Leadership: HoldFAST..

“Leadership is intangible, hard to measure, and difficult to describe. It’s quality would seem to stem from many factors. But certainly they must include a measure of inherent ability to control and direct, self-confidence based on expert knowledge, initiative, loyalty, pride and sense of responsibility. Inherent ability cannot be instilled, but that which is latent or dormant can be developed. Other ingredients can be acquired. They are not easily learned. But leaders can be and are made.” — General C. B. Cates, 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps

Sailor Joe Plaice’s Tattoo in the popular maritime film, “Master and Commander The Far Side of the World” by Peter Weir.

Almost thirty years ago, a young Marine recruit struggled up the infamous Mt. Mother on an October night. His equipment dragged at every muscle in his body and his feet felt like lead. Sweat poured from his steel helmet down his face, soaking his panting chest. Other recruits around him slipped and fell downslope, or struggled past. This was a nightmare, climbing this hill. He wanted to quit. There came the summit, he couldn’t believe he’d made it, …only to find that this wasn’t the real hilltop, but merely a small rise on the horizon. The real summit rose up ahead, one last stretch. The agony of this false victory nearly dropped him, he was after all, a skinny little guy. His pack weighed two thirds of his body weight. His M-16′s 6.75 lbs felt like a ton, he wanted to sit down. Every step leading up to the mountain had been brutal that night. But standing on the crest of the summit, lit by the moonlight, his drill instructor stood staring at him. That demon slurred out a sarcastic taunt that settled on the recruit’s ears like fire..”OH, no! I can’t do it…I can’t make it..just want to quit, …don’t you!” That drill instructor really pissed me off! He’d been hounding me for nearly three months. What was that guy’s gig? In anger, I began to move forward again, every step a killer. I could still hear him taunting us all, but every word seemed directed right at me. Then I heard it, that ever present demon..he used my name. Now it was personal. The message was meant to get me over the mountain top. I fought for every breath, my legs were screaming in pain, my lungs felt as though they would burst, but that night, the Eagle Globe and Anchor was etched upon my heart. Don’t give up. Hold Fast! Don’t ever give up!..

The other day I was talkin’ with another former Marine. He and I had just met, more or less. I enlisted 29 years ago, he within the last decade. I was a Cold War guy. Hatin’ the Commies. He fought the Second Iraq War, and paid for it with pain. But our paths here in the fire service are already marked by similar experiences. We know a common language. At every turn he is reminded by the modern world that the means by which he communicates and encourages are considered a little too harsh and sometimes more than is desired. Gotta go easy with these folks. Its the new generation after all. They’re used to lots of praise…His standard of expectation in things like appearance, attention to detail, repetition in training, self-discipline and honor are frequently regarded as old-fashioned and unnecessary, ..”a little over the top”. We are creatures from another world it would seem. We shared a hot cup o’ joe in my office. Brothers who had never met. Not defined by any of our accomplishments, but by the Eagle, Globe and Anchor we have tattooed upon our hearts. The longer we have been Marines, the more intensely we feel it. And we don’t ever give up.

We are not alone, far from it. There are many fine instructors at work, daily, bringing the knowledge home to the young and enthusiastic, the ones that want to learn, our future leaders. Photo by Author. Orlando Fire Conference

We old Jarheads are routinely out in the front line gettin’ shot at most often because of the direct beeline we make at the objective to be taken..its genetic. We’re born into the world that way and it doesn’t change just ’cause we took up a different uniform. We do come on strong, gotta give ‘em that. We do not admire selfishness or those who pay more attention to their pay check than their quality of effort. My good brother Wee Gillan is a model of Marineness in this direct assault method. He is frequently at odds with the establishment. (He also has a heavy Scots accent when angered, which really doesn’t help) But there are many of you fighting the same fight. Maybe not former Marines, but dedicated in this same hard core way. Devoted to the Service. Much like the Marine Ethos, we who call ourselves “Fireman” have an elitist spirit;We are not alone though. Far from it. Many of you who read these pages feel the same way about the fire service. Former military or not. It is our calling. And for the record, we don’t believe that every firefighter should be trained like a Marine, far from it. We do believe that dedication and devotion to duty should be every bit as steadfast.

