Leadership Impact Beyond the Fire Truck

Fort Myers Beach FL fire apparatus

By Matthew Love

Passion, inspiration, and vision are essential attributes of fire service leadership we strive to embody each day in our organizations and communities. We stir others to dream big and accomplish what alone could never be possible. Our leadership and service change lives, sometimes in ways we do not even see. As leaders, how do we deliver the passion, emit enthusiasm, and inspire day after day, shift after shift? In the words of my great friend and mentor Stephen Gower: “We cannot give what we do not have!”

As leaders, we must have the passion, the inspiration, and the vision alive inside us, guiding us, before we can give it to another. It cannot be faked or counterfeit. These attributes are who we are and aspire to be. When they connect, whatever we do is with the mission of bettering others.

From Denver to Doughnuts

My story of passion, my “connection,” revealed itself many football seasons back. My team, the Denver Broncos, would play my wife’s longtime family favorite, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in an epic battle at Mile High. To my wife, the Steelers were not simply a football team. My in-laws, in fact the whole side of her family, held Steeler football in supreme regard. There was a subtle hint of disappointment when she married me rather than Ben Roethlisberger. This was ingrained in their way of life, creating a loyalty unweakened even by our vows.

My wife was painted up in black and yellow for the big day. She coordinated every inch in branded paraphernalia, ready to enter foreign territory and cheer against the hometown heroes. In a more modest fashion, I subtly presented the Broncos logo on my coat, with a hat symbolizing the “Orange Crush” era. After all, I was among friends in Mile High; there was no need to rub in our success.

At the game, we were in the “nosebleed” section, but it didn’t matter. The Denver-Pittsburgh rivalry in our household was coming to a head, live and in living color. As we made the steep hike in altitude to our prized seats, I became aware of a problem. I looked at our seats, then back at the tickets a time or two. Rather than fittingly placed amongst my fellow people, rather than surrounded by Bronco orange and blue, our seats were amid a sea of black and yellow. Positioned in an abyss of terrible towels, it was as if we had entered the wrong stadium. My wife was pleased.

Shaken by our surroundings but not discouraged, I settled in for the game, and quite a game it was. As if the teams had the same long-time established rivalry we found each week in our household, it was intense. Each team diligently returned point after point, resulting in an incredibly close match going into the fourth quarter. From our seats we could see the city lights all around Denver, including cars passing by on the surrounding roadways. As the fourth-quarter intensity mounted, something caught my eye in the distance: The lights of a Denver Fire Department ladder truck on a nearby roadway. Behind it, an engine company, battalion chief, and rescue. I could not take my eyes off those trucks.

Enamored by the lights and the stellar view of the fire companies as they responded, I noticed my friend sitting next to me, a fellow “truckie,” watching the apparatus with the same intent awe. Despite the incredibly close game that continued right in front of us, despite the substantial price we had paid to be in those seats, and notwithstanding the potential culmination of a family rivalry, we stared at those trucks.

Why were we so caught up? We had both rode fire trucks for years and responded to countless jobs. But there is something surreal about having the opportunity to do that for which you’ve constantly practiced. This training and preparing, this constant fine-tuning of abilities is aimed at one thing: making a difference when it counts.

How many chances do we get to change the life of another, to alter the path for someone else’s good? The thought of being able to perform and make a difference can overcome us, even at a Denver Broncos game. I wanted to be on that truck, going to that job, and making a difference when it was needed. I wanted the thrill and anticipation of making a decision and taking action that could change the course of someone’s life.

I shared the story of the Denver game with a friend who works for the United Postal Service. He said: “Matt, I gotta tell you, when I am not at work and I see a package, I do not feel the need to deliver it!” Our profession affords us the privilege of affecting lives every day, many times amid the intensity of emergency response. Over time, we may think this is the only way to have an impact. For the longest time I thought I was just lucky, having a profession give me such fulfillment, unlike my postal service friend. However, this experience taught me several things. One was the incredible satisfaction of serving in any capacity—a satisfaction greater than a paycheck or the responsibility to just do a job.

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The Denver game might have left that impression on me, focusing on the drama of firefighters rushing to someone in need, but lives need to be saved and paths altered every day. As leaders, we just have to open our senses and hearts to these needs. Beyond these emergency responses, we are given numerous chances to make a difference, so long as we are diligently watching for them.

