Commentary by John Lightly
Much has been written about leadership. Everywhere you turn there are books, podcasts, blogs and so on about the subject. Please consider one more article about it, though.
Leadership is not something you do, it’s something you are given.
I would contend that no one becomes a leader. They are given leadership. I can read all the books or attend every seminar I want to on the subject and still not be a leader. I can have influence, wisdom, and charisma and yet fail to be a leader. It doesn’t matter if I’m young or old, rich or poor, pedigreed or have a GED. None of that determines if I am a leader or not.
Quite simply, I am a leader when others say that I am.
Definitions of a leader include “one who has commanding authority over people” or “a guiding or directing head.” But those definitions don’t quite cut it in the fire service. To us, those are definitions of someone in a higher rank. A person may have rank on you but that doesn’t mean they are your leader. Conversely, many of the best firehouse leaders are those with the least rank.
When others willingly place their faith, hope, and trust in you to guide them through a challenge, then you become a leader.
Not until that point though. The keyword is willingly. I may be required to follow the decision of someone with a higher rank but that is simply following orders, not bestowing leadership. When I believe that someone has the best plan for a situation and I intentionally submit to their guidance, it is then that I make them a leader.
In order for others to give you the title of leader, you must:
People want to follow a good leader. They want to know that he or she has their best interest in mind. Consequently, they will only choose to follow those that are worthy based on character, values, work ethic, and integrity. Followers place a great deal of trust in their leader; they want to know that that trust will not be violated. Be worthy of leadership by developing relationships, not just advantageous networks. Be worthy of leadership by being fair, honest, kind. Others will follow you when you have put in the time of self-preparation and growth and are found worthy of being called a leader.
Being a leader is not for the faint of heart. Those who are only in it for the rank or prestige will fail as leaders. They may become successful managers but they will not be true leaders. A leader must be ready to get attacked from all sides or to have every decision scrutinized. It’s kind of like being the mole in the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole. The leader takes the initiative and starts to improve something. He gets knocked back down by the reluctant. She reaches out to others to build into them and gets blasted by the mallet of malcontents. Everywhere a leader goes they face a beat down-but they keep going. Remember, they’ve been bestowed the leadership mantle by a group of believers who are counting on the leader to guide and protect them. The leader takes this mantle seriously and is willing to face constant criticism smashing into them. Just like the mole, the leader pops back up with a smile on his face.
This might be one of the key differences between being a leader and being a manager. Humility. Leaders don’t care who gets the credit as long as the crews get what they need to do their jobs effectively. Leaders don’t need to blow their own horn because their followers are already making a racket blowing it for them. Leaders are the ones who quietly work on things, who do things that no one notices, who simply keep advancing the message and mission without any fanfare. Managers let everyone know who they are and where they are. They are quick to blame others for their miscues and take the credit when someone performs well. You don’t place your trust in a manager who is full of pride, you put it in a leader who is humble.
There are certainly many other character qualities and abilities that a leader must have in order to effectively guide their followers, but these 3 things are a good place to start. It is in doing the small things where you begin to build trust and influence.
People become managers, they are given leadership.
John Lightly is a battalion chief with the Youngstown (OH) Fire Department.