By Richard B. Gasaway
Being a fire chief is a tough job. Every day, people who’ve never walked a mile in our shoes are lining up to judge us by our actions and our inactions, by our words and our silence, by our decisions and our indecisions, and by the way we behave under stress and the pressure of being the person with the ultimate responsibility for providing emergency services in our towns. When things go wrong, the responsibility stops at our office.
Nearly every day, we have opportunities to build our credibility with the people with whom we come in contact. Equally, we have daily opportunities to lose our credibility. As I talk with fire chiefs about credibility, I like to use the analogy of a bank account: As we do things and act in ways that build credibility, we deposit that credibility into a bank account that accumulates interest and grows in value over time. Our credibility bank account can also have withdrawals—big withdrawals—when we do things that compromise our credibility.
Anyone in a position of leadership, such as a fire chief, is required to make decisions—sometimes rather tough decisions. When we make those tough decisions, there are bound to be people who disagree with the way we do our jobs. Unfortunately, sometimes among those critics are people who’ve made it their personal crusade to cause us personal harm and discredit us. Like bank robbers, they try to steal our credibility.
This leaves us with one of those good news/bad news scenarios. The bad news is that there’s not a whole lot we can do about those people who intend to cause us harm. The good news is that there’s plenty we can do to keep the deposits in our credibility account growing. And, like a bank, there are safeguards we can take to keep our accounts from being robbed. There are many ways to make deposits into our account at the First National Bank of Credibility. Listed below are three (of the many) ways we can build and maintain our credibility.
1. BE LOYAL TO PRINCIPLES
No matter how much stress or pressure we are under, it’s very important that we maintain our honor. It’s important that we always, and in all ways, act like the professionals we are. This means being honest, friendly, courteous, respectful, and moral in all of our dealings with everyone we come in contact with, even our critics and those who hurt us. This also means being true to our word. Remember that we will put more credibility into our bank accounts if we underpromise and overdeliver than if we overpromise and underdeliver.
2. BE HUMBLE
We are the experts in our trade. We’ve worked hard to earn the right to occupy the top position on our fire department’s organizational chart. But that doesn’t give us the right to be cocky or egotistical. Ego eats brain. As talented fire chiefs, we should not allow our egos to get in the way of making good decisions, and we should heed the good advice being offered to us by others. We should remember that every person who disagrees with us is not an adversary. Attila the Hun encouraged his chieftains to invite debate, telling them: “Don’t expect everyone to agree with you, even if you are the king.” That’s good advice for all of us.
3. GIVE OF OUR TIME TO HELP OTHERS SUCCEED
We’ve all heard that old saying, “What goes around, comes around.” I am continually amazed at how often the time I give to other people to help them succeed comes back to pay me dividends. A person’s time is one of the most precious possessions. When someone gives time to help us succeed, we feel indebted to that person. And we know that some day, in some way, we will repay the kindness.
When we help others succeed, it puts deposits in our credibility bank account. These deposits earn compound interest. Someday, that debt of gratitude may be repaid at a time when our credibility is under attack. If that happens, the debt repaid to us will be worth much more than the cost of the time we spent helping someone else be successful.
PROTECTING OUR CREDIBILITY
Now, about those critics who are on a personal crusade to harm and discredit us: I may be an eternal optimist, but I truly believe that in everything bad that happens to us there is always some good. Such is the case when someone is trying to discredit us. While we believe our lives would be much simpler without these people, they do serve a very useful purpose. When things are going good and we’re having successes, it is easy to become complacent and to let our guard down. We’re all very busy, and sometimes it’s easy to lose track of the fact that our credibility is always on the line. Knowing these people (our critics) are out there always looking to rob the credibility from our bank account helps us. It keeps us alert. With our guard always up, we’re better equipped to scrutinize our own decisions and actions and to prevent giving our critics any opportunities to rob the credibility out of our bank.
Another way to help protect our credibility deposits is to have someone help guard our account. We do this by having trusted advisors whom we depend on give us advice when we have to make difficult decisions. Few things have been as valuable to me as I progressed through my career as a person I could trust to run ideas past and know that I’d get honest feedback from about whether I was doing the right thing. Sometimes the sounding board for my ideas has been my boss. Equally as often, it has been a peer fire chief with whom I’ve developed a relationship over many years. Whomever we choose to help us, we must make sure we know them well and trust them. They’re helping us to guard an extremely valuable asset, our deposits in the First National Bank of Credibility!
Richard B. Gasaway is chief of the Roseville (MN) Fire Department and has been a chief officer in the volunteer and combination fire service for 16 years. He has a master’s degree in business administration and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He lectures on management and leadership topics throughout the United States and Canada.