In the past several columns, I have written about the characteristics of a good officer. I know that many of you demonstrate all of those attributes, so now it is time to take the next step to becoming more than a good officer and going beyond to becoming an OUTSTANDING LEADER. I can hear your moans: “Ah chief, I thought I was there, and now you tell me there is more to leadership. Good wasn’t good enough?” No, good is not good enough! Remember, our fire departments need extraordinary leaders to face the challenges of the 21st century. If you are taking the time to read this article, chances are good you are one of those extraordinary officers who will meet those challenges and lead your department, if you are given the tools.
To be an outstanding officer you must have VISION. Vision is about looking out to the future and seeing what could be. It is not about asking “why” but “why not.” It is about dreaming something and then seeing it clearly in your mind’s eye. It is about a value that you hold close to your heart and then live every day. It is something that need not be spoken because your actions speak louder than your voice ever could. It is a value so strong that others cannot resist assimilating it and the results can change lives. For me it is a vision of EXCELLENCE.
Did you see the Super Bowl? Did the best team win? Or did the team with the greatest VISION win? Coach Sean Payton and Quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints convinced their teams that they had a mission greater than their own personal success. When either one was asked about their success prior to the Super Bowl, they deferred the accolades and described how their efforts were for the people of Louisiana. Their vision was to bring the people of Louisiana something they long deserved, a Super Bowl Championship. I was in New Orleans three quarters of the way into the season and anyone wearing a Saints hat or T-shirt would be greeted with a “Who Dat?” meaning who could possibly beat the Saints. They BELIEVED! Saints fans believed in their team even in some very dismal years, but Sean Payton and Drew Bress convinced the team that they were the ones to fulfill the dream. They had a Vision. Did they believe they could win the Super Bowl because they had the biggest linemen? No. The best running backs? No. They believed in excellence. If everyone embraced this vision every day at every practice at every game, the dream would be a reality. No compromise. No excuses. No individual egos.
In these challenging economic times, we can find a lot of reasons why we cannot provide excellent service to our customers: reduced staffing, station closures, consolidation, increased hours, reduced benefits, etc. Or we can be creative and find new and better ways to accomplish our goals of saving lives and protecting property. We can refuse to compromise our vision of excellence. Challenge yourself and every crew member to find new and better ways to serve your public, train more effectively, and use your resources more efficiently. If you lead with the vision of excellence–i.e., live the vision of excellence–you will be the outstanding officer that others want to follow. If you are a firefighter with the vision of excellence, you will be the firefighter that every officer wants on his crew.
In an earlier column I wrote about Captain Mike Sullivan and his leadership style. Mike taught me just about everything I ever knew about truck work and a heck of a lot about leadership. Trucks became my love, and Mike inspired me to some day become the captain of a good truck company. If I were only half the truck boss Mike was, I thought, I would be pretty good. I was able to fulfill that dream. On May 5 of this year, Mike passed away. I hope that you, too, will have inspirational heroes in your career like Mike.
Michael Hennigan retired as a battalion chief from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department after served 35 years with the department. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from the University of San Francisco. He is certified by the California State Fire Marshal to teach management and tactics. For the past 10 years, he has taught numerous fire departments throughout northern California and is a part-time instructor for City College of San Francisco. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.