By Todd LeDuc
I recently had the privilege of addressing a group of international firefighters being hosted here in the United States through an innovative fellowship program created by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. In preparing to speak with them on lessons of leadership in the fire service for firefighters, future company and chief officers, I reflected on some lessons from U.S. Navy Admiral and Navy SEAL William McRaven that he shared while addressing the University of Texas at Austin graduating class.
One of the first lessons shared by Admiral McRaven is successful completion of small tasks led to completion of additional small tasks and ultimately the completion of larger tasks. Commencing your day with a small and simple task such as making your bed installs a sense of pride and accomplishment and starts the day off on the right path. In the fire service, this may consist of such simple but essential tasks as arriving early and ensuring that your assigned apparatus and equipment are checked out to begin the shift. The admiral made the point that if you cannot do the little things correctly, then likely you will be unable to do the “big things” correctly. In the fire service, if we cannot be accountable for simple things such as truck and equipment readiness, personnel readiness, training preparation, and physical and mental preparation and readiness, it is highly unrealistic to think we will be successful when we are called upon us to perform at major incidents. For fire service members, the investment in preparation is directly correlated to the success our response.
In the admiral’s compelling speech to the graduating class, he describes a night swim requirement of U.S. Navy SEAL training. Instructors relate that the swim in California coastal waters off San Diego are often the home of large sharks (although they likely won’t attack the naval swimmers). The recruits are told that if by sharks do happen to attack, they must muster all their might and punch the sharks in their snout. The lesson is life here is that we all have sharks and you must confront them. In the fire service, that can be the issue of bullying, which the efforts of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and I-Women have shone a light on.
Additional lessons from Navy SEAL training was that of the “munchkin” crew. This team, which was comprised of short-statured members and was ethnically diverse, out-paddled and outperformed more athletic and taller SEAL recruits. The lessons the admiral shared was that tenacity, determination, and perseverance can always outperform simple talent. The power of passion and the will to succeed can never be overestimated.
The ninth week of recruit training for Navy SEALS is called “Hell Week.” Recruits are brought to the Tijuana flats and are immersed up to their necks in mud flats overnight, the discomfort increased by freezing water. They are told that if only five of them quit then the entire remaining group of recruits can get out of the mud flats and enjoy warmth and comfort. While no doubt some considered calling it quits, a few started to sing songs. Soon, others joined in song and continued making the miserable conditions a little more bearable. Soon morning arrived. As fire service crews, it is essential to operate as cohesive teams and support each other, not allowing one to fail and drag the entire team down.
The conclusions and lessons learned were many. Hope is a powerful motivator and one person can change a team’s performance. It is essential for success to find someone to help you through life and, in the fire service, a mentor—someone who is wise, experienced, and can guide your journey successfully. Respect everyone, especially if you are expecting to be respected. Finally, Navy SEAL training teaches that life is not fair and you will fail often, but what is important is what we learn from those failures and, more importantly, that we never give up.
Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, FIFirE, is a 27-year veteran of and an assistant chief with Broward County (FL) Fire Rescue, an internally accredited metro fire department. He is also the secretary of the International Association of Fire Chief’s Association Safety, Health & Survival Board. He has a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, is a peer reviewer for agency accreditation and professional credentialing. He is a credentialed chief officer, a certified emergency manager, and a fellow in the Institute of Fire Engineers. You can reach LeDuc by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.