The Trouble with Leadership

By Sal Scarpa

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking we’re gonna discuss the boss, the front office, the board, or city hall. You’re probably thinking we’re going to talk about those people and what a real challenge they can be for your organization. You may even be considering that this article is going to be about your own supervisors and the negative impact they have on your organization. Well, not exactly!

Rather, let’s discuss the challenges associated with being a leader. You see, the trouble with leadership is not so much those other people that you have to interact with if you are in a leadership position. Sure, they can be tough. But the real challenge is associated with the complex act(s) of serving as a leader! The reality is that the manner in which you deal with those people is directly related to the skill sets you will need to develop in your capacity as a leader. In fact, your capacity to be effective as a leader may even be determined by those people. Thus, while dealing with them can certainly be tough, assuming a position of leadership is wrought with challenges in its own right.

Leadership Isn’t Easy

Let’s face it, if leadership was easy, everyone would do it. The fact of the matter is that being a leader is not easy. In fact, there’s probably nothing about leadership that is easy. For most people in the fire service, attaining a rank or leadership role comes after a great deal of effort. For many, there is a testing process involved. Perhaps your tactical skills on the fireground were tested; or maybe your ability to handle people was assessed. Depending on the level of your leadership role (company officer, managing officer, chief officer, etc.), you may have had to endure a series of exercises to attain your position. But I’m willing to bet it wasn’t easy.

I often ask people who seek out leadership roles why they are interested in that position. In fact, this is often a common question in promotional processes: “Why do you want to promote to…?” The answers vary almost as much as the participants. For me, it was easy. Every time I sought to promote to another position and was asked this question, my response was always the same: ‘I want this position because I want to be in a better position to influence change.’ I have always contended that the greater the rank, the greater the capacity to leverage or affect change.

It’s hard enough attaining a position of leadership; but maintaining it is even harder. There are a myriad of reasons for this. Sometimes people promote to their level of incompetence. Have you ever run into a company or chief officer who really was out of their element (maybe they were just in over their head)? Sometimes people don’t fully understand the complexities associated with their new role. Maybe they had a different opinion of what they thought the job entailed. Some people promote and fail to take that step where they make that distinction between friend and boss (this is a common one). Or maybe they simply were not cut out for the higher standard to which they are held. Whatever the reason, some people fail to maintain their (formal or informal leadership) position and succumb to the associated challenges.

Consider the firefighter who is highly regarded and considered one of the best on the job. Think of that individual (maybe even on your department) whom you consider to be a master of their craft: a true fireman. This may be a seasoned person with many years on the job who has all the skills and abilities associated with a knowledgeable fireman. Suddenly, that person is promoted to company officer and is absolutely horrible in their new position. Imagine the new officer that fails to instill confidence in his or her crew. Perhaps they are a poor manager of people, time, or resources? What happened? They were a great firefighter!

Just because you are a great firefighter does not mean that you will be a great officer. And just because you are a great company officer, you may not be a great chief officer. It is often an erroneous assumption on someone’s part that by virtue of being a good firefighter that person will be a good company or chief officer, but skill sets change as you promote up through the ranks; and if you are not prepared for these new responsibilities, you will struggle in your new role. Have you ever wondered why it is that our company and chief officers struggle in their roles when we never took the time to educate and train them in time or project management? Think about it: when you hired on, did you expect (and train) to become a program manager for your department (in charge of EMS, or Prevention, or Special Operations, etc)? Probably not; but I’m willing to bet that it’s a part of your new role now, isn’t it?

Embrace your leadership role with humility and an open mind. There is nothing more satisfying as an employee than a supervisor who listens, is willing to learn, and recognizes that they may not have all the answers. If you have a desire to affect change in your organization, consider taking the time to understand the impacts it may have. Talk to your employees about the issues that you feel need to be addressed and gain their input. Their insight may surprise you and help fine-tune your approach. Additionally, recognize your limits and be willing to learn new skill sets. Generally speaking, the skills you need at the next level do not come intrinsically with the new title on your office door. You may need to develop skills and abilities that may not have been all that important in your last role; but may serve you well in your new capacity. You should never truly peak as a learner. There is always more to learn.

