Being a strong leader doesn’t mean you must be in charge. In fact, leadership is not absolute control. As I learned, leading up the chain of command is equally as important as leading down the chain (Willink and Babin, 2015). The best leaders may be the guys making the push off the back step and it is the job of the officer to use their people to ultimately ready the company for its “career fire.” Two concepts are at the center of being an effective leader: Defining expectations and planning. In this piece, we will talk about defining expectations.
There is a lot of rhetoric in the fire service today, some of which I am guilty of playing into. We must be realistic in defining our expectations because lofty or utopic goals are merely unicorns- unachievable and not real. We have to set a standard for ourselves, first and foremost. In a previous post about the airbrake drill, I detailed how just 25-30 minutes a day has brought our crew to the next level. We can communicate, anticipate needs and actions, and we’ve built trust. Training shouldn’t feel like a punishment, and I feel much of today’s training throws unrealistic scenarios and expectations on a crew, which immediately demotivates even the most highly motivated firefighters. Commit yourself to doing something for thirty minutes a day. Many would be surprised how many times you can raise a ladder in a thirty-minute period, or how many times you can stretch knee bundles. Like a diet or exercise plan, once you accept the commitment and discipline yourself to devote the necessary time, it becomes second nature, and you can move towards affecting the people around you positively. The cliché term is leading by example. People will follow suit.
War story time: While detailed at another station, I was using some spare hose to stretch knee bundles. About 15 minutes in, the officer walks out in the bay and asks what I’m doing. I explained that I was trying out some stuff I had learned in a recent class and was just getting some reps in. I guess he was interested because he stuck around and watched. Eventually, a third guy came out, and the officer said, “Hey watch this, do that V thing again you just did.” Later on, the fourth came out, and long story short, within twenty minutes of him being out there watching, he was now running lines, as we began to flow water. Impromptu drill–done. So what’s special about this? My discipline in “doing something every day” led to a drill that would have otherwise never happened. So I beg the question, who was the leader? Arguably, we each were because we committed the time to learn something new. Taking time to debunk some stretches and flow some water allowed each of us to get better. No one was forced to be out there, yet we all were and an hour flew by. An hour that no one can take away from us.
Getting back on track, how can your people do the right thing if they don’t know what is expected of them? How can you get upset with them, if you’ve never laid out what ideas, goals, and objectives they should be fulfilling? Part of doing the right thing in our trade is fulfilling the expectations placed upon you. As an officer, or even as a firefighter, you’re not wrong to lay forward your expectations, but you must pay close attention to your approach.
1. “Hey, we need to train every day because we suck as a company/department”
2. “Hey guys, training is really important to me, and I would appreciate if, for thirty minutes or so, while I’m out in the bay, that you join me. How awesome is it going to be when we show up second or third due and put someone else’s fire out?”
The differences between statement one and statement two are that you’re treating people with respect and you’re not downgrading anyone or the company. As the old adage goes, “You get more bees with honey!”
There will always be nay-sayers. There will also be that guy, that crew, or that shift that wants to make fun of you for practicing your trade. That’s fine. In the words of my friend Captain Jonah Smith (2016), “I may not be getting better, but what the hell are you doing?”
When going to your crew with a set of expectations, you should be well prepared to explain why you have these expectations whether it’s asked or not. What may not seem like a big deal to a member or two may become a big deal to them when you give them the reason behind the decision; it allows the member to own their role behind the reason (Willink and Babin, 2015). Remember, knowledge base is different for every member and some may not be aware of why a particular detail is important.
When crafting our expectations, we should have one clear objective, and that is to prevent catastrophic failures (Smith, 2016). If we can remain in control of our actions, accept our scope of operations, and work within that scope, we will be successful. If you’re assigned to an engine and you spend more time conducting RIT drills than you do stretching and operating the initial hose line, you just may find yourself in a position where that bailout is necessary. That is not to say RIT and survival are not important, but as an engine, you have one job (House, 2016) and you need to be the best at it.
