Leaders can be found in all ranks of an organization, career and volunteer. Leadership is not about rank; it is about the people and how willing and able they are to step up to be leaders when the time arises. Everyone at some point will have an opportunity to lead; some rise to the occasion, and some choose to run away from the opportunity.
Obviously, if you are in a leadership rank, then you are expected to be a leader 24/7/365. But, let’s say you are just in the rank of a firefighter or an engineer. I hate it when someone says, “I’m just a firefighter” or “just a whatever.” That is not true leadership. True leadership involves taking personal responsibility and knowing when it is time to be a leader when serving in a nonleadership rank.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine, Battalion Chief John Dixon from New Jersey, challenged me and several of our close friends to put together our own personal mission statements as well as our personal core values. More importantly, he challenged us to live by them day in and day out as a good leader would do!
It was not as easy as I thought it would be to do this. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve been a student of the fire service and of leadership for as long as I can remember. I’ve always done my best to stay up to date with leadership best practices, including reading articles, blogs, and books by various professionals; attending sessions presented by those I respected; and learning from the successes and failures of myself and others. So, as much as I’ve tried to be on top of today’s best leadership practices, when I was challenged to put together what my personal core values were, it was not as easy as I thought.
I wanted to use terms and words I truly believed in and, more importantly, that I did my best daily to not just preach but also practice. I came up with the following that I believe really nail down my personal core values, things I review regularly and use as a reminder to keep me on track and focused on what is necessary.
I was also able to create a mnemonic to remember them “CLEAR-TIPS”:
C = Compassion
L = Leadership
E = Excellence
A = Accountability
R = Respect
T = Teamwork
I = Integrity
P = Professionalism
S = Service Above Self
Whether they are core values or leadership traits, they are what I strive for every day in my personal and professional life. I refer to them routinely to inspire, motivate, and challenge myself to be the best I can be. Let’s relate their importance to today’s fire service.
C = Compassion
This is compassion toward all—our fellow human beings, not just our brothers and sisters on the job. This is a trait all of us should have been taught as we were growing up, but today compassion seems to be a lost art. Our worldwide pandemic has emphasized the ongoing need for compassion toward others. Compassion seems to be low on the priority list, and I’m not sure why. There are times I can be short, frustrated, or just impatient, as many are, but customers, your co-workers, or anyone for that matter should never be an inconvenience, as difficult as your day may be going. As much as others can test your patience, the true test of leadership is being able to take the high road by not letting things or others get the best of you.
L = Leadership
As my friend and mentor Chief Dennis Rubin says, “It’s always about leadership!” It is easy to say that, but it’s even harder to practice leadership 24/7/365. Why? Because all people and situations are different, and while we should all strive for consistency, because of those dynamics, it can make it challenging at times to always be a leader and do the right things for the right reasons at the right times. But it doesn’t mean we cannot and should not strive to learn as much as we can about leadership best practices and then do what we can through our actions every day. The term “leadership” in the bigger picture can obviously define all these terms, but I like to include it separately just as a reminder of the importance of the word itself.
E = Excellence
Another thing that seems to be common today is that some just want to be average and that average is okay or, even worse, that it is okay to be mediocre. Expecting to be perfect or get things right 100% of the time is unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean we cannot or should not strive for perfection or excellence. For anyone who is happy with just squeaking by at the bare minimum of 70 or 80%, would you want that for the surgeon doing open heart surgery on you or a loved one? Nobody would. Then why is it acceptable in today’s world and today’s fire service?
I remember years ago when I was a battalion chief, I pulled out my self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and asked one of the firefighters to time me while I practiced donning it. This was after a conversation around the kitchen table about training where we were talking about basic skills such as donning your SCBA, pulling a preconnected hoseline, throwing a ladder, and so on. During this conversation, the captain arrogantly mentioned that members don’t need practice on the basics like this because they could do them in their sleep. Yeah, right, I thought. So, I said, “Let’s go out to the apparatus bay; I need you to do me a favor.” That’s when I grabbed the SCBA and asked the firefighter to time me. In our department, the standard is 60 seconds to don your SCBA.
I’ll be honest: When I was a battalion chief, I didn’t throw on my SCBA as much as I had when I was a firefighter or captain. I also didn’t have the need to use it as much as when I was a firefighter or captain, since we rarely were called for situations involving an immediately dangerous to life or health environment. But I realized if I wanted to ensure some level of credibility and respect with my crews, I better get down and train on the basics with them so when I did need to use the basics, I didn’t embarrass myself.
