Leadership Skills: Utilizing the Talents, Skills, and Abilities of Those Around You

by FRANK VISCUSO

Have you ever wondered how to get the best performance out of other people? How come some people in leadership positions seem to have the respect of everyone around them, while others wonder why everyone leaves the room when they enter it? The most likely answer is that the first leader has skills with (and respect for) people, while the other does not.

The biggest obstacles most officers will encounter in their career isn’t something they will experience at a five-alarm fire but rather as a direct result of poor or inefficient “people skills.” Firefighters will agree that they are more loyal to an officer who shows them respect. The same can be said in any profession.

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Developing skill with people requires work on your part. When you show that you are willing to put forth an effort, people take notice and things begin to change for the better. It doesn’t matter if you are leading an organization, a crew of three, or just yourself (for now). It’s time to step up your game. In today’s world, leaders are needed at all levels. Even though the ­organization, when leadership qualities can be found within people at all ranks, a subculture can be created, which can supersede that which is created by one person. This can be a good or bad thing. As a deputy chief, I have witnessed and brought attention to good examples of leadership that have come from members of all ranks and positions. However, as easy as it is to identify good examples, it’s just as easy to recognize bad ones. The following example illustrates the point.

I once asked a senior firefighter (I’ll call him Phil) to train another, younger firefighter to drive and operate the tower ladder. After a couple weeks, I asked Phil how it was going and he responded, “Not good. He can’t do it.”

“What do you mean, he can’t do it?” I asked.

“He isn’t made for it.” Phil elaborated. “He’s untrainable.”

Besides the fact that untrainable is my least favorite word when it comes to building a successful team, I couldn’t help but wonder why Phil was saying this about a firefighter who seemed perfectly competent in my eyes. I met with the firefighter to talk with him about his lack of progress and he assured me he could do the job. He felt he just needed “another day or two” to practice. I relayed this to Phil, who proceeded to stress his opinion, “He can’t do it, Chief.”

My immediate thought was that Phil was lazy and unwilling to train this young firefighter. You see, he didn’t fool me. He was showing me that he was simply not a first string player. A few weeks later, that younger firefighter was transferred to another group, which had absolutely nothing to do with Phil’s assessment. The other group happened to be riding short because of retirements and I had an extra firefighter.  I sent him because he was the junior firefighter on my shift – a common practice within our industry. Within a week, the firefighter was driving the apparatus without any problems. It was obvious to me early on – and the transfer confirmed the fact – that Phil was the problem. He simply didn’t want to take time to work with the firefighter.  He didn’t want to step up. From that moment on, I knew Phil was not a leader although I really knew it long before that incident. The fact is Phil was the one who was “unwilling” to take the time to properly train this new firefighter. Although I discussed this incident with Phil and dealt with it appropriately, I often look back and wonder if I should have transferred him instead.

Phil doesn’t have a desire to lead anybody. That is an issue in and of itself, but this article isn’t about him, it’s about you. Are you ready to lead? If so, here is the good news. Leading people requires skill and, like any skill, the ability to lead can be developed. It’s essential to understand the value that will come from a leader who has skill with people because this is what is needed to create the right culture, a culture of execution. Strategy and tactics are words that can be used when leading people not only on the fireground. The right strategy and tactics are also needed when managing change, delegating tasks, critiquing others, mentoring recruits, improving morale, communicating with others, preventing freelancing, motivating a team, and dealing with insubordination. One of the most important qualities you will need to become an effective leader is the ability to recognize the talents, skills, and abilities of your team members. 

Talents, Skills and Abilities

Take a moment to contemplate those three words –Talents, Skills, and Abilities. Everybody has them. What are yours? What are you good at? Do you feel your talents, skills, and abilities are being used correctly?

If you work for someone else, there is a good possibility that you would answer NO to that question. Why is that? Because most people in leadership positions never take the time to get to know what the people around them are good at. Now, let’s flip the script. Are you currently leading a team? Are you guilty of making this same mistake?

Many people in leadership positions fall into the trap of thinking they need to consistently try and prove they know more than everyone else. This is a big mistake. If you have more talent, skills, and abilities than everyone on your team combined, you have a weak team.

Smart leaders will not only “want” smarter/more talented people on their team, they will actively seek them out. “Positional leaders” (those simply with a title, rank, or position of authority), on the other hand, tend to become threatened by talented people. Someone outperforming them, or getting the credit for a specific job, is a blow to their ego and self-esteem. Because of this they tend to, consciously or unconsciously, sabotage the efforts of others to keep from appearing weak.

