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FDIC 2023 Quick Take: ‘Leadership from the Bottom Up’

Dr. Candace Ashby urges firefighters of all ranks to shed the negative narrative and become part of the solution

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INDIANAPOLIS — Dr. Candace Ashby has seen a thing or two in her fire service career. Unfortunately, some of that experience, particularly in her early days on the job, involved significant fire department dysfunction, hostility and intimidation. But as the Indianapolis Fire Department battalion chief shared during her FDIC session “Leadership from the Bottom Up,” sometimes it takes going through such hellish experiences to highlight not only the problems but also the solutions – and the attitude needed to affect change.

Memorable quotes from the presentation

We don’t train our company officers – and it’s incredibly sad.”

“It’s not the chief and administration killing us; it’s US killing us,” by throwing each other under the bus.

“We are really far behind” when it comes to staying on top of all the relevant education. “It would be a full-time job just keeping up with building construction alone.”

“If you can’t get it together at the firehouse, you won’t get it together on scene.”

“When was the last time we told administration they did something right?”

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To a packed room, Indianapolis Battalion Chief Dr. Candance Ashby presents “Leadership from the Bottom Up” at FDIC 2023.

Key takeaways

Ashby detailed some of the dysfunction she witnessed in past organizations and the 180 she experienced when she found a team who embraced a mindset of “you take care of us, and we’ll take care of you” – an astounding shift that underscored the power of people in setting the tone for an organization.

Emphasizing that “there are only a few who do the job of many” at most organizations, Ashby noted that too often, firefighters sit back and wait for the leaders to move the organization forward when, in reality, the momentum is located at the bottom – the rank and file. It’s vital to stop blaming every department issue on the administration or the fire chief, she said, highlighting that the fire chief is not in charge of morale; it takes everyone focusing on positivity, personal accountability and communication.

Digging into communication, Ashby explained that communication is a leader’s primary tool, providing information, direction and inspiration in an environment where people really just want to be heard. On the flip side, she said, “Where there’s a void in communication, negativity will fill it.”

Further, Ashby condemned fire department culture that fosters negativity and the “snakey, backstabbing bullshit” leveled at their so-called brothers and sisters: “You guys know who the negative assholes are in your organization. Go to them and say, ‘I’d risk my life to save you, but you’re going to have to shut the hell up.’” It’s only through open and honest communication like this that the naysayers can be shut down.

Noting that the fire service needs both leaders who can manage and managers who can lead, Ashby detailed a gap in training where many company officers simply don’t get the management and leadership training needed before stepping into this vital role. She questioned why we don’t have team-building, interpersonal relations or customer service classes – all of which could help firefighters at all levels. In the absence of such development opportunities, Ashby encouraged leaders to take control of the things you can change and let go of the things you cannot. One such way to make a difference is to mentor other firefighters and show them that what really matters is how we take care of each other.

Final thoughts

Ashby’s ultimate message comes down to this: If you are a firefighter, stop complaining and start doing; if you are an officer, stop protecting and start correcting; if you are a chief officer, stop talking and start listening. It’s essential that firefighters accept that, “You will never work for a perfect organization; it doesn’t exist,” she said, but you can make a difference by not blaming everyone around you for what’s wrong and instead focusing on what you can control and fostering a culture of positivity and teamwork.

Janelle Foskett is the editor-in-chief of FireRescue1.com, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. She also serves as the co-host of FireRescue1’s Better Every Shift podcast. Foskett joined the Lexipol team in 2019 and has nearly 20 years of experience in fire service media and publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and a certificate in technical communications from the University of California, San Diego. Ask questions or submit ideas via email.
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