Guiding Principles for Leaders

Issue 7 and Volume 12.

Yes, that’s right, leadership is easy. After all, we all know what it is or, at the least, what we want it to be. And, there’s definition after definition from book after book that tells us exactly what it is. However, we all have our own personal understanding of what it should look like. With that said, the actual act of leading – that is, being a leader – is where it becomes difficult. The fact that leading is the difficult part reminds me of a favorite quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” A picture of Dr. King with those words hangs prominently on my office wall to serve as a constant reminder to do the right thing for the right reason no matter what the circumstances. Those moments of “challenge and controversy” are where the act of leading comes in.

One way to become a better leader is to identify your guiding principles, similar to what Dr. King did when he espoused the earlier quote. The phrase “guiding principle” is defined by the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary and Thesaurus as an idea that influences you very much when making decisions or considering a matter. In our fire service careers, these guiding principles assist us in helping establish our work ethic and point us in the direction of our future. For each of us, our individual guiding principles are based on a myriad number of factors – some well within our control and others far outside. It is up to each individual to make the commitment to this lifestyle we call the fire service and identify our own personal guiding principles.

Guiding Principles

Here are a few guiding principles that are commonly associated with successful members of the fire service.

Always be a student of the fire service. It is well known that fires are dynamic and grow exponentially. Lately, more and more emphasis is being put on the fact that modern fires are quite different than those of bygone years. Firefighters aspiring to better themselves need to also remain dynamic and set out to be the best they can be through a lifelong commitment to learning and studying the craft of firefighting. Growth in one’s career is achievable through hard work, determination, and knowing the craft to the best of your ability. Even the veteran “salty dogs” who are still on the job realize that it is important to build on the basic skill set that has allowed them to get to where they are. Even though we should never lose sight of the basics, we do need to continue learning to maintain our edge, as the skills necessary to respond to our calls for service have changed like the fires to which we respond.

One’s growth as a leader within the fire service must be multifaceted, meaning that studying strategies and tactics for operating at incidents isn’t the only thing a leader needs to be studying throughout his career. Times have changed for personnel-related matters, as well. When I first entered the fire service, Family Medical Leave, Fair Labor Standards Act, and social media were not even in our vocabulary. However, they are now daily topics of discussion, and not being educated about their impact on officer-level decision making has cost many a municipality, department, or leader both money and embarrassment from bad decisions.

Pass it along. Pay it forward. Another one of my favorite quotes comes from George Santayana, a famous Spanish poet and philosopher, who is credited with saying, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Simply put, if we don’t learn from the experiences of others (good or bad), we will inevitably experience the same. As leaders, it is our responsibility to pass our knowledge on, especially when that knowledge was gained from a personal experience or the notable experience of another. Lessons learned from tragedies like Yingling Chevrolet, Hackensack Ford, Walbaum’s Supermarket, Vendome Hotel, Southwest Supermarket, and the Sofa Super Store, just to name a few, should be passed on to every entry-level firefighter as a way to both educate the youth of our craft and honor those who have fallen in the line of duty. Unfortunately, many of these very important lessons are not being shared, and entry-level firefighters haven’t a clue what took place well before many of them were even born.

Make a difference in whatever you do. Every one of us can make a difference, no matter what your position, rank, assignment, or role in the organization. While you may not think you have an impact, in one way, shape, or form, you do. Something as little as your attitude can easily rub off on other crew members and create the “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel” mentality. Firefighters who are committed to the fire service tend to not become that “one bad apple.” Instead, maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the “make a difference” mindset lead them to greater things.

Know your job. Do your job. Do it well. It is really quite simple: Maintaining your commitment to lifelong learning (as described above) as a way to know your job leads you to the next two steps of this guiding principle. If you strive to know as much about your job as possible and then commit to doing your job at every opportunity, the chance to showcase your talents and do your job well will present itself. There really should be no tolerance for subpar or “OK” performance in a job that cannot only mean the difference between life or death for the civilians we are sworn to serve but can also kill responders as well. Complacency is unacceptable, and “getting by” by doing the absolute minimum is a recipe for disaster, as the one time a responder’s performance slips below his “getting by” performance is when lives are lost. I constantly remind my coworkers that the incident scene is no place for being “sorta good.” Also, remember that, at some point early in your career, you raised your right hand and took an oath of office. Believe it or not, there is no time limit or expiration date on that oath. When you swore to “protect and serve,” you didn’t add “until I get 10 years on the job.”

Do the right thing for the right reasons. Making tough decisions is obviously not an easy thing to do. However, your guiding principle should always be to do the right thing for the right reasons … even if it is done in the eyes of someone who doesn’t approve. I believe General Colin Powell said it best, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.” Now, “pissing people off” isn’t necessarily something you want to hang your hat on as your legacy, but if it happens for the right reason, then so be it. You can’t expect to operate in a leadership position and make everyone happy. There are going to be those times that unpopular decisions will need to be made. But, if your decision is guided by the principle of doing the right thing, it’s the right decision.

