Rethinking Leadership: Finding Your Voice
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. We are expected to act as good stewards for the things entrusted to us by the public. As such, we are taught and expected to take responsibility for the state of our station, apparatus, equipment, and uniforms. We are also motivated to take pride in our performance. Hundreds of hours become thousands spent training on fireground fundamentals; the goal to reduce the likelihood we get it wrong when lives are on the line.
Over time and in some cases, firefighters begin to feel pulled 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 critical resource--its people. There are many priorities for leaders, but one of the most important, if not the most, is understanding that your job 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 something that stands counter to our department's mission and values.
Leaders must find their voice in the transition from buddy to a boss as it is filled with personnel traps that can overwhelm and turn off aspiring leaders. Leaders must learn to speak up in the right moments and for the right reasons. This includes when the situation warrants it, not just when the leader thinks they are ready or feels that it is safe to do so. From the moment you recite the officer 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 is 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 be unfairly influenced by one individual's gossip, failing to reflect the larger 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 regardless of whether the situation is convenient or easy for them--they stand up and thus stand out in the moments where others sheepishly sit it out. 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 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, as it is a privilege, not something you are always entitled to just because you have brass on your collar. Building leadership character occurs through time, consistency, and intention. Leadership starts by putting the team's needs ahead of your personal gain. Remember, sometimes your team needs something it doesn't want. Unfortunately, too many leaders wait for a near miss or tragedy to find the courage to speak with poor performers. Regrettably, there are also increasingly more moments where employees need compassionate leaders capable of providing them support through personal hardship.
Have the heart to serve others rather than the goal of controlling them. Don't be a douche. Yeah, 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 you open your mouth and get stuck with an unwanted outcome.
Prioritize the mission over your convenience. It sounds simple enough, but many leaders never fully grasp what this means.
Sharks and goldfish both grow to the size of their environment. Don't restrict your leadership growth by confining yourself to what you think you already know. 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 learn as often as you can to help others gain the same.
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over eighteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in 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 and support for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.