By Christopher Sobieski
When I was a young firefighter, I was headstrong and confident and considered by most to be a pain in the butt. I knew what I wanted, what was certain, and what was right. I saw everything in terms of right and wrong and black and white. Filled with blind certainty, I was sure of what I wanted from my leaders and was definite about what leaders “do.”
At the time, my departmental administration did not measure up to my yardstick. When I could not reconcile my ideals of leadership with how I was being led, I became disillusioned and bitter. I started looking to other departments for employment. I viewed the administration as lacking in “leadership.” I made an all-too-common mistake in my outlook, one that is pervasive in the culture of the fire service: believing that leadership is an extrinsic principle applied to me. What I have come to realize is that the most significant source of leadership is an intrinsic force for which I am responsible. This was a very powerful revelation and positively changed my career perspective.
Whether it’s the first day of your first station assignment out of recruit class or the first day you settle in the leather chair behind the large oak desk as you take on the new position as chief of the department, your thoughts and feelings are the same. You feel the mantle of your new role and have all the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of great things to come. You are filled with a sense that anything is possible with enough personal effort and hard work. That promise of a “new day” is the stuff of movie scripts, usually depicting a life of the hero’s overcoming adversity to achieve the impossible. That makes a great inspirational story, but we generally fall short when comparing the hero’s life to our more pedestrian lives. At some point, we find ourselves complaining about how our chiefs have lost their tie to the “field” and have become isolated. We sit around the kitchen table and systematically dissect where we see their failures in leadership. A common refrain is, “That #@h doesn’t even come into the station anymore. This place needs some new leadership.” This may be true, but the problem is not in the “Ivory Tower” we call headquarters; it is sitting right there at the kitchen table.
Battalion Chief Jerry Wells of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department addresses this issue in his class “Building Effective Teamwork.” He states: “If you find yourself in a state of disillusionment and lethargy in your job, ask yourself, ‘What happened? Who stole my passion?’” The point is, leadership is a 360o quality. Leadership is more what you do rather than what is done to you.
To really understand this, let’s go back to the new firefighter and new chief and look at what they have in common. They are both starting out in new positions and have an immense potential to affect many around them. The common misconception is that the chief is in a better position to influence others. Nothing could be further from the truth. Admittedly, the chief is in a better position to manage policy; however, leadership and management are not the same. As soon as the firefighter and the chief tap into their passion and apply it to their leadership potential, the happier they will be. Believe it or not, even chiefs can feel a sense of powerlessness and being ineffectual. All of us can feel like victims of our circumstances, but “leaders” realize that their happiness and self-actualization reside within themselves. How they positively apply their actions and attitude has a direct bearing on their happiness. Furthermore, others will see this positivity and will be attracted to it. They will follow.
Fundamentals of Leadership
The fundamentals of leadership can be summed up in three words: vision, communication, and culture. These principles, taken in order, constitute the pathway for all leaders, good and bad.
Vision. Leadership implies a sense of direction. You cannot be an effective leader without having some concept of what you want your organization, battalion, station, or crew to be. You must have an idea of where you want to go; what is important; and how you want the people around you to feel, act, and be with each other. Without this vision, you are rudderless and ill-equipped to bring much to fruition. Examining someone in a position of authority, it is easy to criticize a lack of vision. In the context of a firefighter at the station, lack of vision does not receive the same critical appraisal.
On the positive side, we have all seen the effects of great fire service leaders. The late Chief Alan Brunacini of Phoenix, Arizona, typified what it means to have vision. That his vision changed the modern fire service is an undisputable fact. But, before he could change the fire service, he had a vision of what the fire service could be. It is easy to see how having a vision is important for a department head, but what about the rank-and-file firefighters?
We have all worked with firefighters who never seem to stop. They are training, reading about the job, reexamining the tools they carry in their gear, cleaning and waxing the rigs, and so on. We have all been inspired by them. What we might not have realized is that they were leading everyone including the officers! I submit that if you sat down and asked them how they saw themselves and their job, they would be able to articulate a vision of what they were trying to be. They might not think about it in such terms, but they have vision. They must, because they are leading. Whether you have thought of it consciously or not, hopefully you have a vision. That is where it all starts.
Communication. There is an old joke that goes, “What do you call a leader without any followers? Just a guy taking a walk.” Without communication, you have no followers. How you communicate is as varied as there are shades of color. The most common, one-dimensional method of communication is speech—telling people what you believe or what your vision is.
Most of us know that verbal communication is the least effective form of communicating. This idea is condensed in an old adage frequently used by a mentor of mine: “What you are doing screams so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.” (This is also attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson.) It suggests that you have to live your vision through action and deeds as much as or more than by what you say. The authenticity of your conviction, ergo your vision, will be measured by the consistency of your speech with your actions.
For example, if the safety of your crew is part of your vision, then your actions should match. If you consistently tell your firefighters to wear their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) during overhaul but you are standing in the smoky room with no SCBA on your back, your commitment to safety will be somewhat suspect. Your actions must match your words to effectively communicate your vision.
Repetition is another part of communicating your vision. Reinforcement of the aspects of your vision should be commensurate with their importance—the more important they are, the more frequently you should repeat them and act on them. As a station officer, I told my crew the most important aspect of our work was “how we did our job.” I was not hung up on station duties, whether all the bunks were made by 0900 hours or how polished their boots were. I was more concerned with how effective they were at their job.