Once I got my gear all set up, the firefighter said, “GO!” I naively thought I would do it in about 50 seconds. Wrong. I did it in about 1 minute, 15 seconds—pretty pathetic and not what I wanted or hoped for. Why? For one, I had not been practicing as much as I used to and as much as I should have. Of course, since all eyes were on the chief, they were all chuckling, thankfully not too loudly, but I could hear and tell they were. That’s okay. I took the high road. So, I then reset my SCBA and was ready for round two. The firefighter timing me again said, “GO!” The second time, I got better—62 seconds.
While getting the SCBA ready for the third attempt, the firefighter said, “Chief, 62 seconds is close enough; we’re not testing you, so it is okay.” I was still a bit embarrassed, but my ethical and competitive side was not going to accept close enough, just okay, regardless of whether I was being formally tested or not. This was still a test—a test of my credibility, my respect, my ethics, and my leadership.
On the third attempt, I thankfully passed with 55 seconds, but I was not satisfied. Again, some comments included, “But chief, you passed. Aren’t you happy with that?” No, I wasn’t happy with just barely passing or squeaking by. How could I? For someone who always preached ethics, leadership, excellence, and continuous quality improvement, I would be a hypocrite if I just settled and was happy with 55 seconds—5 seconds to spare. I realistically knew I would not be to the point of donning it in 30 or 35 seconds (especially without errors or shortcuts), but I wanted to at least get into the 40s. I finally got to 48 seconds after a number of attempts, but I can live with that. Is it perfection? No. But I wasn’t going to settle for just passing. I also knew I’d better take the time to practice donning the SCBA more in the future to see if I could improve that 48 seconds, which I eventually did another day.
Now that I had passed, guess what? It inspired them to try and do the same. They can’t let the chief do it without them or, even worse, beat them! So, the roles were reversed: The captain who had been saying how dialed in he was without needing practice on the basics stepped up to do it first, in a somewhat arrogant and cocky manner. Guess what happened on his first try? He did worse than me. Not surprisingly, he immediately started blaming everything but himself: The stupid SCBA straps were screwed up. The helmet strap was twisted. The Nomex hood got caught on the straps. The sun was in his eyes (we were indoors, and it wasn’t that bright). It was pretty entertaining to hear all the excuses. While his crew was laughing at him, I took the high road and chose not to do the same, as tempting as it was, especially since he was chuckling at my less-than-stellar performance. Instead, I encouraged him, “Okay, got that one out of the way; you got this next one!” It took him a few tries, and he eventually passed with a slightly better time than mine. He was still moaning and groaning, making excuses, even after passing.
Then the firefighters tried, and the same thing happened to them. They started off miserably but, after a number of tries, were able to beat my score too. They even laughed, “Hey, Chief, we beat you.” And they should beat me. Again, taking the high road, I tried to end on a good note and say, “Great work, guys; give me a heads up of when we can do this again, as I need to keep my skills up, too. Let’s throw some ladders next shift or pull some hose—I’m all in!”
Had I tried to time them first on donning their SCBA or another skill, that could have been embarrassing for them. That’s why I felt it was best to go first, to let them laugh at me to get that out of the way. Then, when it came time for them to do it, I would take the high road and not laugh at them but instead, encourage and challenge them.
I’ve learned the following over the years:
- Nobody ever wants to be embarrassed in front of peers, supervisors, or the crew.
- Many are not necessarily inspired to train, especially on the basics; but, most of the time after the fact, they are happy that they did so, so that they could make their mistakes in a comfortable environment as opposed to on the fireground with everyone watching them in real time and immediately posting on social media what they were doing right and wrong.
- Leaders can get more buy-in by leading the way, even setting themselves up for being laughed at, but then by taking the high road and not in return laughing back or making fun of others when they do the same. More importantly, leaders who take any failure in such a situation as an opportunity for improvement can earn credibility and respect in the long run.
- If we allow mediocrity, good enough, just passing, barely passing, or minimum standards to be the norm, then that’s what people will strive for. What we permit, we promote. If that is what you are happy with as a taxpaying citizen with your local emergency services or with every business you spend your hard-earned money at, then so be it—but we’re better than that.
Odds are, we will never be perfect. If we were, we’d reached the top with nowhere else to go. What else is there to strive for or achieve? But, if we continuously strive for greatness or excellence, it gives us a goal to work for and hopefully ensures we’re not just relying on barely passing or mediocrity.
A = Accountability
Before you can even hold someone accountable, it’s critical to have expectations. Then, when expectations are not met, it is time to hold others accountable unless they take responsibility for their actions or nonactions and ultimately hold themselves accountable. I obviously have expectations of myself, and when I do make a mistake, whether it is by saying or doing something I should not have, I try my best to hold myself accountable.
