speaking. I have watched as several officers I have known struggled to express themselves adequately in writing or in public speaking. Not something that projects strong leadership, even though it may be there. Set your goals. No, ….really. A map, a trip tick, a plan for getting from one point to the next.

…And always, drink coffee! It helps the mustache grow!

*I might add here that I believe that failure to adopt these traits and live by their corresponding principles are the main cause of our nation’s leadership woe’s. If you are doing anything in your career that you know is questionable in a moral or ethical sense..stop. Don’t call yourself a leader if you can’t give yourself over to selfless service!

17 Comments

  • Sanders says:

    As a very young officer i can relate to a lot of what you are writing about. that first night in the station as the officer was a similar experience. the weight of the responsibility and such. Good Stuff -

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Funny Sam, you get used to the weight, but shouldn’t. Or better, you learn to bear the load, but should never get too used to it. When we do, we grow complacent and cease to learn. Thanks for commenting!

  • Chris Frost says:

    Great Post Captain Fleagle.

  • Matt says:

    Another great post, little brother. Your writing gets better all the time. And these old photos are great.

  • Crusty says:

    Outstanding! Very well written. It is not easy or considered the “norm” anymore to willingly self-evaluate in our business. Who we are says volumes about us.

    TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAIN. The advice I give to every new recruit and officer (although the new officers typically already know everything)is to train constantly. Admittedly, we all hit the wall sometimes, but the secret is to keep going.

    As a fellow type A personality, I have felt every bit of the pain you wrote about, and even the stuff that I could read between the lines. Thank you for sharing and for the courage to write honestly and from the heart. You have inspired an old dog, and I am indebted to you for it.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Crusty,

      I absolutely agree, and although that deep breathe and the commitment to keep going seems to get harder and harder as time passes, it is something that as long as we call ourselves “leaders” we must do. Do so or step aside. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t an option in our line of work unless you can find a little hole to crawl into in some by way station. I’m glad you found this worth your while. Sometimes, as the dogs gather, the old dogs need a minute to catch breath. Then its tighten the chin strap and get back at it, boss!

      Leatherhead109–

  • Derek Flemon says:

    First. Great article and comforting words. I just happened across this piece and it really is an inspiration to know there are other brothers out there who feel this way about themselves. I too always feel a great weight upon my shoulders… it’s what I like to call the “Beast of Burden”; It’s not because I don’t want to take on the responsibility or simply ignore the issues that present… it’s because I feel the need to be there for my fellow brothers and sisters; I feel the need to challenge myself in the areas I’m weakest; I feel the need to challenge the men and women I work with so we may be the best we can be… I do this so we provide ourselves and our service to the men and women we work alongside, to the communities we serve and to our families, with the hope… that just a little bit of this way of thinking rubs of on a few of them. I have realized… I’m not the most popular FO in the house, but I have heard I’m the most consistent. I have heard my fellow brothers and sisters say they know what to expect every shift that we pull together. With that said… I don’t want to be the popular guy at the house. I want to be the FO who’s known for holding those around him accountable. Accountability is not parcel to anyone and if the men or women of the firehouse aren’t performing, then it’s time for the FO to tighten up. After all, we do have a duty to ourselves and those around us to be prepared… to be confident… to be consistent… and to be decisive…whether or not some of our fellow brothers or sisters see it this way. Thanks for a great article and heavy hitting words

    “Always do right… It will gratify some and astonish the rest”
    -Mark Twain

    Hammer03-

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Brother,

      Thanks for the props on the article! Always great to know that my words have struck center mast, whether to encourage or cause a renewal of effort or faith in our purpose, our calling. Like you say, its not to be the most popular fire officer that we seek. We seek to serve. That’s why we are firemen, so that naturally transcends to our brothers and sisters. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of our “servant” mindset. So many recoil from the word “servant”. Its a shame. There is no greater calling. I can’t say that I have ever had an easy time among my peers. I frequently have to step back and analyze or take another look at an issue or my stance, from another perspective because the hammer blows can get to the point where you no longer are sure of your stance. Which, is a sign in my book of honesty and integrity. You will always return to the right effort, but it is good to re-evaluate and check yourself to ensure that your motives and your actions are based on the goal, which should always be to serve. This includes self-improvement. It should be for the benefit of others, versus ourselves for it to be truly improvement.