To become a true leader, avoid making this mistake. Instead, find out what skills each of your team members brings to the table and play to their strengths. Give them responsibility, and look for ways to help them shine and use those skills.

Every person around you is unique and has a distinct skill set, but you have to take time to get to know who does what. Make sure you are using those talents correctly. Imagine coaching a high school football team and taking the kid with the best arm and leadership skills and making him your place kicker. It doesn’t make any sense. Many organizations are guilty of making that same mistake.

Within the fire service, we have discovered that some people are made for engine company duties while others are more equipped for the type of work ladder company personnel do. Both require a different attitude and skill set. Even on each apparatus, there will be three or four individuals with different talents, skills, and abilities. One may be great with medical emergencies, while another is an expert at forcible entry. A true leader will know the talents of his team members and use them without trying to take all the credit.

I know chief officers who are guilty of making this mistake time and time again. They have talented writers but asked poor writers to craft public relations articles. They have great instructors but don’t allow them to work on developing training evolutions. They have gifted networkers but don’t give them time to visit other departments to develop relationships that could benefit their organization with regard to sharing information or organizing mutual-aid response agreements. They have knowledgeable firefighters with a variety of talents, but they don’t even know it. Some say it’s because they don’t care. I think it goes deeper than that. I believe some of them actually think they are smarter and more talented than everyone else, and they aren’t going to let anyone tell them otherwise. I am describing the classic micromanager who does not know how to use his resources properly. They are always angry because others don’t know what they want, but they never communicate with anyone until something goes wrong – then they blame everybody else for things going bad … everyone but themselves.  Do you know anyone like that? Earlier in my career, I remember discussing micromanagers with a talented friend who owns several successful companies.

“I used to work for a micromanager,” he said.

“That must have been painful for a guy like you,” I replied.

“It was, but I am grateful for the experience because watching his inability to lead people enabled me to identify what doesn’t work so I didn’t make the same mistakes when I started my first business.” 

It’s unfortunate to come across a fire department with an ineffective leader; however, throughout my career I have found that the majority of leaders within the fire service are smart enough to respect the talents, skills, and abilities of their members. 

Here is a simple way to help you learn to value the diversity of your team members. Create a check sheet. Across the top column, list all the talents, skills, and abilities you want and need on your team. Write things like effective communicator, problem solver, adapts easily, aggressive on the fireground, well-organized, educated, etc. Down the left side, put the names of your team members. As you learn about them, place a check next to the categories they excel in. Customize the list anyway you want, but understand that as a team leader, a big part of your job is to identify the gifts that others around you have and use them. 

DELEGATION

Once you know what people are good at, it will be easier for you to delegate assignments. A leader will accomplish far more through effective delegation than he would by taking on 100 percent of the responsibility of every project or making the terrible mistake of chronic micromanagement. Delegation is one of the most important aspects of time management. It’s right up there with setting priorities and avoiding time-wasting activities. As a tour commander, it would be impossible for me to arrive on the scene of a three-alarm residential structure fire and try to manage the scene, secure the area, raise ladders to the second floor, advance hos lines, and treat the victims by myself. It would be ridiculous for one person to even consider taking on all those roles. So why, when it comes to administrative tasks, do so many people try to do just that? I’ve known many individuals in the private sector who have tried to “do it all,” only to have their personal performance and physical health deteriorate because of the stress and unnecessary burden they’ve invited into their lives.

Dividing tasks multiplies your chances of success. Effective delegation is an absolute necessity when it comes to an organizations success. Subsequently, failure to delegate will ultimately result in failure to adequately develop your team. In the end, everyone will suffer. People need to feel the heat, pressure, and tension of tackling bigger tasks; otherwise, they will never be ready to take on more responsibility. If you don’t develop your people and let them feel a little heat today, they’ll end up getting burned when you need them the most.  The best way to prevent this is through delegation.

Knowing how to delegate (and who to delegate to) will not only make your overall job easier, it will also show the rest of your company that you are a strong leader who has faith in them, the byproduct of which would be greater efficiency and increased morale across the board. When leaders delegate responsibilities, they should give their team members the authority to take whatever actions necessary (legally, morally, and ethically, of course) to complete the task and achieve the desired end result. This holds just as true in corporate America as it does in the fire service. Once you assign a task, don’t look over the shoulders of your subordinates and question why they are doing it “this way” rather than “that way.” Instead, make it a priority to arrange things so the task can be completed without interruptions from you or anyone else who may impede progress.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that delegation is the simple act of “passing the buck.” As sure as there are rewards for proper delegation, there are absolute consequences for poor delegation. For supervisors to delegate effectively, they should first feel secure about their own position and understand the talents, skills, and abilities of those around them.