A few years ago, when I was our deputy chief of administrative services, I was responsible for our personnel service’s unit—including overseeing personnel investigations. I was overseeing an investigation and was attempting to close the loop with a person who had filed a complaint against someone else. I was going to send an e-mail to let the individual know in writing the status of the investigation, which would have been fine. But, for some stupid reason, in the cc line of the e-mail, I had typed in one of our many group e-mail addresses that would also include about 50 other personnel. In my haste to send the e-mail to the individual and move on to the next pressing issue, I made a major mistake: I failed to take a deep breath and review line by line what I was sending and who I was sending it to. It wasn’t until after I hit send that I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, enough to go to my sent mail folder to see and confirm what I thought I had done. I had just let about 50 others know this individual had filed a complaint and what the status of the investigation was. So much for confidentiality. We don’t have the ability to retract e-mails, the damage was done, my bed was made, and now I had to lie in it.
As much as I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide, I immediately called the individual on his cell, only able to leave a message apologizing for what I had just done. The individual called me back a few minutes later, and I could hear the disappointment and frustration. I had not shared all the details in that e-mail, but I shared the name of the person involved as the witness and one who initiated the investigation against someone who was unnamed. The individual accepted my apology and said he appreciated the call and wouldn’t hold it against me. I was so relieved, because I know how long it takes to build back respect, trust, and credibility. My only thought was that because the two of us had such a good, respectful, and professional relationship before this, he gave me the benefit of the doubt.
I then walked into the fire chief’s office and told him I had screwed up big time. I told him what I did and that I had already reached out to the individual and had my apology accepted and that I should be written up for my mistake as a reminder to not do it again and to double-check documents prior to sending. I told him I would work on a letter he could use as a written reprimand to issue me. He said, “You’ve already punished yourself enough; get outta here, get back to work, and try not to tick anyone else off today.” What would he have done if I had not brought it to his attention or had not taken responsibility or accountability? He probably would not have been so supportive, especially if the individual was so mad that he went to my boss to complain about my lack of discretion and attention to detail.
Many want accountability for others but not themselves. Get used to it as a leader and remember, if you’re doing your job and holding others accountable, on occasion some will not appreciate you holding them accountable.
R = Respect
Treat others as you want to be treated; it’s that simple. The respect you give is the respect you will typically receive. When things are stressful, it can be very easy for a leader to snap or lose it and potentially disrespect someone else in the process. Respect takes a long time to earn, but it can be lost based on one thing said or done. It can then take a long time to earn back that respect. Try your best to always respect others through things you say or do, whether in person or on social media.
T = Teamwork
We all know that it takes a team to get the job done, especially in the fire service. You can think you’re a leader, but without any followers, you will not get things done in the long run. There is a reason we put multiple people on a fire company to respond to incidents. It takes teamwork to accomplish our goals and to serve the community to the best of our ability. Ultimately, the performance of the team can be tied to the leader; high-performing teams can sometimes cover for or enable weak leaders, but eventually the lack of leadership will show.
The best leaders recognize that each individual brings something different to the plate and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to team building and effective teamwork. Leaders also realize that they have a significant part in ensuring the team reaches their fullest potential; they cannot micromanage; and they must empower and encourage the team to establish, meet, and exceed goals.
I = Integrity
A common definition of integrity is “doing the right thing at two in the morning on a dark street when nobody else is around.” Okay, no argument there. But then I heard a friend and mentor of mine, Chief Kevin Ward of Layton, Utah, say, “Integrity is doing the right thing when everybody is looking!” His point was that everybody is always looking at us, whether it is with their own eyes or whether it is a camera filming our movement walking down the street. All eyes are always on us; thus, integrity is always doing the right thing for the right reason, even though it may not be popular.
P = Professionalism
Professionalism can vary based on the individual. Simply put, it is being the best you can be; providing service with a smile when appropriate; treating others as if they were one of your loved ones; leaving things better than you found them; and representing not just yourself but your department, the community, and the entire fire service in the best manner possible!
Some argue that being professional means not wearing shorts or T-shirts while out in public or responding to a call. I truly believe firefighters in their department T-shirts and shorts (assuming long sleeves or long pants are not needed as personal protective equipment) can be professional because it comes down to the level of top-notch service they provide, the positive and caring attitude they demonstrate, the compassion they convey to their fellow human beings, and the way they positively represent everyone they represent.
S = Service Above Self
Some will say we live in a world that is ripe with entitlement. Some will even blame or label a certain generation (specifically the millennials) to be entitled. I’ll be the first to say it’s not a certain generation, as I see, hear, and read about entitlement being alive and well in today’s world by virtually all age groups. I’m not saying that to pick on anyone; it is a society issue we’re faced with, something that seems to have become the norm as opposed to the exception. This term “service above self” simply means we put those we serve in front of or before us. Now I hate it when some use the phrase “We’re here for them” because I think it is divisive and, in some ways, can make it seem like we are better than others when we are not. It is not about us and them; we are in this together. When the bell goes off, we need to remember why we took that oath and what we promised the chief and the community—that we will serve others before ourselves. Sadly, some have to be reminded to have their priorities refreshed or rotated.
