Rethinking Leadership: Finding Your Voice in Difficult Moments
Updated: Jun 9
When we join the fire service, one of our primary responsibilities is to take care of the resources given to us by our organization and community. Stewardship, which is taking care of what's entrusted to you by someone else, is at the heart of our mission and maintains the public trust in the fire service. Knowing the weight of this obligation and expectation, senior members teach and coach new hires to take responsibility for the state of their station, apparatus, equipment, and uniforms. Because our actions matter so much to so many, we are also motivated to take pride in our performance. Hundreds of hours spent training on fireground fundamentals quickly become thousands throughout a career; the goal to reduce the likelihood of getting it wrong when lives are on the line.
In time, some firefighters begin to feel pulled more than others towards leading people. When people step up to lead, they need to understand that they are asking others to trust them with the organization's most significant resource--its people. There are many priorities for leaders, but one of the most important, if not the most, is to take care of your people. Sometimes this will include the opportunity to heap praise on them and celebrate when the job goes well. At other times, it will consist of having to have a potentially difficult conversation about a performance that has dropped below what's acceptable. As a result, leaders can feel pressured into not speaking up when confronted with a co-worker's actions that stand counter to our department's mission and values.
In moments of what may be a potentially difficult conversation, officers must find their leadership voice—the ability to inspire performance that aligns with the values and mission of the fire service. Finding this voice can be challenging even for tenured officers and is especially true in younger leaders still learning the difficult transition from a buddy to a boss role. This transition is filled with personnel traps that can overwhelm and turn off even the most seasoned and optimistic leaders. A leadership voice involves learning the right moments to speak up and ensuring it's for the right reasons.
Speaking at the right moment and for the right reason does not occur if leaders only act when they think they have all the answers or feel safe to do so. From the moment you recite the officer's oath, you're all in. Admittedly, no one particularly enjoys hearing that something negative was said about them, especially when it lacks any truth or context. I can speak first-hand to just how brutal the rumor mill's onslaught can be for leaders working to address toxic or incompetent people in their firehouses. But when a leader's actions cater to preserving their popularity and reputation at the expense of doing the right thing, we fail our mission.
Character--An essential Element of Leadership
Toxic and underperforming people love to divert attention from their performance by throwing shade towards the people holding them accountable. A leader's reputation can easily and unfairly be influenced by one individual's gossip, failing to reflect the more significant positive consensus surrounding the leader's performance. It's important to remember that a person's character, not their perceived popularity or reputation, reflects their effectiveness as leaders. As Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.
Character is an essential element of leadership. Leaders with character demonstrate integrity in moments where others choose to hide their responsibility to address each. Regardless of whether the situation is convenient or easy for them--they stand up, and thus stand out, in the moments where others sheepishly stand by. Great leaders work tirelessly towards developing their people. They aren't afraid to admit when they don't have all the answers or have made their own mistakes. They build leadership character by valuing their team's expertise and supporting them with moments of coaching, mentoring, teaching, and, in the rare event when needed, counseling or discipline.
Leaders with character understand that a desire to lead makes you vulnerable. Leading is a privilege, not something you are always entitled to just because you have brass on your collar. Building leadership character occurs over time and through consistent, intentional, and transparent actions. Your commitment to your leadership role starts by putting the team's needs ahead of your personal gain. Great leaders know that sometimes your team wants what you have to give them, such as praise, while at other times, it involves providing them something they think they do not need but do. Unfortunately, too many leaders wait for a near miss or tragedy to find the courage to speak with poor performers.
Have the heart to serve others rather than the goal of controlling them. Don't be a douche. Yes, you read that right; I said it.
Leadership requires discipline. It is a conscious choice to utilize strategy, avoiding acting on emotional impulses. You're not a grown child. If the decision feels great in the moment, slow down and think through what is really at stake before opening your mouth and getting stuck with an unwanted outcome.
Prioritize the mission over your convenience. It sounds simple enough, but many leaders never fully grasp what this means. Regrettably, there are also increasingly more moments where employees need compassionate leaders to provide them support through personal hardship.
Sharks and goldfish are both capable of growth relative to the size of their environment. Don't restrict your growth by confining yourself to what you think you already know or from watching the attitudes of others. Strive to gain an increased understanding of how your current role and efforts support the mission by getting involved in committees, training cadres, administrative assignments, promotional opportunities, and workgroups. Most importantly, share what you discover as often as you can with your people to provide others the opportunity to learn as well.
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin blends his 18 years of public safety experience with his ongoing Ph.D. study of human behavior and motivation to provide an entertaining and unfiltered view on various leadership topics such as communication, command and control strategies, conflict management, and emotional intelligence. He currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. His presentations explore the science and health of leadership tactics to allow departments to operate more efficiently, with higher morale and personnel buy-in. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of EmbraceTheResistance.com, which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com