“Woven through our sense of belonging like a steel thread”.*

We get weary,..don’t we. Its a career long battle, this fight to see things done right. It is a struggle for excellence, for the sake of being a better fireman, for the sake of doing things well for no other reason than that it pleases our sense of thoroughness. But even more so, we took an oath of service to the public, and we aim to keep it. Half-ass efforts leave us feeling less than complete. A sour feeling in the stomach, foul taste in the mouth.

Former Marine or not, I know many of you reading this feel as we do. There are many, many devoted members of the fire service. I do sometimes question the focus of their efforts. I suppose that sounds a might bit arrogant. Well, I do not mean it so. Marines are not known to be overly humble, and if not arrogant, then very direct. However, the fire service, the department, the battalion, the platoon, the company, is what it is because of the efforts of the whole, for better or worse. That means that the contributions of each and every one of us to the greater good are vital to keep things moving forward and in balance, off-setting the damaging affects of a self-centered, self-absorbed, lazy generation and all of the societal, economic and cultural issues that come with it. So like Battalion Chief Anthony Kastros stated at FDIC this year, “Think of the consequences if you give up…”

Think of it..in each little world where you and I serve, your company, your platoon, department. What would the affect be if you no longer cared? If you half-assed everything you did except your PT time? The good chief follows this with, “this is our time, one drill at a time”. Amen to that. He really spoke to my heart there. He was talking about the vital place leadership holds in the future of our service and if you know me, well..he was singin’ my favorite song. If you are teetering on the edge, HOLD FAST! It takes all of us, marching on, every day, every year to keep the service on track. Don’t ever give up!

Each recruit feels the desire to move, to fidget, to look around, to itch. The precision required within drill and ceremony teaches self-discipline and adherence to standard. Honor, dignity, pride and bearing come into play, and the appreciation of history and heritage. Photo property of USMC

I was teaching my lecture, “In the Trenches” at a recent conference. All went well. The classroom was definitely defined by the two camps. There were those that like to work, like to learn, love and honor our service and its people, vs. those that sat quietly sizing up the hidden agenda, critiquing my social mistakes (of which there are a few) and wincing when I raised my voice. I get loud when I speak about topics I feel strongly about. The latter group was either not sure what to think of me, didn’t want to be there, or hadn’t stepped over Travis’ sword tip yet.I do believe each and every instructor who devotes just a little more time, a little more of his soul, makes a difference. Holding the line fast against the tempest of the modern world. Every quality instructor leaves behind the seeds of leadership in the ones he or she has taught. And leadership must be taught. Every bit as much as any other skill and every bit as much as other aspects of the modern fire service. It must not be left behind. It is intangible and hard to define. And it is a mistake to believe that they ways of the past are no longer relevant. This generation will make excellent firefighters! You can lead them, but you have to be the living incarnation of what you yourself are trying to teach them. If you won’t be the role model, they will not follow you.

One fellow from the audience came up to me and made a few comments, most of which I really don’t remember, but what I do remember is that he stated my presentation was simply covering the same old thing, ..Principles and Traits. I took a friendly stance, (difficult for me when low on the Java) and suggested that if they were the same old thing, so familiar, so well known and so “yesterday”, why was it that so few people know them and fewer live their lives by them? I suggested that perhaps greater attention to them was necessary, maybe it isn’t the followers that is the problem, maybe its not the generations at fault, but the leadership involved or …lack thereof.

Leadership within our departments, our firehouses is most definitely the hot topic these days. It won’t last though. Its harder to re-cert on leadership than on ropes and knots. And its not as easily taught as a nozzle sweep or a saw cut. There are no catchy stickers for your helmet when the class is done. But brothers and sisters, I believe this is where the fight is. This is where we meet the world and its modern misguided values head on, with skilled leadership that can take the modern firehouse, with all its issues to the very edge of excellence. Hap-hazard leadership is not enough. Talent as a leader is not enough! It takes self-discipline, constant self-awareness, skill and understanding, experience and learning from mistakes. Born leadership is an edge, but not a refined one. It will grow dull in time if not nurtured and sharpened. Leaders must be developed and led to acquire what they need to succeed. These things give birth to true leadership. This is where the battle is won. The young men and women are willing to be led, willing to follow. You need to understand that. What they need is for you to lead. And lead them well. Don’t give up, no matter how weary you feel.