Path-altering service can take on a mission and significance of its own. Regardless of your profession, vocation, or calling, when you live it to enhance the lives of others, it becomes vastly more powerful. This is the root of our passion, inspiration, and vision for leadership: it allows us to give to others what we do have. It certainly doesn’t take a fire to change a life. In fact, subtle leadership is often a fruitful strategy to produce lasting significance. The greatest leaders often use the simplest platforms to create major impact.

I found this out years later at the doughnut shop of all places. To be fair, this was not your ordinary doughnut shop. This place was more like a gallery, coupling adventurous flavor combinations with astonishing presentation. It also served one of the best cups of coffee around. For those who know me, they had me at “fresh roast.”

I dropped in for an afternoon cup, not recognizing it was almost closing time. The lone employee remaining greeted me at the door. He was incredibly talkative, peppering me with questions. He noted the “FD” logo on my shirt and we chatted about his desire to be in the fire service years ago, but life choices prevented him from eligibility. It was clear he had been through a lot. With a curious positivity, he made no excuses, determined to take responsibility for the choices he had made. As we chatted, it became apparent to me this was not your typical doughnut guy. Doughnuts were simply the platform for which he launched a mission to make the world a better place. He inquired if I would be heading back to the firehouse after my visit. He offered as many doughnuts as I could carry, free of charge. Taken aback, I thanked him for such an amazing gesture. I was not going back to the firehouse for hours, and in the Florida heat, those doughnut creations would never fare well in the car.

I questioned why he would give away what I calculated to be hundreds of dollars in doughnuts. He said the owners simply threw away what was left at the end of the day, ensuring freshness the next morning. It was what he said next that changed my visit. His expression lit up. Each day after he clocked out, he would load up as many doughnuts as he could and drive to countless locations throughout the city, providing them to those in need. From food banks, to care facilities, to church youth groups, he must have trekked a hundred miles each week, not to mention the time investment.

My doughnut friend had been given a platform he used for adding value to others’ lives. His life experiences showed him to value the power of something as simple as a free doughnut, and he used that power to make a difference. Simplicity was far from the only impact this gesture had on others. These efforts provided hope to those starving for the compassion and love it took to deliver those doughnuts without fail each day. It wasn’t about the doughnut. It was the genuine commitment of delivering it which unlocked the power to change lives.

Both these stories, from the dramatics of responding to a fire to the unexpected value of delivering a doughnut, offer moments that leave an imprint. They derive from the actions that illustrate who we are, what we do, and most importantly why we do it. This is expressed in desperately wanting to serve even when you’re in prime seats at the big game; in clocking out at the end of a shift that began well before the sun came up and giving up your time off to brighten the day of another.

There is a place in us where this indescribable drive comes from. In my career I have witnessed the roughest, toughest firefighters treat people in need with tremendous gentleness and grace. This can only come from a genuine love of others. Whether it be as firefighters or my friend at the doughnut shop, heroes and leaders alike use whatever platform they have to change lives. We may never see the full and total evolution of our actions, but we know it exists. Likely we are leaders today because of the action another took for our betterment.

We have the opportunity to make our life’s work part of who we are and not just something we do. It is not because being a doughnut maker or firefighter is what we do, it is because wanting to serve and better others’ lives is who we desire to be. There is a vast difference between “do” and “be,” as there is such a valuable opportunity to change and better lives in who we are, not just what we do.

Inspiring vision and a desire to demonstrate real passion is where we form the essential connection to lead. A passion that makes us want to be there doing “the job” when we are at the Denver Broncos game. A passion that inspires us to give up our precious time off to achieve a vision of making someone’s day brighter. It is a passion like this which grabs us, inspires us, and provides a vision that takes us there. As Stephen said, we cannot give what we do not have. To enrich the lives of others and enable them to dream big, we must discover our inspiration in who we are and want to be, not just what we do!

Matt LoveMatthew Love has served as a fire chief of the Fort Meyers Beach (FL) Fire Department since 2009, and has also served as a deputy fire chief of operations and division chief of training. He has worked for many emergency service agencies, including the city of Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department. He earned the distinguished Chief Fire Officer Designation by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and graduated from the United States Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. He holds a master of science degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership, a bachelor of science degree in public safety and emergency management, holds an associate degree in fire science technology, and an associate degree in wildland fire science. He spent several years as an adjunct professor for the Colorado Community College system, teaching a variety of fire science courses. He also teaches courses in leadership, customer service, and firefighter safety throughout the nation. He speaks nationwide at various leadership events and has had the honor of being a reoccurring speaker for United States Air Force Academy Character and Leadership programs.

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