I’ve had this rattling around in my head for quite a long time. The tough part has been trying to figure out how to put it down on paper, due, by in large part to the great leaders in our business that I have come in to contact with over the last few months that I now feel very fortunate to call friends and colleagues. What makes a leader? In my opinion a leader does more than just ride the right front seat, they put other people and the organization above themselves. What makes a boss? A boss can be very detrimental to morale because they do not put other peoples interests above their own, a lot of the time they are out to serve themselves and no one else. Sometimes though a leader does have to be a boss because the situation calls for it but they still have the interests of others in mind even when they have to be a boss.
In this installment we are going to talk about leaders and in the coming column’s we will talk about bosses and how one or the other can make or break an agency. Lets get to down to brass tacks and define what we’re talking about first; leaders and bosses.
- Leader: A guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group.
- Boss: to be master of or over; manage, direct; control.
I by no means claim to be an expert on either subject but I have in my very young fire service career had the opportunity to work and train with some great leaders and some terrible leaders, so, I thought I would offer my thoughts. My early career was marked with its fair share of mistakes and rather than cutting me loose my chief gave me the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and store those lessons away for further use.
Most chiefs; after the third or fourth mistake would’ve said “sorry kid you’re not working out, maybe you need to find a new career.” If giving a kid who loves his job the opportunity to stay and learn from mistakes isn’t great leadership then I don’t what is. As I have gained more experience and become better at my job I now realize that there is so much more to leadership and being a leader in today’s fire service. I will forever be grateful to my chief for giving someone the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and I am grateful to finally grab a glimpse of authentic leadership.
Too many people in positions of leadership fall into the trap of thinking that their main priority and responsibility is to their battalion chief; department, upper command staff or governing body. A mistake like this can lead to serious morale issues within the crews and the agency. The question then that presents itself is, who is the leader responsible to? Admiral and Commander of USN Special Forces William McRaven answered that question in an address to a group of West Point Cadets. Admiral McRaven told his audience that “the oath you took is clear: to support and defend the Constitution — not the institution, not the Army, not the brigade, not the battalion, not the company, not the platoon and not the squad — but the nation.” In the fire service that translates to two things; the public and the crews manning the apparatus.
When you’re promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, captain or whatever rank in your department you become responsible to no one else but those two things and should look out for these interests at all times. Each and every leader has an ethos that they live by; however you should not let you ethos obscure your responsibilities to the public and your crews. A fire chief I had the opportunity to meet was faced with having to lay people off because of significant budget cuts during the economic down turn over the last couple years. Rather than make the lay offs he met with his upper command staff and formulated a plan so that everyone could keep their jobs. The chief took a 30 percent pay cut and all of the members of the department to a week of unpaid leave and stations were browned out across the district on a monthly basis for a year.
The results or these cuts? Everyone kept their jobs, the department maintained an adequate level of service and the department had a budget surplus in 2014. In my opinion that is an excellent example of leadership; he put the department and the public before himself. Another example of a great leader was the CEO of a fortune 500 company that took a month of unpaid furlough days along with the rest of his employees to keep from having to lay people off.
The point I am making here is make sure and take care of the people around you, make sure that they are in good health both physically and mentally by promoting a culture of physical fitness and encouraging personnel to seek out help when they need someone to talk to. Make sure they have proper equipment to do their jobs; that includes bunker gear, stations that are modern and up to date, and all the other various pieces of equipment we need to do our jobs. When you’re in a position of leadership be authentic and don’t lie to your troops, if you do and they find out your reputation will be damaged forever. The servant leader that puts others and the organization before self will always have people willing to follow them and morale will be high.