When a fire officer arrives first on the scene of a structure fire and establishes command and four additional apparatus carrying 12 or more firefighters pull onto the scene shortly afterward, the first thing those firefighters will do is radio or walk up to the command post and ask the question, “What do you need?” Immediately, assignments are given and off they go.  One team will inevitably be assigned the job of searching the fire floor of the building, another will be sent in with a hoseline with the task of confining the fire, and another will be assigned the job of ventilation. If the individuals leading these teams are well trained, you will not have to tell them how to do their assigned task; they’ll already know how – and they should know how, because firefighters train every day just for that reason.

As a chief officer, when I arrive on the fireground, I give out an assignment knowing with 100 percent confidence that it is going to be completed within an acceptable timeframe. I know this because I understand the abilities of each of my officers and firefighters. Being in this position takes the weight of the world off my shoulders.

The same way an incident commander delegates on the fireground is the way you should delegate tasks on an everyday basis. Delegation should happen in the planning, research, development, implementation, and evaluation stages of all projects, especially ones that are large and personnel-intensive. The bottom line is that every job is easier when you delegate properly.

Maybe you are sold on the importance of delegating but you are so used to doing everything yourself that you don’t know where to begin. Here are some tips on how to delegate effectively.

How to Delegate:  

1.      Establish and maintain an environment that is favorable to delegating. This begins by creating team spirit. Everyone must feel like they are members of a team that has a clearly defined mission.

2.      Select the right person for the job. A smart leader will be aware of the strengths and limitations of team members and delegate accordingly. Before selecting a delegate, ask questions like:

  • Who is best equipped to handle this job?
     
  • Who accepts challenges and is likely to rise to the occasion?
     
  • Can one person do this job, or will it require multiple team members?
     
  • Does the task require previous experience or is training needed?
     
  • Who would learn the most by accepting this responsibility?
     
  • Who would benefit the least if assigned this task?
     
  • Who can I trust to do the job?

3.      Assure the person accepting the assignment understands the assignment. I cannot stress enough the importance of clarity. The person you are delegating the task to should not only have a clear picture of what you want, they should also be aware that by accepting the assignment they are taking a positive step forward in their own progress as a competent and valuable member of your organization. 

4.      Keep an open door policy. The lines of communication should always remain open. Make yourself available to provide assistance if and when needed. Let the delegate know he should make first contact but ask that person to immediately inform you when things are not going according to plan.

5.      Be prepared to accept and deal with the consequences of that person’s actions if he does not meet your organization’s expectations. I believe it is essential that every one of the firefighters on my shift know I have their backs if things go unexpectedly wrong. Your team needs to feel the same way. An unsatisfactory outcome could be a result of situations that were out of the delegate’s control. Since you delegated the assignment to a person you have confidence in, that individual absolutely deserves the benefit of the doubt if things go wrong.

6.      Always reward performance. Reward and recognition are vitally important when it comes to expressing appreciation. As I worked my way through the ranks, I’ve experienced and observed the reality that the people who voluntarily work the hardest are often those who feel the most appreciated. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to show appreciation of a job well done by recognizing quality work privately and publicly. Never forget, it’s not how much appreciation that you have for another person that’s important but rather how much appreciation they feel.

Know your team members’ strengths (and weaknesses) and use their talents, skills, and abilities in a way that benefits the team as a whole. Only leaders with character, competence, and confidence are wise enough to want to be surrounded by those they believe are, in some way, their superior. Those leaders tend to build very strong teams once they learn effective delegation techniques. Through delegation, a team will grow in confidence; and the team – and the entire organization – will benefit in the long run.

FRANK VISCUSO is a career deputy chief in the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department and a level 2 New Jersey fire instructor. He is author of the book Step Up and Lead (Fire Engineering, 2013).

Officer Development: Leadership Skills

Deputy Chief Frank Viscuso, Kearny (NJ) Fire Department

Students are introduced to some of the important skills needed to become a leader in today’s fire service. Among them are goal setting; mentoring and succession planning; critiquing others; delegating; preventing freelancing; technical report writing; tackling administrative tasks; dealing with subordinate issues; conducting a post-incident analysis; building morale; and stepping up and leading in the fire station as well as on the fireground. Creating the right culture within your organization and emphasizing the importance of customer service will also be discussed. ALL LEVELS

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