Leadership Takes Time and Effort

Leadership roles are not passive. In fact, they require effort and often consume a great deal of your time. Any student of leadership theory can probably rattle off a number of different types of leadership styles. Suffice it to say there are a number of them, but, by and large, company and chief officers in leadership roles maintain their status with maintaining conscious efforts to lead and building new leaders. It is not a role that is fulfilled by simply subsisting on your title. Those who try that approach often fail miserably.

As a company officer and again as a battalion chief officer, I was often tasked with responsibilities and projects that simply did not happen on their own. For example, as a battalion chief, I recall an effort to review and overhaul our department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). Now, for those who have ever undertaken this challenge, you know it is quite a task. Fortunately, several highly energetic and gifted committee members embraced this challenge with me and understood the effort required to see such a project through. We put a lot of time and energy towards reformatting our SOPs into policies, procedures, and guidelines. We also learned that it is an ongoing exercise that really never ends. Just when you think you’ve got them all complete, it’s time to review and update them again. It takes effort and energy, but it’s important and worth the investment in the long run.

You may not have a project as ambitious as that; but, make no mistake, the initiatives and efforts you will engage in within your organization will require some effort; and, depending on your skill level and that of your helpers, may also involve a good deal of your time. Consider the responsibility you have as a (company or chief) officer to develop the next generation of leaders. Do you think this is something that can be achieved by an eight-, 12-, or 40-hour class? You must have to invest in your members and help them develop personally and professionally. A good leader is measured not by his or her ability to direct followers to a certain destination; but rather by their capacity to position others to be successful and find it on their own.

The capacity of those you develop as future leaders to be successful is directly proportional to the time and effort you invest in their capacity to achieve success. There simply are not a lot of gifted leaders who do not have to work hard to be effective. Consider some of the people who you believe to be successful leaders. Are these folks working on projects while the rest of the gang is watching television? Are these the company and chief officers who are engaged in a variety of committees and department projects? Are these the leaders who take extra time and effort to see that their projects finished, and perhaps even offer to help you with yours? They probably are.

If you approach your leadership role with the understanding and expectation that leadership requires an ongoing effort, don’t be surprised when initiatives and projects take time to reach fruition. Expect to put in longer hours than your counterparts who are not as productive. You may even find yourself working after hours or at home on projects that are work-related. Be sure to temper a strong work ethic with a balanced life outside of work. Make sure you are meeting your family commitments and taking time for yourself, as well. It’s easy to lose perspective and become engrossed in your organizational or individual efforts. There is always more to life than that project or effort you are working on.

It Takes Courage to Lead

Here’s an uncomfortable truth for many people: not everyone is cut out to be a leader. To put yourself out in front takes courage and a tenacious desire to make a difference. There is an age-old debate centered around whether or not leaders are born or bred. Can you teach someone the skill set required to be an effective leader, or must that individual be endowed from birth with those innate abilities? Regardless of what you believe, taking on the mantle of leadership is not for the faint of heart.

One of the absolute certainties about leadership is that you will always be challenged. Whether by circumstance or by individual, you can be assured that your capacity to lead will be challenged. You may have to overcome a shortfall in your department’s budget. You may be faced with the aftermath of a significant disaster in your community. Perhaps there is another member of your department who is antagonistic towards you. It should be the expectation of every leader that, at some point in your career (and likely more than once), you will be challenged as a leader in some way, shape, or form. Expect it and prepare for it.

Regardless of the challenge, leaders must exhibit that courageous tenacity to press on. You may have heard the phrase “adversity builds character.” I believe adversity reveals character. It is not until our mettle is tested that we truly see how we endure the challenge. If you have never been challenged you cannot say for sure how you will react. You must undergo a “trial by fire” (if you will) if you are truly to understand your capacity for leadership. If you buckle under the pressure, if you run away from the challenge, or if you choose to simply ignore the obvious–well, perhaps leadership is not for you. Use the opportunity to improve and learn and do better next time. But the stark reality is that effective leaders cannot tolerate too many failures of these tests. Remember, your followers are watching. If you are out in front and suddenly turn around to find no one behind you, are you really a leader?