The Marine Drill Instructor is one of the most fearsome things a recruit is ever going to meet. This Marine is the best the Corps produces, the most professional, the most devoted and self-disciplined. This is the first Marine a new recruit meets. A Master at ceremony, drill, killing and self-discipline. They shape the Corps. If we are really the community’s bravest, shouldn’t we send the best we have to train our newest firefighters? Photo property of USMC

So this old Jarhead and this war vet are convo’n about the differences between the Corps and the other services which of course brings up the topic of military style academies. I am a drillmaster in the local fire academy and I am routinely called upon to justify what benefit all the marching, yelling, polishing and drill is? This is a good question. I enjoy answering it. Time is money and the para-military affects take time to develop. When there is only so much time to check off the skill sheets, is it truly worth the time? I believe it is. Like I said, this ol’ boy and I are on the same track and he says, “Well hell yeah. Other folks march to get from point A to point B, but Marines march for the love of self-discipline, ..just to do it!” That is the answer. We do it in the academy for the same reason, because it teaches self-discipline and striving for excellence, bearing and pride in ones purposes, the beginnings of leadership. It imbeds the drive to excel, to never give up. And why wouldn’t you want your young firefighters to excel? Why would you ever teach them to give up?

Each phase of training, whether it be for new firefighters or advanced, should be realistic and driven by enthusiastic and dedicated firefighter/instructors. Men and women that love the job. Photo by author.

I made it over that mountain top. That drill instructor dared me, challenged me to discipline myself and go beyond my limits. You should have seen the grin on his leering face as I passed him up. He growled, “You better not let me pass you on the way down!” I believe firefighters should be taught firemanship in the same forthright manner, with intense, realistic training that pushes them to discipline themselves and go beyond their limits. It’s easy to push yourself physically, until you no longer control the program. Then you have to come face to face with yourself and dig down deep.


Hold the line, lads! Hold FAST!

Oorahh..that was a really good cup o’ Joe..

*”Leading Marines”, United States Marine Corps. 2002


  • Mac says:

    Interesting blog I stumbled across here

  • Gold Price says:

    One way to avoid the integrity pitfall is by retaining the quality that appears to be the most important, trust. Once a subordinate or supervisor loses the ability to put their trust in the fire officer the only effect that can follow is that of an uncontrollable vortex that spirals downward. Lack of trust is listed as the number one problem facing many leaders within the world of corporate or governmental business today, including the fire service. Take a look at Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson, representatives of the House and Senate, sports athletes, and celebrities. These are only a few examples of leaders who have failed the integrity test. This has been accomplished through lying, deceit, and greed. Is the fire service exempt, no! Just look at the D.C. Fire Departments debacle that is still ongoing with its recently past chief.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      @Gold Price–

      Sorry not to answer earlier, your comment was in the Spam folder due to your email address. But your words are worth putting here. I believe you are hitting the mark directly. There is no greater issue undermining our efforts in teh fire service than integrity. It is so, in my opinion, because we are imperfect men and women, born in an imperfect society and culture which unfortunately, has always struggled to rise above itself. We all struggle with integrity. But imagine what it could be like in the fire service if we were the bastion of integrity.

      Thanks for your comments, I appreciate the feedback!


  • Mac says:

    It seems the very things that draw most of us to this unique profession are either forgotten, never learned, or are frowned upon in the name of progression which in itself is not necessarily bad, as long as certain fundamentals are not forgotten or ignored and set aside as obsolete.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Everything within reason. Thanks for commenting. I think you are exactly right. We are a breed apart, yet much of what brings us into the profession, what we grew up believing firemen were known for, is somehow no longer approved, or maybe never was.

  • Mac says:

    I kinda figured you would agree Ben, some of us (although it is becoming fewer and fewer) have had great influences at the beginnings of our careers in the fire service (however long or short that may be) and are very fortunate for that, I know i am.

    p.s. If you have access to the email i submitted that is required to register on here, i would appreciate it if you would drop me a line.

  • T. McDonough says:

    My sword tip? I don’t have a sword! haha Just what I needed today while pulling a 48hr shift. Some great motivation to “hold fast!” is the perfect start to my day…. thanks Ben!

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Glad you liked.. The Academy is in full swing as we speak and I’m having to live out these very words every day as the weeks go by. Just today another officer reminded me that although he noted my weariness, he said even from a distance the sound of my drill ground voice carried clearly, leaving no doubt where attention an discipline needed to be focused. Not a waste of time, but a good foundation. THAT made my day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *