Leadership from a Four-Star General, a Famous Frenchman, and “Drama”

I asked a man I respect more than any other to share with me – no, with us – what advice he gives to young, up-and-coming U.S. Navy aviators as it relates to leadership and command. I asked him because I respect him; I know his story. He has overcome tremendous odds, fought with courage and valor, and lived with integrity and continues to this day to serve his country in one of the most demanding and dangerous professions in the world – a naval aviator.

He sent me back a short text that could take days to fully understand. Its clarity and truth help firefighters of all ranks understand why progressing systematically through our ranks matters, why it seems that those who have the firmest grasp on our issues and consistently push our evolution toward increasingly positive solutions have served in a consistent manner without shortcuts. It was amazing that the lieutenant commander’s advice was almost exactly what four-star General Tommy Franks said when he was asked about command and leadership.

Franks, in an unplugged session, mentioned that his daughter was married to a West Point graduate who currently made what he called “baby general,” an endearing term for the rank of brigadier general by generals who outrank them. The general said that the one thing he wished his son-in-law had experienced to be most effective at his career was the experience he gained as an enlisted man.

Franks enlisted as a private and went all the way through the ranks. The sentiments that he expressed were much like those of the great French general of the 1800s, Ardant du Picq, who said, “A wise organization ensures that the personnel of combat groups changes as little as possible, so that comrades in peacetime maneuvers shall be comrades in war. From living together and obeying the same chiefs, from commanding the same men, from sharing fatigue and rest, from cooperation among men who quickly understand each other in the execution of warlike movements, may breed brotherhood, professional knowledge, sentiment, above all, unity …. Unity and confidence cannot be improvised. They alone can create the mutual trust, that feeling of force which gives courage and daring.”

The brief statement from the lieutenant commander that follows summarizes why gaining experience through the ranks is so important in developing the empathy it requires to truly lead and command. Although all systems are somewhat different, within one’s system one should strive to participate as fully as one can at every level to gain an understanding of how that system operates.

The memo I received from the lieutenant commander started with, “In a world where you have command but strive for legitimate leadership, you need three things to thrive and two to survive. Number one: Be a good officer. If you don’t know what’s expected of your people and you don’t know what they go through, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The best way to be a good officer and know what’s expected of your people is to have experienced those ranks yourself. The only way to understand what is expected of your people is to have experienced those expectations yourself – to have been in that circumstance, that job, that position or rank. Otherwise, you are only assuming you know what is expected. To know what someone is going through is to have worn those shoes yourself, to have pulled joker stand duty, to have cleaned toilets. Everyone’s circumstances will vary somewhat, but if you want to be legit, then you need to have cut your teeth on all the ranks below you.

“Number two: Be a good pilot. If you don’t know your ‘stuff,’ you’ll be dead before you can make any argument to the contrary.” The same can be said of a firefighter: If you don’t know your stuff, it is very easy to get yourself and, by extension, your crew into trouble.

The words above are simple, direct, and honest. They come from a U.S. Navy aviator who has studied and prepared himself diligently his entire life to thrive under the burden of command. It is called a burden because of its dichotomy. Command encompasses responsibility and privilege, authority and servanthood, leadership and followership, humility and confidence. Having command is the most misunderstood and orphaned topic in the fire service. We are robust in tackling command as a function but very skittish to engage in its complexity in terms of social responsibility within our ranks.

As firefighters, we cannot stop ourselves from reading about leadership. Most of us will sign up for every class that has leadership in its name. But most have never attended a training program or class on command as a lifestyle, as a moral and ethical responsibility. We have all sat through hundreds of hours of training on command as a function. Part of this dilemma is because, as the lieutenant commander pointed out, command is given. Command is given by virtue of rank, bestowed by legal authority, and backed up by statutes and organizational hierarchies. What we choose to do with that authority and how we exercise the power of command are signs of our character and competence.

If we choose to strive for legitimate leadership, then it is crucial we thoroughly understand the commander’s points. Oh, his last point was direct:

“Number three: Be a good dude. If I have to explain that last one to you, I can’t help you.” No mincing words, either. You are a “good dude” or you’re not. I should mention that the lieutenant commander is my son, Dean “Drama” Halton.

Firefighters, Support H.R. 973/S. 1651 or H.R. 711 Now!
Post Traumatic Growth
Checky, Marcus, and Albuquerque

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