For many years now, articles in fire service magazines and on social media have preached a constant message about leadership and how company officers should better manage and lead their people. Often, these articles are overlooked because much of the information is the same. What new information could we possibly learn from old concepts? We read article after article, take notes, and try to implement the information gained to better our company and our department. As we read and follow these authors, we see similar material from individuals whom we have never met but have followed for many years and admire. We have the utmost respect for these individuals; they are the modern day “Stewards of the Fire Service.”
Often their message has been the same, involving talks about leadership, mentoring, bridging the gap, and understanding the different generations. These articles are always on point and provide valuable lessons we can learn from and use to further our careers. The content of these types of articles provide information that lay the foundation for future development. Unfortunately, as a young firefighter I assumed these articles were for individuals occupying management or supervisory positions. I failed to make the connection as to with whom these authors were trying to connect.
Recently, I began to ask myself the question, why? Why are so many articles about leadership and mentoring and to whom do they apply? Why are so many individuals within the fire service choosing to write articles about leadership and mentoring? What am I missing? What are my peers missing? For me, I read the information and try to adopt the concepts being presented from these articles. I vigorously take notes and try to change the way business is conducted at my firehouse, my personal life, my community, and the fireground. So, why the continuous barrage of material about leadership and mentoring? Who are these “Stewards of the Fire Service” trying to reach? Why are we not understanding their intent? Trying to find ways to simplify the concepts of leadership and to whom they apply helped lead me to answer these questions.
Understanding the Concepts
Leadership can be a simple process, given the correct information and foundation for understanding leadership concepts. Often, leadership and mentoring programs fail because the individuals presenting the material do a poor job of presenting clear and concise concepts. This is often the case because leadership is not a five-, seven-, or even 10-step process that members can adopt or develop. It is difficult to walk away from a week-long leadership class with all the answers to leadership. Leadership and mentoring are concepts members must embrace, be passionate about, and develop a relationship with the members they are leading and mentoring. This requires members to be proactive in their thought process, develop a sense of humility, and learn to empower the members around them while holding themselves accountable as well. One of the most important concepts that fire service leaders must understand is , “Firefighters want to be led; therefore, leaders must lead them.”
One way to have a clear and concise vision of leadership is by learning to introduce, instill, and implement the art of leadership principles. Often, firefighters become more successful by simplifying concepts. Therefore, understanding the three “I”s and how they can work in your leadership model will lead to success. Just like the scene of a fire, leadership is very dynamic, and to truly understand and apply these concepts, you must embrace the fact that leadership is a development process. Introducing the art of leadership into your everyday way of conducting business will begin to lay the foundation of skills needed to become a successful leader. Instilling these principles into the way you conduct business will build a sense of trust with yourself and others. Finally, by implementing the developed concepts of leadership, leaders will begin to demonstrate consistency, accountability, and discipline within their own leadership model.
Members within the organization must have a clear and concise understanding of the concepts of leadership and how each concept will require a consistent approach. There are basic concepts when dealing with leadership such as communication, honesty, integrity, relationship building, and humility. All of them are principles you must possess to develop your own leadership model. Understanding how to introduce, instill, and implement all the principles through the art of leadership will lead to success within an organization.
To Whom Do the Concepts Apply?
To whom are the “Stewards of the Fire Service” trying to reach and pass on the concept of leadership? Are they trying to reach the senior leadership by giving them a constant reminder of how to conduct business throughout their senior officer positions? Maybe they are trying to reach me, the middle management company officer, who is leading the charge on the front lines every day. How about the senior member--the person everyone looks up to but who does not wear any trumpets or rank on the collar? Is the fire service truly failing to develop leaders and mentors within all these levels of management? Seeking out answers to these questions led me to look outside of the fire service and research other organizations. Since the fire service is a para-military organization, I turned to the United States military for answers—specifically, the leadership practices of the U.S. Navy SEALs.
As we all know, the U.S. Navy SEALs are elite warriors and have produced some of the most influential leaders in the modern era. This inspired me to look at how this organization develops such outstanding leaders on and off the battlefield. As I began to read U.S. Navy SEALs books, I realized all the concepts the operatives write about are the same concepts in the fire service. However, one book stood out above the rest and ultimately provided the answers as to why firefighters struggle to understand the concepts and application of leadership. Extreme Ownership, written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, explained that ALL Navy SEALs are developed into leaders and that leadership is an art that one must develop and work at every day.
The answer was right in front of me, and it was simple: The “Stewards of the Fire Service” are trying to teach and develop the concepts of leadership and mentoring to everyone in the fire service. They are not just trying to reach the executive leadership, senior leadership, middle management, or even the senior members. They are trying to reach every firefighter. To “lead and win,” as Jocko and Leif explain, EVERYONE must develop the art of leadership and understand that leadership is “simple but not easy.” Leadership is something that an individual must work at every day. One must develop a mindset of principles of how to work with people by both leading and following. Finding the balance between leading and following will help firefighters have mission success.
Leadership is something that requires each individual throughout the fire service to understand and develop the necessary skills to be successful. The difference between success and mediocrity is the ability to learn from past mistakes and the ability to improve on them moving forward. The fire service is filled with many different generations of good firefighters from all walks of life. Organizational success ultimately depends on you, the individual. The time has come for all members of the fire service to synergistically come together to understand and develop the art of leadership. Leadership and mentoring apply to EVERYONE in the fire service.
Willink, J. & Babin, L. (2017). Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals lead and win. (2nd ed.) New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Joshua L. Brown has 21 years of fire service experience and is a lieutenant with the Forsyth County (GA) Fire Department. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from Columbia Southern University and is a former Georgia Fire Academy adjunct instructor for hands-on training. He has certifications as a Fire Officer II, Fire Instructor II, and Emergency Manager- Basic with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.