How did I communicate this? In every way I could: new employee orientations, training, workouts, frequent critiques of incidents, and praise for good work, for example. I tried to incorporate the message in everything we did. I worked with the other shift officers to instill a sense of pride in our station and our work. We developed our own station patch, T-shirts, and coffee cups. The officers tried to foster the idea that we had a high attention to detail for the job and expected as much from all members of the company. As a result, our station enjoyed the respect or the envy of other stations. At multibattalion training exercises, we (all three shifts) consistently performed among the best companies.
On more than one occasion, I was taken aside by the training staff and told how pleased they were with my company’s performance. On cardiac arrests, a patient was likely to regain a pulse at roughly four to five times the national average if my company arrived on the scene (I kept running data on our successes). I let my crew know that they were that successful. I communicated to them in as many ways as possible what was most important for our station. Fortunately, they bought what I was selling!
It would be easy for me as the station officer to take credit for our successes. The fact is, I had very little to do with it. I may have set a vision and communicated it, but they did all the “heavy lifting.” Without their consent, I would not have been able to accomplish anything.
Culture. It is the manifestation of a vision that has been effectively communicated—the communal agreement that the vision is worthy and communication of it has been received. Once the culture of the group has changed to support the vision and bring it to fruition, it is almost a self-sustaining process. This is generally not a rapid process; in fact, the bigger the cultural change, the longer it will take. The grander the vision is, the more persistent the communication must be. There can be no equivocation, as changing culture is generally no small affair. In fact, those who prefer the status quo will be looking for loopholes or inconsistencies to return to their comfort zone. A cultural change is not necessarily a top-down proposition. Remember that motivated firefighter we discussed earlier? He was changing the culture. I have had those firefighters who changed the way I did things as an officer. They inspired me to do better, work harder, or set a better example. In a very large way, they drove me, which in turn changed the culture for everyone. It was through their vision and communication that they changed the culture of those around them. As I said earlier, people are naturally attracted to these individuals and seek them out.
Creating the culture you want is no small feat. In almost any instance, it can be accomplished from any level if the commitment to selling the vision is present. As mentioned earlier, my vision for my crew centered more on critical performance and less on the housekeeping. I did not enforce our “no TV policy until 1700 hours.” I told them that if they were done with their training and all their work, I could care less what they watched. We were an extremely busy company, and downtime was a premium. Ironically, the station duties were all done to perfection without fail, and the reports were always done. I never had to chase anyone from the television. In fact, I never had a single issue with it. The commitment I articulated regarding attention to detail on calls permeated into the fabric of everything my crew did. I did not insist on this. In fact, I tried to show understanding and leeway with regard to many policies. They took the ball and ran with it.
Within the first year of one particular station assignment, my crew and I did abysmally on our annual physical performance test. Mitigating some of that, I had two individuals contending with health issues. Still, as the officer and leader, I was extremely dissatisfied with the results. I took this back to the crew and told them this was not acceptable. We were a busy, high-rise station and needed to be more physically fit. It was not consistent with the standards that I expected of them.
From that day forward, they worked out as a crew. They developed their own workout routines that were job related. On days when I was stuck in the office on the computer (and there were many), they would either lay a “guilt trip” on me or start without me. Of course, faced with peer pressure, I would stop what I was doing and join them. They created the pressure to which I became susceptible. As a result, our station moved up as a group from 63rd (or so) to 14th in the department. Surprisingly, we were the fourth most improved company that year. That told me others were out there reinventing themselves as well. Today, I am an older “seasoned” battalion chief getting heavier and slower but doing my best to keep the spirit of the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and that crew is still out there doing what they do. As I said earlier, it is a self-sustaining process. They created a self-perpetuating culture of excellence that transcended the vision I had originally presented. As is the case most of the time, if you set an expectation, people will exceed it.
The words “manager” and “leader” may at times be used as synonyms, but nothing could be further from the truth. I do not believe that leaders are only born. Anyone can choose to lead. That choice is an empty one, though, if it does not incorporate elements followers can grasp—vision, communication, and the resulting cultural change.
As Theodore Hesburgh, one-time president of the University of Notre Dame, has said, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion.” That statement does not put any qualifiers on who can be a leader. That choice is yours!
Abrashoff, DM. (2002) It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.
Brunacini, A. (1985) Fire Command. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association.
Patterson, K, J Grenney, R McMillan, & A Switzler. (2011). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Smoke, CH. (2005) Company Officer, 2nd edition. Clifton Park, New York: Thomas Delmar Learning.
Wells, J. (2012). “Building Effective Teamwork.” FDIC International, Indianapolis, IN.
CHRISTOPHER SOBIESKI is a battalion chief with Cobb County (GA) Fire & Emergency Services (CCFES), assigned to the 1st Battalion. He is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and a 29-year veteran of the department. He began his career as a volunteer in the Northern Virginia/DC area. He is a paramedic and taught paramedics for 20 years. In addition, he was a member of the CCFES technical rescue team, a member of GA-TF4, and executive officer for Cobb’s director of public safety.