Unfortunately, it appears as doing the right thing for the right reason isn’t nearly as easy or popular as it used to be. It seems like personal agendas and self-promotion have taken precedence over doing the right thing. When one sets out to lead, he must understand that there are going to be consequences – it’s inevitable. In most cases, at least one person isn’t going to be happy. In others, no one is. But, true leadership is, in fact, doing the right thing for the right reasons independent of what personal motivations you may have.

Make decisions. Yes, make decisions, even if you know the decisions will be unpopular. And, believe it or not, not making a decision (being indecisive) is actually making a decision and serves to erode a leader’s credibility. While there are many considerations involved in making decisions, there are two questions firefighters and fire officers should ask themselves when making decisions: (1) What would my Mom (or Dad or Grandma, etc.) say? and (2) How will the social media posts read? We used to say, “How will the headlines read?” Truth be known, today’s societal needs of instant gratification lead to near real-time sharing of almost everything that goes on directly on social media … including decisions being made inside your firehouse. Chances are very good that a member of your department is walking around the firehouse right now with a smartphone at the ready for a social media post. And, once it hits social media, it spreads like wildfire across the world for all to see. Do you really want the public weighing in on your decision? Trouble is, once it hits social media, those reading it become the judge, jury, and executioner since the unfortunate reality of the Internet is that once it’s hits the bandwidth, it’s true.

It’s not about me, it’s about we. The fire service is a family. It’s how we live and how we work. A true leader knows this and fosters an environment that promotes unity among the personnel. This unity should be promoted not only during the downtimes around the firehouse, like daily details and meal times, but during training and actual scene response as well. A company that trains well together will inevitably work well together. A company that works well together can expect positive outcomes at incident scenes. And, positive outcomes at incident scenes is exactly why we exist and exactly what the public expects. Positive outcomes are more than a high five after a fire goes out. As we have been reminded many times, all fires will go out eventually. To have the fire go out (eventually) with no injuries or fatalities is a good thing. However, our goal should be to have the fire go out with no injuries and fatalities in the most effective, efficient way possible while limiting the effects of the fire on the people involved and the community.

My success is measured by the success of others. Being a leader means preparing those you lead to replace you – yes, replace you. One of the challenges being witnessed in my area, and apparently throughout the country, is the promotion of lesser-experienced personnel into positions of leadership. While we’ve always had the “quick climbers” and “up and comers,” it seems that the opportunity for this to happen is presenting itself more now than ever. This often happens because of a large transition of personnel who are retiring from a department, thus creating an upward movement of “junior” personnel. While tenure isn’t the only qualifier to define a talented leader, credible and valuable experience is certainly a desirable trait. And, as we know, the only way one can get that experience is through … well, experience. What these lesser-experienced personnel may be lacking is the time on “the floor” that would afford them the opportunity to gain both the confidence to lead at the company officer level and the credibility to the personnel that they have what it takes to lead. This lack of opportunity may be because they haven’t had the actual opportunity to demonstrate their abilities or simply because they didn’t have a long enough time to establish themselves as a first-level supervisor before moving on.

Don’t accept unacceptable behavior, no matter how insignificant you think it is. Book after book has been written about the normalization of deviance concept. Simply put, normalization of deviance is accepting unacceptable behavior (or outcomes, results, etc.) as being the acceptable standard or norm. The fire service is no place for this acceptance. Accepting unacceptable behavior one day that results in a positive outcome, or one that has no negatives, leads to accepting it every day with the expectation of similar results. However, the one time that similar results are not realized and someone is injured or killed, the chain of events leading up to the unfavorable results usually points toward a previous acceptance of the unacceptable. And, this not only applies to incident scene decision making but decision making related to personnel issues, as well, as witnessed in the recent report issued about bullying and harassment in the fire service.

Share your expectations. To succeed, a leader must establish clear expectations and share those expectations with those he is charged with leading so that they understand exactly what is expected. If clear expectations are delivered, the hope is that those involved will follow willingly. To support the expectations, a leader must also provide the necessary information and parameters to clearly identify and define the expected behaviors. If that vital component – expectations – is missing from the equation (either knowingly or otherwise), the expected behavior may go undefined and the outcomes become elusive.

Leadership Growth

These guiding principles just brush the surface of what it takes to become a respected and successful company or chief officer. By taking a good look at our organization and ourselves, we can identify the guiding principles that we believe in and feel will assist us in growing our department and developing our acceptance as we progress through the ranks.

Guiding principles for leadership success in the fire service.

  • Always be a student of the fire service.
  • Pass it along. Pay it forward.
  • Make a difference in whatever you do.
  • Know your job. Do your job. Do it well.
  • Do the right thing for the right reasons.
  • It’s not about me, it’s about we.
  • My success is measured by the success of others.
  • Don’t accept unacceptable behavior, no matter how insignificant you think it is.
  • Share your expectations.