Journal Entry 5, January 2011: Got Leadership? Part 2

By Ron Kanterman

Think and Act Strategically

First things first. You need to know who you are. You can’t do anything until you are comfortable with yourself and confident in your position. Once you’ve conquered you, then you can lead others and make the necessary changes to move your department forward. Successful entrepreneur Jack Kahl of Manco, Inc., once said: “Today’s leaders must be students of change first, before they become teachers of change to others.” You’ve got to have your act together and you have to believe in yourself before you can present anything to others. You must also know your department, meaning every function, position, policy, procedure, standard operating procedure or guideline, rule, regulation, what to do, and more importantly, what NOT to do. Then you have to know your people. The success of every good leader I know or knew was due to two things: their ability to lead and having good people around them to carry out the mission. As a chief, most of my successes came from my staff of chiefs, line officers and firefighters. (That’s right chiefs, get over yourselves. Remember that white helmets eat brain cells. Place a “leadership liner” in your helmet to create a protective barrier.) I used to love talking to chiefs (not really) that thought they were bigger than their department. I always had to break the bad news. “They’re bigger than you and by the way, probably much better.” For some reason they never liked that. In any event, get that valuable input from your staff, look at best practices, and benchmark with your peers and professional associations. There are no excuses for today’s fire service leadership not be on top of current information and technology. “I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took an excuse,” Florence Nightingale said. No excuses. There is no need for a fire department anywhere in the world to operate in 2008 like it’s 1955. Successful leaders are part of local, county, state, and national organizations so they can get what they need to stay ahead or at least keep up. Most of all, keep your integrity. If you lie to your people and they find you out, they will never trust you again. Some things you just can’t get back. Maintain your integrity at all times. Your leadership legacy depends on it. 

Be Consistent

Part of thinking and acting strategically is consistency in how you handle your people when things go right or things go wrong. It’s most important when things go wrong. Inconsistent thinking can ruin a department, whether it’s allowing four different shifts to operate four different ways or it’s preferring charges against one of your volunteers when two of them committed the bad act. Consistency is critical to keeping the ship not only afloat but upright, on course, and moving forward at all times. Leadership makes the world move in a positive direction, so contribute.

Train the Troops

Training the troops, the staff, yourself, and cross-training is the hallmark of strategic thinking. Fire departments that don’t train or do very little training are doing a disservice to themselves and community they serve. In fact it’s more important to do more training when things are slow then when we’re busy. When things slow down we tend lose our edge. A large city on the east coast was reporting firefighter injuries at an alarming rate in the mid to late 1990s, every single night on the news. “Five firefighters were hurt today”…”six firefighters were hospitalized last night,” etc. I called a friend of mine who was a deputy chief at the time. He said, “We’re losing our edge because the number of fires is down. With the influx of the new kids who haven’t seen a lot of fire duty like we did in the 1970s and 1980s, we’re getting hurt. We need to do more training.” I agree. Hopefully you do, too. Present opportunities for training. Take companies out of service if you can. If you’re too small, get mutual aid to cover you so you can get out and train. If you’re a volunteer outfit, use a neighboring company to cover your area so you can get to the fire academy at night or on a Saturday morning to get in those live burn exercises. There are tons of online-programs, books, and magazines. As a leader, bring them the resources they need to train and get the job done. You’ll be glad you did and, as a leader, it’s simply your job. 

Develop Your Staff

Your immediate staff is the group of people (or in small department, the person) who will help deliver your message or, more importantly, your vision. This group of senior officers are the ones that you rely and depend on each and every day whether or not you’re in town. If you haven’t developed them to your level, you’re cheating them and yourself. Bosses that have “held back information because they can’t know what I know” need to get out of this business. You must delegate for development purposes and stand behind them in case they should trip and fall. Be there to catch them, stand them up, and guide them forward. There are many tools that you can use for staff development. Consider the following:

