Coffee Stains: Marks of Leadership Lessons Learned

Fire Engineering coffee mug

By Matt Love

Chief Matt Love continues his extended meditation on the nature of coffee and leadership in the fire service. For Part 1, CLICK HERE.

The Daily Ritual

Years back, I fell into a rhythm. Each shift on my way to the firehouse I would drive through my favorite local coffee shop and grab a small cup of coffee. This ritual occurred almost every shift on the way to work, interacting with the same few baristas in the early morning hours. I remember a morning I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, and deviated from the usual, requesting a large cup of coffee. Upon pulling up to the drive-through window, I was greeted with a familiar barista and an unfamiliar response. The first words out of the barista’s mouth were, “Mr. Love, is everything ok?”

As I learn more and more about what it truly means to lead, I am further convinced of the power in knowing our team. Imagine if we knew our team well enough to know when they deviated from a standing ritual. How powerful would it be for us to acknowledge this change and inquire? Not only would this let our firefighters know that we care and notice, but it might provoke significant subsequent insights. If my barista can do it, then I know as compassionate and dedicated leaders, we can too!

Half Full

For me, Mondays are the best! I get to meet with each of the assistant chiefs and directors and hear what they have going on for the week, how they are doing on projects, and what I can do to support them. As time goes on, these meetings get more efficient, rarely lasting more than a half-hour. Recently the operations chief was in my office, sitting in the “comfy” chairs as usual, and we both had a fresh cup of coffee. We dug into our meeting and were able to cover ground quickly. As we finished up, neither of us had made much of a dent in our beverage. We laughed when he said, “I feel like I need to hurry up and drink my coffee since we’re done.” The laughter was followed with chatting about things going on in our lives and what qualified as “headline news” in each of our little worlds. We finally finished our coffee and got on with our day, but I was refreshed by having that time. It doesn’t take that much time to take time with our team. For the time it took to drink a half-cup of coffee, we not only knew more about each other, but we were able to break loose from the task-oriented rush of the day and enjoy each other’s company. What a concept–enjoying the company of those we have the incredible privilege of working with each day!

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The Little Things

I have had some amazing team members over the years. They all have different talents and value different aspects of their work. A while back I had an assistant at headquarters who excelled in picking up on the little things. She knew if three o’clock came around and I had not had a cup of coffee, it was time! After a while of her bringing me coffee right on the dot, I started to feel a little self-conscious. I certainly was capable of getting coffee myself and did not subscribe to the stereotypical subordinate “coffee-getter” mentality.

I began to position myself in the break room just before coffee time, making it convenient for me to grab my own cup and slip back to my office. As usual, she popped her head in right before three to check on me. When she noticed that I already had my coffee, the excitement dropped from her face and she went back about her work. After a couple of occurrences, she quietly knocked on the door, found her way in, and sat down. It was clear to me she wanted to chat. She proceeded to describe that she missed bringing me coffee. It was something she looked forward to each afternoon. She knew just how I liked my coffee, and it was “her thing.” She further described that she felt value in knowing the little things she did allowed me to excel at what I did, and that was rewarding for her. She then explained how occasionally, when she brought me a cup of coffee, she had one too. She would sit down, and we would chat for just a few minutes before going back to our work.

I had no idea what this time meant to her. She described all the things we talked about over the years, all occurring in that short coffee time. I was amazed that I hadn’t seen this, and furthermore astounded at just how much of an impact it had on her love of the job and the value she felt. She gifted me with an amazing lesson. We all find value in different areas, and the leader has a responsibility to know our team well enough to know where value is found. Secondly, my eyes were opened to the impact just a small amount of time can have on another’s life. Relationship can be found in some of the simplest places and as leaders we must open our eyes and hearts to see it!


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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