Fire service leaders: The difference between life and death

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By Adam K. Thiel

Within the fire service, we constantly grapple with one question: What does it mean to be a leader? Clearly, we’re not alone in our search, which is why the leadership training industry brings in more than $100 billion worldwide.

Leadership is a constant subject of research, training, education and discussion — in every field of human endeavor. Depending on the source, there are dozens of recognized theories of leadership in the academic literatures of business administration, public administration and management science.

Go to any bookstore, or online bookseller, and search for the “leadership” section or keyword; there you’ll find thousands of books penned by people from all walks of life with their perspectives, tips, and techniques for exercising leadership, or becoming (or staying) a “leader.”

Attend almost any fire service conference, or professional development gathering in another industry, and you’ll likely find several presentations, tracks or panels on leadership.

You can select from myriad different survey instruments to assess your leadership “style,” spend thousands of dollars on leadership development programs, and even hire a leadership coach.

Whatever your favorite (social) media channel, it’s almost impossible to miss researchers, politicians, and pundits talking about leadership.

Life-and-death important
The importance of leaders is obvious — they set the tone and impact core values within an organization, for good or bad.

But in our business, it takes on another dimension. Leadership, at all levels, can make the difference between life and death — not just the lives of those we are sworn to protect, but also the lives of our brother and sister firefighters.

If your experiences are anything like mine, the presence, or absence, of leadership is palpable. It’s visceral; you can actually “feel” it when it’s there, and you miss it when it’s not. While leadership may be hard to define, as witness the many (often competing) theories on the topic, we generally think we “know it when we see it.”

From my own work as a firefighter, company officer, chief officer, state agency head, non-profit board member, academic researcher, instructor, consultant and business owner, I have certainly benefited from good leadership, and suffered (or so it felt at the time) through bad leadership. Sometimes the two types were indistinguishable, and even came from the same individual, group or organization at different times, or under different circumstances. Sometimes what I felt was good leadership, was seen by others as bad leadership, and vice versa.

With so much invested each year in leadership research, publishing and training, why haven’t we figured it out yet?

No “there” there
The problem may be in how we define “leadership.” The academic version, the type portrayed via the leadership industry, is a romanticized version where everyone combines the vision of Steve Jobs with the motivational skills of General Patton.

But real leadership is messy, and few of us ever really get there. The best fire service leaders among us carve out their own path to a very uncertain destination, one which is littered with discarded examples that “seemed like a good idea at the time.”

If there was an easy 12-step program to develop leadership capacity throughout organizations, it would have been invented already. In fact, the more we discover about human behavior and interaction — and the more it changes with the diverse environmental, cultural, technical and political influences of an era where we are all connected, all the time — the less we actually know for certain.

So what can we do?
Trite as it sounds, aspire to be the best fire service leader you can be — honestly assessing your limitations and coming up with a plan for addressing deficiencies you know you can fix.

Ask yourself — how can you steadily improve your leadership skills? What are the areas you know or suspect you need the most improvement in: motivation, communication skills, celebration of team achievements?

Can you pick one of them each month and come up with a plan to improve it? Ask your most trusted colleagues for their advice on how you can improve — they’ll likely have a mouthful.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do believe strongly in the ongoing practice of leadership and the value of introspection as we all pursue this never-ending journey, in both our professional and personal lives. If we do our job right, we might end up with more questions than answers, so please feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences.

Stay safe!

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