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.
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.
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. Its 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.
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.
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!