      Keep your leather down and your neck covered! Thanks for commenting!

      –Ben

  • Taylor says:

    Thank you for finally putting words to exactly what i have been struggling to explain about myself since i began firefighting 3 years ago. I cannot tell you how comforting and reassuring it was to read this article so thank you.

    -Taylor

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Taylor,

      One thing I’ve learned in my travels throughout the American Fire Service, among Vollies, paid guys, and of course the F.O.O.L.S., ..we are all very much the same. Those of us who pursue excellence in leadership, in service, in application of our craft, in professionalism, in skilled, tactical application, always face a battle against those who are not as driven or as comfortable or have no desire with such a life. We are throughout the fire service, and although few in a crowd, we make a massive impact in that we keep our individual departments in a state of friction. We keep them from slipping over the abyss of apathy. The lack of adversity in the daily modern life, leads to apathy. I don’t think it has always been that way. But it is our reality. We must fight against it. Each in our own department. Together, we make a collective impact. Don’t stop moving forward!

  • Dresel says:

    Inspiring words capt. I myself have earned my second bugle at a young age. Maybe too young but I’m up to the challenge and in a young department I believe I can really learn to excel. I’m on a new shift, many of which I have never met. My first shift was a doozy and it went… Well. Not great but not bad either. I’m going to just take one foot in front of the other until I become the leader I want to be and what others see me as. Thanks for the words! Oh and sexy stache

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Sam,

      You might be too young. I was too inexperienced. Those things smooth out in time, but never assume you have them licked. Set goals for improvement. Pursue them. Be bold, be aggressive and view yourself with a realistic eye. There are many great things about being a young officer, but you don’t know what you don’t know, so absorb lessons and experience in great quantities! Allow those with more time in and less rank to speak their mind, they can keep you out of hot water when they’ve got your back. They’ll have your back when you earn their respect. Let me know if you need anything..

  • Probbie says:

    It’s truly amazing to see the dedication and perseverance one can have for their job. Let along having the ability to ripple through the lives of so many young men who want to follow in the same footstep as your own. Given some may fall short for whatever reason, you sir, give a lending hand not just physically, but mentally as well. The one thing that can not be argued about this article, is the description of the man who has placed the weight of this crew on his shoulders and bestow upon himself the obligation and duty as a leader. I can’t agree more with you when you state that respect is earned and should never be given. As you clearly noted, just because you have the certification to comply with your accomplishment, this does not pave the road for a successful leader. As I read through this article about the complacency and the pitfalls of many fire fighters in regards to their progress in the fire service, its hard to suffice even at the highest rank in the fire service. The one thing I have fathomed most about you, is the mindset you have never changed and the willingness to strive to become even more. The influence you have made on the young minds of the future generation of firefighters has been the best stepping stone to be exposed to. It not only shows the love for the job, but the willingness and the consistency to comply with every action you make to better yourself (even at your age =) ). I am truly grateful for the amount of detection and leadership you have obtained over the years, so that when one falls into “that mindset”, a simple reminder of the man I call captain can give me the boost that I need to strive to better myself. Thank you so much Captain Ben Fleagle.

    Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Brother Probie,

      I appreciate your words, but if I am anything, it is that I am resting upon the grace by which I stand, daily. The Amazing Grace! But we will run the race together to the end, and fight the good fight!

      FTM-PTB-DTRT

      Ben

  • I love reading through a post that can make people think.
    Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

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Ben Fleagle

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Very good post. I'm going through some of these issues as well..
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A Warrior Poet

I am a Warrior Poet of the American Fire Service. My objective here is to keep the spirit of our heritage alive as our profession is attacked by the modern world. Please join me and we’ll walk a bit together, perhaps smoke a stogie or two and share a strong cup of joe. Take a seat on the tailboard. We’ll blend together, share our hearts and minds, and become like brothers. Leatherheads, sewn with sturdy thread, woven into the filigree that marks us as firemen.

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