By: Chief John Conyn
Leadership, leadership, leadership. How many times should we address this issue? What are some of the next great things that are coming down the pipeline? Has this issue been over addressed, or should we address it more?
When we think of leadership, often we are looking for that one gem, that one divine moment, that makes sense to us all or a cause that we can rally behind that will thrust our organization forward. We want leaders who can keep our members safe, out of the cross hairs of those that don’t wish us well, and even load the narrative for a fall. And the ability to budget a gourmet meal of organization wants and desires on a beer budget.
Effective leadership is the backbone of a successful fire or EMS agency. It impacts every facet of department life, from culture to health and safety to retention and recruitment to community relations to operational readiness, and everything in between. Good leaders never stop learning, and they never stop trying to improve themselves and the department. But the truth is that being a successful leader isn’t about just one thing. There are many skills and qualities that go into it.
As the chief in my department and someone who strives to be the best leader I can be, I have pondered the question of what makes a good leader. So, let me share a baker’s dozen of some of my latest thoughts towards leadership. This list is presented in no particular order and with no one ‘gem’ for what it takes to be a great leader. Rather it is a list of ideas that I hope will spur you to think and learn more about how to better yourself, better your crew, and better your organization.
Is being a leader what you wear?
Let’s think about perception. You finally got that first little piece of ornament that adorns your collar – is that what makes you a leader, or is it the way you carry yourself in the station, in the community, and with your fellow firefighters? How many departments have “leaders” who strut around in the uniform but don’t demonstrate the needed skills or behavior of a good leader? Is the department culture one where people are afraid to speak up? I would argue that leadership doesn’t just magically appear because you have the uniform. Rather it is something you have to develop and earn through your time with the department, through knowledge gained, and through your behavior in the leadership role.
Is it your education?
For this I ask myself where I have learned. Was it formal training or informal, scholastic or hard knocks? Should we count time on the job as education? I say yes. Think about who you ask for advice on different daily matters as you are on duty. Isn’t this a form of mentorship where you are learning effective skills that can be valuable when you are in that leadership position? Time in the classroom is also very important, not only for what is taught, but for the environment that can spur conversation and resolution towards a common goal of service to all. What is the last class or seminar that you attended, and did you bring back and share the information in your department? Were you told to make a post class presentation, or did you do it for the good for all? Is there leadership through education?
Is there room to grow?
Are you in a place where members can have a say? Does your department have an educational growth plan in place? Are those who want to advance being prepared for the next position? Think about how we can provide this opportunity to our members. For future leaders, there is no greater complement than a true understanding of a task or a procedure carried out with flawless execution and understanding. As a current leader, are you the farmer that is growing this talent? I hope you were the product of some former farmer that took time with you. Pay it back by creating a plan or blueprint that will build a foundation for others.
Who was your inspiration?
On the job or off, what traits of theirs do you carry with you? Moreover, what traits are others taking from you along their journey? Who is your “Rudy,” that no-quit person with a demeanor that provides calm when needed and a swift kick to get things moving? Let’s take that good and make it better.
What do you read?
Do you read for fun or just when the next department test is coming up? Do you take the time to review the many different trade magazines, or do you read novels based on the job? Reading will set you free, take you to new places that you have only been told about. Reading will enhance your life on and off the job.
Who do you allow to lead?
If you are in a leadership role, do you set up others for success? Do you take the time to mentor them through daily tasks that might come easy to you? Do you set up goals that together you can reach by objectives? I always think about how someone did it for me along the way, and now I need to do it for others.
When’s the last time you let go?
By this I mean, when did you get out of your own way and let the other junior leaders have their say and conduct a drill or class or even run an incident? Think back again on what you might have had to go through. Do you want to see the same thing, or is it your turn to improve a process? It’s fun to see others shine.
When is the last time you smiled?
Did it have to do with customer service from your crews? Was it the new guy or gal gaining mastery of a few knots? Was it seeing that your organization was a true reflection of your passion and vision for those that we serve?
When do you need to count to 10 before you press send?
How many of us press send on an email or message while hot over an issue? More than a few of us, I’m sure. But this comes at a cost, especially if you are the leader or on track to be a leader. Sometimes we just need to take a time out to cool down and think things through before we act as we might see things differently once out of the heat of them moment. When President Lincoln was in office, he had far more items and worries than most. He often had to send off letters to his many generals, some of whom he did not care for as much. With that he would write a blistering letter, but once done he would let it sit on his desk for a day or even two, review it at times, and maybe even rewrite it. Take a moment before pressing send to save yourself from yourself. Take the ten count.
Do you wash the rig?
Washing the rig with your members is priceless and takes nothing from your day. In fact, it makes the day for others. As a leader, there should be no task that you are truly above. Again, it comes back to perception. Which leader are you – one that’s only behind the desk or one that is also on the floor?
How is your office set up?
Does it invite people in or is it set up for punishment? What is on your walls will say a lot about you. Tell me about an office in a firehouse with no fire-related pictures. Yup, I agree. Is your office a place for building? Which office would you like to visit?
Can you tell if you’re a micro manager?
Well, probably not. So, what do you do if you hear that about yourself? CHANGE! Seek out a confidant to speak with about how you can improve. No one is truly alone unless you want to be. If you got to this position and find out your style impedes progress, get better, work through this glitch, and improve yourself. Hard work, honesty, and a willingness to change/improve are key factors of being an effective leader.
Are you willing to dare?
What are you willing to try to gain for the betterment of all? Will you step out of your comfort zone to see others grow? Are you willing to place yourself in harm’s way to protect the department? Will you address the naysayers with courtesy while you spin their negativity into department gold? What’s out there that you have been a bit too scared to try? Take that step and lead by example. Our world is not square – it is round, so explore, be kind, and practice more. Work with a selfless attitude and dare to take that step.
Leadership many times starts from within then moves to the outside of us all. What will your daily baker’s dozen be as you strive to be the best leader for your department? Remember, as you progress you can scratch some items off the list and add others at any time. Maybe one trick is simply to make a list. Get busy baking!
John Conyn is fire chief of the Spencer (IA) Fire Department and member of the National Volunteer Fire Council (www.nvfc.org)