  • Clear goals and objectives: Establish annual goals and objectives for the staff. Have them give you input on what they think is important to the department and to moving it forward.
  • Constructive feedback: Set up a system of constructive feedback. Telling your staff or even your line firefighters they “screwed up” on an operation without specific information accomplishes nothing. Constructive feedback changes behavior and sets things in a positive direction.
  • Reward performance: Start out with a thank you now and then or even handshake for a job well done. Reward groups of people (tour, shift, bureau) as well, not just individuals. Everyone at all levels wants to know they did a good job and to be acknowledged. A pizza, a meal, a cake, a bowl of fresh fruit on the firehouse table does wonders. Start a trend.
  • Training and personal development: Encourage your staff to train at the highest levels whether they attend conferences, the National Fire Academy, or other meaningful training. It doesn’t have to be firematic all the time either. Maybe your deputy chiefs need a report writing class and an “English tune-up.” Send them.
  •  Be flexible: With as many folks as you can but especially your staff. People have problems and sometimes the leaders in an organization have to put on the old problem-solver hat too. Maybe someone needs steady days for awhile for child care or to take care of a sick family member. Do what you can to accommodate the staff within the guidelines of your rules and regulations.  
 “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership” –Dwight D. Eisenhower

Communications is perhaps the cornerstone of good leadership. You must connect with people to move the wheel forward. Communication has to be clear and concise in order to be effective. It’s almost like trying to give fireground command orders over the radio. Almost. You must be consistently open and effective in order for you to maintain your level of leadership. Part of this is the dignity and respect issue and, yes, treat people like you would like to be treated. Take the high road. Even when the team manager is kicking dirt on his shoes and screaming profanity, the umpire quietly takes his hand and points to the top of the stadium indicating “You’re out of here.” I’m not saying to throw them out, but to remain calm, evaluate the problem, and quietly and effectively deal with it. Screaming matches don’t work and you’ll bring yourself down to lower levels where you needn’t be. Show patience and courtesy even when the other person is not. Here’s where your leadership skills really kick in again.

On the other side of communications, keep the information flowing. So many firefighters have been heard saying “We know nothing” or “They tell us nothing.” No excuses. Bulletin boards, email, chat rooms, notices, and good old one-on-one or group conversations can get it all done. I would rather err in sending more than less information so it could never be said you didn’t tell them so (they might say it anyway, but that’s OK.)
My Favorite Leadership Quotes:

“When I must criticize somebody, I do it orally; when I praise somebody I put it in writing.” Lee Iacocca. (Make sure you put something in a person’s file for a job well done that may help them achieve the next level sometime down the road.)  

“An army of deer led by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lion led by a deer.”   Phillip II of Macedon. (I think Phil was saying that an aggressive leader can bring anyone to the fight and set the others back a few feet.)
“Our best ideas come from clerks and stock boys.” Sam Walton. (Sam’s advice is that sometimes you just have to ask the probie, the rookie, or new guy what he thinks. You might be surprised at the answers you get.)
“Who ought to be the boss is like asking who ought to be the tenor in a quartet. Obviously the man who can sing tenor.” Henry Ford. (Good old Hank had the right idea. Put the right people in the right spot. Makes sense.)

What Do You Want Them to Say About You?

What do you want them to say at your retirement party or your funeral? Most of us never really think about that. The standard one word or few word answers that I’ve heard are:

He was firm but fair; he was a good husband and father; he was a good boss; he cared; we learned a lot from him; she was dedicated; he could be trusted; she never lied to us; and so on. So think about this question and what the answer might be. After you come up with the accolades for yourself, think again if in fact they would really say what you think. If not, you’ve got work to do. Chief Denis Compton (ret. Mesa, AZ) and current Chairman of the Board of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation says, “When in doubt, lead.” Yes.

Remember that “followers are needed, leaders are necessary.” REK

Ron Kanterman is a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and is a career fire chief in southeast Connecticut. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and serves as chief of operations for the annual Memorial Weekend ceremonies each year in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He lectures on a variety of topics around the country.

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