The modern-day fire service has taken the requirements for leadership roles and extended them tremendously over the past few decades. Fire officer certifications now encompass training in assigning tasks and directing unit members, the proper application of Human Resources policies, budget preparation, Incident Action Plan development, and more. All of these skills are important for Fire Officers to possess. However, none of them are the abilities we recall when we remember the impactful leaders we’ve encountered in this industry. The leaders that tend to stand out in our minds are usually trusted, caring, and relatable people who serve us more than they serve themselves. Their ability to create a desire in people to follow them is astonishing, but how did they get there?
I’m going to start with a bold claim. There is no such thing as a born leader. Leadership is a compilation of learnable skills that a leader is forever a student of. They can learn these skills in a few different ways. The first is through the emulation of leaders from their past. This is a method that is much like an apprenticeship program. This is great if you have a good quality leader to learn from, but not so good if you are following a toxic one. The second method of learning quality leadership skills is traveling down the bumpy road of your mistakes as you attempt to lead. Although the humility of failure is a great professor, others suffer along your travels. In my mind, the best way to fill your organization's ranks with quality leaders is to produce them internally through training and mentorships.
At this point, you might think that this task is easier said than done with one or more of the following subconscious excuses. “My department is too small to take on this type of task.”, “It sounds great, but I have no idea how to pull that off or where even to start.”, “I have no idea what quality leadership consists of.”, the weak excuse of “We’re just volunteers.” or the dreaded “We don’t need leadership improvement.” My rebuttal is that if your organization has more than one member, some are leaders, and others are being led. This industry thrives under quality leadership regardless of your employment status. Suppose you don’t yet understand that your organization is susceptible to damage from one poor leader that flew under the radar. In that case, I task you with Googling “Toxic Workplace,” clicking on the news tab, and reading through the articles published within the last few days. While doing that, identify the organizational failures and ask yourself, "Are we similar to this in any way?” If you believe your organization can benefit from fostering quality leadership but don’t know where to start, get the assistance you need through reputable consultation.
Plenty of companies or individuals all over social media are promoting leadership training for the fire service. Most of it can be categorized as motivational, which works great if motivation is the only lacking thing. However, a simple method to expedite the growth of cancer within your organization, that is, poor leadership, is to refrain from developing quality leadership skills and then motivate them to get out there, take charge and lead. This will only magnify the issues resulting from their lack of understanding, values, and vision.
Without proper training and education, our leadership students are left with the images of heroes, generals, and drill instructors they recall from movies as their only point of reference. I’ve attended several small unit leadership training programs during my time spent in the military. During my first exposure to the legitimate institutional leadership training provided, I was initially confused that there were no periods of instruction on yelling, like in movies, being dominant, or even how to get your subordinates to work for you. Almost all of it was focused on a leadership style that I now understand is similar to parenting. The proven quality leaders before me in those ranks knew that as a leader if you serve your troops and earn their respect both professionally and personally, they will follow. This style is usually termed Servant Leadership and is the cornerstone for many successful organizations in and outside the fire service.
Training and education that focuses on how to lead through earned respect will create a foundation for quality leaders that can positively impact your organization's culture. In-depth skills development on how to make tough decisions, proper listening skills, positive confrontation, generational gaps, and strengths, as well as understanding your organizational stakeholders, are some of the much-needed and commonly lacking training areas in leadership development. Today's Fire Officer certification programs lack the human skills necessary to be a quality leader. It is up to the organizations to ensure these skills are developed and implemented within them. Failing to do so can be detrimental.
By: Andrew Ruiz, Fire & Life Safety Consultant