In a recent column, I said that there are better ways to build character in young firefighters than hazing. So what are some of these other means of character building?
1. Clear expectations and positive role models
Setting clear goals and giving people the means to attain them is one of the most character-strengthening strategies any leader can follow. New firefighters need structure in learning what is expected of them in the job. They also need leaders who consistently behave with integrity and who treat others with the respect they expect to receive themselves.
2. Trust and accountability
Everyone on the job should be given trust just by being a member of the organization. They should not have to earn it through popularity or individual achievement. Trust should be a given unless it is violated. Every person should know that he or she is a valued and trusted member who is equally important for the success of the mission of the organization.
Assuming the best about people in this way can have remarkable results in inspiring their willingness to do the right thing and give their best. But trust is meaningless without accountability. A person who acts with the trust of the organization is also accountable to that organization in all their actions.
3. Constructive and timely feedback
Firefighters need to know when they are doing things right as well as when they are doing them wrong. Any feedback, either critical or reinforcing, needs to be timely, specific, and done in such a way that the person receiving it can focus on the message rather than trying to avoid being embarrassed or singled out. For this reason, nearly all feedback is best done one-on-one.
Younger firefighters grew up in a world where feedback is more common and expected. This is not a character flaw on their part. Fire service leaders need to learn how to give effective feedback as part of their leadership skillset.
4. Overcoming obstacles
Young firefighters need to be challenged so that occasional failure is an option, and mistakes will lead to learning opportunities.
Some fire recruit academies still stress individual competition, with winners and losers. This type of environment tends to reward natural ability rather than hard work, and encourages people to only do the things that they are already good at. In this mindset, firefighters will avoid pushing themselves to achieve, especially if such effort may not always succeed on the first try.
When mistakes and momentary failure only lead to derision and isolation among the group, people will do anything to avoid admitting mistakes or failures. But since everyone makes mistakes, avoidance in this area will stunt character rather than develop it. In fact, if mistakes and failures cannot be the source of positive learning in the organization, the culture will tend to become one of blame and even deception rather than admitting error and moving on in a positive way.
5. Relationships of service
Firefighting is about service, obviously. But firefighters perform many routine activities independent of forming a relationship with those they serve. Instead, firefighters’ service is usually episodic: the tone goes off, they respond and do their best to help during the emergency, then they return to quarters and most likely never see those people again, or even know what might have happened to them in the long run.
Relationships of service are a bit different. These types of relationships involve long-term commitment and investment in the outcome for focused communities. These commitments might involve working with kids in the neighborhood, helping out with veterans’ groups, giving time to help the elderly or disabled, or any number of other worthy causes. People who give their time and energy to such efforts find strength and humility in helping others achieve their goals and have a better life.
Fire departments can encourage members to engage in this kind of longer-term service relationship in their communities. Departments might give some hiring consideration to those who have already demonstrated their personal commitment in this way. Departments can also support in-house programs that encourage members to engage with their communities through such service.
6. Investment in a cause greater than yourself
Everyone has heard of the Greatest Generation, those people who served during the period of World War II in many different capacities, and who are credited with saving the world from fascism and repression.
What many people don’t know is that prior to the start of the war, that same generation was largely considered to be a bunch of slackers by the generation before them. They only achieved their full potential when sufficiently challenged by a cause greater than themselves.
Creating and managing such challenges is one key aspect of leadership, in the fire service and in the world in general. Those who lead with skill, integrity, positive example and expectations will develop a next generation that has an abundance of strength and character.