Define expectations for yourself and your crew and hold yourself accountable. We each have the ability to effect change within our circle of influence; be positive, be a motivator, be a mentor, and watch the wheels start to turn.
– Zach Schleiffer
References: House, Gary. (2016). Smith, J. (2016). FDIC 2016. Willink, J., Babin, L. (2015). Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win. New York, New York; Penguin.
Would you work for you?
This is a great question for all fire service leaders and future leaders. For a moment though, really think about this. Could you work for you? Try to envision being your own leader. Would you respond well to your communication style? Would you react favorably to your own leadership?
Don’t think these are important questions? Think again.
Forbes magazine recently identified that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers. And that sentiment couldn’t be more true. We’ve all had terrible officers. It’s a touchy subject from the bottom up, which is exactly why fire service leaders should regularly audit themselves. There is no better indicator of how you are doing as a leader than a view from the bottom up.
Successful leadership is not always something you can teach; it’s mostly a social finesse that originates in your character as a human being and your ability to communicate with others. Some people have the ability and execute leadership effortlessly, while others struggle to maintain positive leadership behaviors and relationships with their subordinates. Even successful leaders will sometimes have at least one individual they have difficulty meshing with.
It’s important to reflect on a few questions: Do you jump immediately to negative conclusions or are you constructively supportive? Do you look for someone to blame or do you correct the system so that mistakes don’t reoccur? Do you punish the entire shift for the mistakes of one person or do you mentor individuals? Do you show favoritism without realizing it?
Profession development should be an important part of being a leader. Successful leaders need to be diligent in passing along positive professional skills and likewise, junior level officers should always be eager to absorb the leadership nuggets provided by their superiors.
Feedback Tools: Utilizing a system similar to the annual performance appraisal only reversing the flow of information. Have your firefighters appraise your performance as their leader. It’s important for this
process to remain as anonymous as possible. It’d be an awful position for a firefighter, knowing he needs to communicate something constructive, if he knows it’s not anonymous. One resource that works well is creating a Survey Monkey or Google Survey. They’re free. Giving your firefighters the opportunity to provide you with valuable information about how you can lead them better is feedback gold. As long as everyone takes it seriously. We’ve all been in a position where we WISH we could professionally develop our leaders to be better bosses, the survey gives everyone that opportunity. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Record your communications. I know it sounds too far, but honestly. Record your counseling sessions, mentoring moments, training moments. Watch or listen to them later. Try being completely objective. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, how your sentences are formed, and the manner in which you communicate with others. You might discover things such as passive aggressiveness, cussing, a judging tone, not allowing the other person to communicate their side, positive and or negative trajectories. By positive and negative trajectories I mean, are you yelling at someone who made a mistake and then kicked them out of your office vs. using the mistake as a learning moment to further develop the firefighter. Obviously, one trajectory is negative and the other is positive.
Aside from personal audits and feedback tools it’s incredibly important to exercise regular self-reflection as well as developing a healthy sense of self-awareness. Creating a sense of self-awareness and an awareness of how you are communicating with others takes a measurable amount of emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence is the passcode to both personal and professional success. We all have different personalities, differing expectations, and different ways of communicating. It’s nearly impossible for different individuals to provide the same set of leadership abilities. But we can all learn to develop our emotional intelligence to become less reactionary, more calculated, even tempered, and thought-provoking. Emotional intelligence is a measurable trait. Individuals with a lesser amount of emotional intelligence tend to use anger as a go-to emotion when something doesn’t go right and they also tend to be happy for the wrong reasons. In the next part of this series we’ll dive into emotional intelligence.
In the meantime, we’re attempting to collect data addressing a whole host of firefighter related challenges. Please consider completing short survey so we can conduct one of the largest firefighter studies of it’s kind in the United States. Please share with your crews.
Read more in the Thoughtful Leadership Series