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How the fire service assassinates its leaders

The lessons from a literal assassination in November 1963 hold wisdom for overcoming the fire service's figurative leadership assassinations


As many of you know, Fire-Rescue International 2014 was held in August in Dallas. Since Dallas has hosted FRI several times, I always stay at the Hyatt Regency, which is only two blocks away from Dealey Plaza, the crime scene of the assassination of our 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

One evening as I was coming back from dinner, I walked through Dealey Plaza and sat upon the very stone pillar from which Abraham Zapruder filmed the assassination. I sat that evening and reflected on what happened on Nov. 22, 1963. That afternoon, our country lost a president, a woman lost her husband and two children lost their father.

Any person who studies history and is familiar with this event can form their own opinion of whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or whether it was a conspiracy that involved Lyndon B. Johnson, the CIA, the Russians, Fidel Castro, the mob, or any combination of those and others.

At 12:30 p.m., more than just a president was lost. He was a leader with ideals and convictions about where he felt our country should prevail and emerge. As with any president, not everyone will agree.

In fact, Kennedy took on several unpopular situations such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, his instructions to his brother Bobby Kennedy to take down the mob, and his fight against communism. With any issue, there are usually proponents and opponents. Unfortunately, his convictions to taking on the issues led to his death.

Challenging the norm
Things aren't much different in the fire service. We have leaders who challenge the norm, and they too can find themselves the brunt of ridicule and attack. I certainly experienced it with my previous two articles on "fire porn."

It was easier for some to attack and call me names than to consider the other side. It simply puts them in an uncomfortable place; their response is to lash out, and I generally understand that. Flattering to me though, it seemed more supported my position and opinion that a change in what we view as our mission is in order.

When assuming a leadership position, you must know that you will take some heat. It is a privilege of the position. Leaders emerge when things aren't easy. We all look for someone who is competent, capable and willing to take charge of a given situation that isn't easy.

I reflect back to taking the reigns as fire chief for Riverdale, Ga. I was the first outside chief the organization ever had. I was 29 years old and had three battalion chiefs who had 30-plus years each in the fire service, and I was coming from the state fire marshal's office as a fire prevention advocate where, coincidently, the former chief was the new state fire marshal.

Needless to say, I had a few hurdles to overcome, but I was committed to serving the members of the department and the community.

Keeping the focus
Yes, I took criticism because I had to make changes that were unpopular. Everything from anonymous letters to websites were assembled. At times, it was painful because it became personal.

Over time, I learned that you must stay focused on the task and mission at hand, but most importantly, you must remain committed to those who choose to follow and rely on you. You will find that you have more support than you know.

In many of the leadership positions I've held since, I have always had some who opposed, challenged, or disagreed with me. Over time, I have learned to appreciate a different perspective.

In fact, during the onslaught of the negative comments on the fire porn columns, I "liked" them in the Facebook fashion. I truly meant that I appreciated someone taking the time to read my thoughts and reflections, and then to comment, good or bad.

There was only one or two who called me names and had no basis for their ridicule, and that is just a variable that comes with leadership.

Assassinating character
Unfortunately, in many of the fire service websites and blogs, we "assassinate" many of our leaders' character, integrity and ideals. Don't get me wrong, there are many in recent recollection who have committed "leadership suicide," and most likely are deserving of the many negative comments they receive.

However, in today's instant gratification of the Internet and social media, it's easy for people to express thoughts and feelings in a hurtful and undeserving way. The "you pile on, we all pile on" effect can occur, which leads to individuals who know little to nothing about the individual or the situation chiming in with ridicule and criticism.

The effect of this public ridicule now is there are many talented individuals who could be great leaders but are reluctant to take on leadership roles. I can't tell you how many individuals over the last two years have told me they are content where they are because they don't want to face the same stress of criticism and ridicule by the detractors as they have seen their boss or chief go through.

That folks, is leadership assassination.

Being brave
You have to be brave to step outside the lines and challenge the norm. You have to be brave to say and do what nobody else is willing to do. You have to have the energy and understanding to see through the negativity, to find the truth, to see a different perspective, to be vulnerable on occasion, and to keep moving forward.

Leadership is not easy. It has challenges, but it should always be embraced as a privilege and met with enthusiasm.

History has told us that President Kennedy was warned of the dangers of going to Dallas. He understood his role as a leader, he embraced it, and moved forward. We know that in this extreme case, it cost him his life.

However, we must be mindful that our words can be just as deadly as bullets, and can have an equally riveting effect on individuals.

We, as a fire service, must be conscious to develop leaders and their skills, not assassinate them.

Be safe.

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