Kindness: A powerful tool for fire officers

Exhibiting kindness is a sign of strength and confidence in who you are; it is an inspiration to those you lead and your peers

While recently traveling through Harrisburg, Pa., a city with a small airport, I found myself in line at security behind an older woman who clearly had not traveled by air any time in the last 15 years. Her carry-on bag was a case study in what not to bring onto an airplane, full of aerosols, liquids and sharp objects.

She was flustered when the TSA agent told her she could not bring all those things on board the plane. "Really?" she asked. "I didn't know."

Of course, she should have known better, but that's not the point of this story. What impressed me was how the TSA agent — a tough-looking middle-aged man — treated this woman with patience, politeness and respect.

He explained the rules but looked for ways that she might not lose all the things she was carrying with her. His tone was friendly and nonjudgmental. As he interacted with the woman, the line behind her backed up with at least a dozen people waiting to go through the security screening.

Normally in a situation like this, the other travelers would become impatient and frustrated, even angry. But witnessing how nice this TSA agent was to this woman humbled all of us. No one complained. His patience and forbearance inspired us.

Power of pure kindness

In that moment, I was reminded of a cartoon I saw many years ago. In it, a professional and severe-looking person is making a presentation at a conference. The caption has that person saying, "And now I would like to talk about what I have accomplished in my life based on the power of pure kindness."

When firefighters attain positions of authority, as officers or chiefs, they often rely heavily on the traits that allowed them to succeed as firefighters. They want to be tough, to be strong, to be capable and focused on getting the job done.

These are important traits for leadership. But the best leaders also remember the value of other traits, such as patience, consideration and kindness.

Ultimately, the job of firefighter is about safety — protecting the community and keeping one another safe while doing it. Toward this goal, fire departments spend enormous amounts of time and money on equipment and training.

But safety is more than just avoiding physical harm. People have to feel psychologically safe to be at their best. They have to feel that their mistakes will be opportunities for learning rather than derision, and that they will be accepted by their peers even with their inherent weaknesses and flaws.

If firefighters feel that any false move on their part will bring criticism, contempt or even ostracism, they will be guarded in how they act. They may not take the risks they need to take to do the job well.

They may not stand up for core values if they think others will not support them. They will not bring the best of themselves to their work.

'Prevent harm. Survive. Be nice'

It was interesting to see how the younger agents reacted to the TSA agent's actions in Harrisburg. At first they seemed bored or somewhat amused by his treatment of the woman at security.

But after a minute, I could see them paying attention. They noticed how their colleague's behavior commanded respect among the travelers waiting in line. His actions commanded their respect too.

For many years, Phoenix has had one of the most straightforward mission statements among all fire departments. It's just five words long: "Prevent harm. Survive. Be nice."

Those last two words —be nice— are critical. It's not just what you do, but how you do it that matters.

The key to effective leadership is to never forget that people — your coworkers and those you serve — are always at the center of your mission as a fire officer. Carrying out that mission in a way that is respectful, considerate, and yes, even kind will make you a more effective and valued leader.

Some people feel that exhibiting kindness and trying to be nice may be signs of weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Only those who are confident and comfortable in themselves can be generous and compassionate to others. And that example of patience, tolerance and kindness goes a long way toward setting a positive example of good leadership.

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