By Brian Ward
Before any of us can be entrusted to lead people, we must ensure we are competent to lead them. This competency is gained through training, acquiring knowledge, developing skill sets, education, mentoring, grabbing opportunities, networking, watching, listening, reading, and asking for the extra assignments. Each of these components provides you with one more nugget that you get to put into your arsenal for being a leader when the right situation arises. These situations may be on the fire scene with a rescue attempt, at the station teaching fire behavior to the probie, or at the community center teaching public education. Ironically, once you become a leader, you never stop performing these tasks. It is a continuous improvement cycle for you.
Let’s explore each of these components, and I challenge you to accomplish at least one of these action items today. The components include the following:
• Training. Create a drill to challenge yourself mentally and/or physically. Set up a gear acclimation obstacle course or build a prop to exercise muscle memory.
• Acquiring knowledge. Drive through your first-in territory, and analyze the structures, hydrants, routes, building construction, and time of day/season obstacles. Discuss your actions and thoughts with your crew to determine the best course of action.
• Developing skill sets. Perform an extra rep or two during your drill sets today (you are developing muscle memory). Consider how your drill could go wrong in real life, and develop a solution so you can adapt when it does go wrong. Don’t wait until after the lunchtime nap, when the light wind develops and the temperature is just right to perform the skill with half the personal protective equipment (PPE) donned. Perform the task with all the PPE donned just like the job requires of us on scene.
• Education. Sign up to attend a lecture, hands-on class, online class, seminar, conference, college course, or anything that will increase your cognitive and psychomotor skills. I host the two-day Lake Oconee Leadership Retreat for my local surrounding departments with Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) International quality speakers, give copies of Barn Boss Leadership, and buy lunch for next to nothing. Find a way to attend one of these options or start your own program.
• Mentoring. Find someone to mentor you. We all have mentors, regardless of our years of experience. Mentors are the individuals who answer a phone call or e-mail, challenge us outside of our comfort zone, and provide opportunities and suggestions for improvement. If you have the years of experience and knowledge, don’t keep that experience to yourself. There is power in sharing and influencing firefighters coming up around you. Don’t be the mechanic who shoved all the greasy bolts in his mouth so the apprentice couldn’t learn the task (true story).
• Networking. Join a group such as the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) or the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Find a way to get involved so you can learn from others. I joined the ISFSI in 2008 not knowing one individual; however, many of the individuals I encountered through this networking became my mentors. Start your own local group such as the PeachBelt FOOLs who are working like crazy to provide free training to the middle Georgia departments and collecting money for toy drives at Christmas.
• Watching and listening. Watch what everyone does, good or bad, and learn from the outcomes. I promise you that in years to come, the situation will repeat itself, and you will have an experience to use as a point of reference. Listen twice as much as you speak so that you can take in the knowledge from those around you. If you have a question or valuable information, speak up; otherwise, listen.
• Reading. I hated reading growing up; however, it became an acquired taste after I started reading books related to my profession. Create a goal of one book a week, month, or year on various topics and even some from outside the fire service. At least subscribe to FireRescue, Fire Engineering, and Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment as a minimum.
All the items described above are intended to work directly on personal development. Before any of us are capable of leading, we must work on our own knowledge, skills, and experiences so when a situation arises we have the background to mitigate the situation. If you are already in a formal role, read through the list and see where you could make an improvement. The idea for all of us is to develop ourselves to set the example so we all go home together.
Brian Ward is division leader of fire protection and emergency operations for Georgia Pacific (GA). He is a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, is Georgia Smoke Diver #741, and is the founder of www.BarnBossLeadership.com. Ward is the author of Barn Boss Leadership: Make the Difference and Training Officer’s Desk Reference.