Health and wellness and safety should be paramount to what we do. However, when we took that oath, we said we were going to risk our lives in certain situations. Those situations are ones that most people are not willing to jump into; thus, the need for professionals who work in the fire service, law enforcement, and the military.
When the current pandemic hit us in early 2020, I remember hearing stories of firefighters refusing or not wanting to respond to emergency medical services (EMS) calls for fear that they may get exposed to the coronavirus and take it home to their loved ones. Some were even saying, “I didn’t sign up for this! I signed up to fight fire and save lives!”
When I got into the fire service almost 30 years ago, EMS made up most of our responses, just like today. I know someone could say, “What about 50 years ago when EMS responses weren’t even an issue?” True, but we need to live in the now and focus on today and the future, not dwell on the past. If we want to stop responding to EMS calls for fear of coronavirus (or whatever reason), then I don’t think our communities will be able to justify the current staffing levels, most of which are not at the levels they should be.
We are emergency first responders; we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the responses we go on. We took the oath to serve and protect others in their time of need. If we are only in it for our own health and safety, we’ve entered the wrong profession. For those who are career members, don’t forget that most communities tie your generous wages and benefits to the fact that you risk your life and that you may get injured or killed in the line of duty. Now, some may think they are not paid enough or their benefits need to be better, but if you compare them to most other city or county workers, fire and law enforcement usually have the best wages and benefits as compared to other city workers. So, if you’re not going to risk your life, whether it is to respond into a burning building to attempt to save someone (which most have no problem doing) or responding to a fellow human being having a medical emergency (which some do not like having to do, even before the pandemic), then you may be in the wrong line of work. The day you put yourself before others you are expected to serve is the day it’s time to pass the baton or reprioritize why you are fortunate to even be here in the first place.
Why are personal core values important? If you’re preparing for an upcoming promotional examination, especially for the company officer or chief officer ranks, having your own personal core values can put you potentially a step ahead of other candidates, especially if you are able to share them during your oral interview or any personnel-related scenario you may be challenged with, to prove a point.
When I was participating in a promotional interview a few years ago, I was faced with a personnel-related scenario. It was a scenario that had you, the chief officer, coming into a firehouse and seeing a couple of firefighters screaming at each other and ready to come to blows. The raters then said, “What are you seeing, what are the issues, and how would you handle the situation?” I remember starting out with a chuckle, which I had to immediately clarify that I was laughing because I guess my expectations were worthless and my core values that I tried to instill in those I was fortunate to lead fell on deaf ears.
One of the raters stopped me and said, “You have your own set of expectations and core values?” It was a perfect bridge to then say, “Yes, I do! I’ve taken the time to create and refine over the years my own set of personnel expectations and my own personal core values.” That apparently caught them off guard—maybe because none of the others taking the test had said the same? Who knows? But it allowed me to share my expectations as well as my core values, and talking with one of the raters afterward, it allowed me to stand out in a positive way when compared to the other candidates. Why? Because not only was I able to handle the situation given to me, but I demonstrated to the raters that I had already taken the time to previously think about one of the many scenarios I would be faced with if promoted, not to mention how I would potentially handle the situation.
Anyone who has been in the fire service long enough should know it’s not if but when a personnel-related situation will arise on your watch. They happen, and effective leaders have already thought about how they would handle those situations long before they occur. And if they don’t occur? That’s a bonus and, if nothing else, you’ve got some good training in your back pocket should it ever occur on your watch in the future.
Now that I have shared mine, I challenge you to create your own personal core values that you can use to ensure you stay focused and headed in the right direction. I also encourage you to challenge others you mentor to do the same.
Steve Prziborowski is a 30-year veteran of the fire service; a deputy chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department; and the founder of , where he presents leadership, officer, and career development sessions. He has been an FDIC International instructor since 2009. He received the 2020 Ronny J. Coleman Leadership Legacy Award from the CPSE and the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the Year award. He is the author of 101 Tips to Ace Your Promotional Exam (Fire Engineering, 2021) as well as three self-published books: How to Excel at Fire Department Promotional Exams, Reach for the Firefighter Badge, and The Future Firefighter’s Preparation Guide.
Steve Prziborowski will present “Fire Officer Leadership: Lessons Learned After Getting the Badge” on Tuesday, August 3, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m., and “The 2021 Fire Officer: Are You Up for the Challenge?” on Thursday, August 5, 1:30 p.m.-3:15 p.m., at FDIC International 2021 in Indianapolis.