Courageousness is a character trait of leadership; but it is not the same as blind ambition. A leader is not necessarily one without fear of consequence. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A good leader recognizes the potential consequences–both positive and negative. He knows that if he is successful in his efforts, he will develop new leaders and help the organization along the way. He also knows, however, that failure will have consequences for people and the department. This may lead to doubt, uncertainty, and a palpable amount of fear. But it is the courageousness of the leader that propels him forward after ensuring that he has done his due diligence and the potential outcome warrants the risk.

Don’t be afraid to step out in front of the pack. Take a personal inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. If you are not comfortable with confrontation, consider a mentor who can help you in this area. It’s important to be able to engage with other people who may not agree with you or even like you. While advantageous, it is not critical that everyone likes you, but they should respect your role. You need to be able to tolerate differences of opinion and have the flexibility to admit mistakes and change course if that is best for the organization. A good leader may not always be right; but he must have the courage to admit when he is wrong.

Leadership is Rewarding

One of the realities of leadership is that the energy, time, and effort that you expend to be an effective leader for your organization is rewarding on many levels. If you were to poll a hundred leaders and ask, if given the option to change their lives and simply be one of the crowd or maintain their leadership status, I suspect the majority would still choose a leadership role. For successful leaders, the role is personally rewarding. Consider the number of lives you may touch and the capacity to help members achieve things on their own they couldn’t otherwise do. What a honor it is to be able to have a positive impact on the life of another. It is a satisfying feeling to see someone achieve something greater perhaps than you could have ever hoped to achieve, and to know you played a role in that success!

The personal fulfillment of helping someone be successful is quite rewarding. But there is also the impact your influence may have on our profession. When you help someone achieve their potential, you invariably have an impact of their efforts. If their efforts and initiatives are centered on your organization, you have just created a force multiplier for good in your department. Not only are you able to contribute to the good of the organization, the person you developed is making contributions of their own. If they go on to develop new leaders, there is a ripple effect than can have lasting implications for your department.

In my career, I have been very fortunate to work with some highly engaged individuals and professionals in the fire service. It is no mystery to me that their influence, encouragement, and direction have helped me achieve things in my career I would never have been able to do on my own. Without the support and encouragement of one of my former chiefs, I would never have been successful in applying to the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program at the National Fire Academy. Without the prompting and guidance of one of my mentors, I would never have been able to attain my Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). My hope is that my personal successes can somehow translate to the success of others and generate a positive impact on my organization and the fire service at large.

Every individual determines for themselves what they perceive to be success. As a leader in your organization, how would you measure success? What means do you use to determine if your leadership style and effort has been effective? Is it the number of firefighters and officers you train that promote in your department? Is it the completion of significant initiatives within your organization? Is it the projects that have your influence or bear your signatory style? Whatever the metric you use to measure your success as a leader, the outcomes are rewarding both personally and professionally.

Although leadership is challenging, you can take comfort in knowing the reward is worth the challenge. You should expect to see impacts in the people you invest in and the organizations they work for. Don’t expect overnight success stories; but rather look for lasting impacts. These may take a little more time to realize, but the effects are worth the effort. Focus your efforts on helping others be successful and you will create sustainable leaders. These individuals will reinvest in future leaders, thus perpetuating a lasting impact on the organization.

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Leadership and professionalism in the fire service are the keys to driving the future of the fire service. How prepared are we at developing our next generation of leaders? What efforts have we engaged to promote personal and professional development in our departments? What steps are you making to ensure that as a leader in the fire service, you are taking strides to stay ahead of the challenges your organization will face on the horizon?

Leadership isn’t easy–it requires time and effort and it takes courage to lead, but it is ultimately rewarding. Winston Churchill said, ‘To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.’ What is your capacity to understand and overcome the trouble with leadership?

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Sal ScarpaSal Scarpa is the deputy chief for the Shawnee (KS) Fire Department. He has served more than 24 in the fire service for both career and volunteer fire departments and is a national presenter on leadership issues. Sal has an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in public administration, and a master’s degree in leadership studies. Sal is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program at the National Fire Academy, recognized as a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). You may reach him at sjscarpa@me.com or www.taketimetolead.org.

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