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Chief Insights: ‘Keep smiling and keeping moving forward’

There will be people who will work against you, but it’s critical to stay confident in who you are and remain positive

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On her journey to becoming chief, Ali said she “had some of the best mentors in the world who held me accountable, pushed me hard, and reminded me to not care what the haters say.”

Photo/Chief Dena Ali

The following content is part of a new FireRescue1 initiative – the Fire Leader Playbook – aimed at helping new fire service leaders increase their effectiveness, enhance their leadership KSAs, develop trust among crewmembers, and build confidence. Through a handful of questions presented by FireRescue1, veteran fire service leaders reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email editor@firerescue1.com to offer your insights for the Fire Leader Playbook.

What was the incident or person in your career that put you on the path to becoming a chief officer?

I spent most of my career ambitious yet micro-ambitious, meaning I worked really hard to be the best in every position I worked. I felt that focus is what led to my ability to prepare for each promotion. Along the way, I had some of the best mentors in the world who held me accountable, pushed me hard, and reminded me to not care what the haters say. I realized early that there were some loud voices that, if I would have listened to them, I would have never had the confidence to ever promote.

When the time came to take the chief’s test, I did not think I was ready and I planned to skip it until the next one. However, I bumped into my battalion chief and told him that I did not feel ready, and he stopped me right there and explained that I had worked hard and was more than ready. Through his confidence in me, and his reputation as being a great leader, I developed my own confidence in me.

Looking back, what did you want to accomplish, improve or make better in your first 30 days, 6 months and year as a chief officer?

As a battalion chief, I walked into a really great battalion that was performing well. I did not see anything in them I wanted to improve, but rather, I knew I had to learn the role and better prepare myself to lead them, lead them well, and take care of them.

In the first 6 months, I worked hard to improve my fire operations knowledge and skills. After that, I realized that the best thing I could do for my battalion was to continue to promote and facilitate battalion trainings to ensure our crews remained confident and competent in our skills.

We have since developed a training folder where we create and place PowerPoints with videos from our monthly battalion trainings.

What is the best advice you would give chief officers in their first 30 days on the job?

Be proud of your accomplishment, but be humble, and remember that you exist to serve your battalion. Take time to learn your battalion, your people, and show them you care about them.

If you could go back to your rookie/probie self, what would you tell them?

You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to screw up. It’s OK. Keep smiling and keeping moving forward. If you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to admit it and ask for help. More than likely, if you don’t know, others don’t either. Ask for help and spend every day working to be 1% better. Don’t take anything personally, and know that no matter how hard you work, there will be people who will work against you. It’s OK, they don’t matter. Stay confident in who you are, and remain positive.

Lightning round leadership

  • What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable? FDIC was definitely the spark that led to my passion to continue to grow and improve.

    I listen to a ton of podcasts, and I believe Adam Grant’s Work Life is one of the best. The Behind the Shield podcast is one of the best for the fire service to learn, grow and understand health and wellness.

    I loved the books, “Five Alarm Leadership,” “Step Up Your Teamwork,” “The Culture Code,” “Daring Greatly” and “Think Again.”

  • How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule? Consistency where you can find it.
  • If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today? A health and wellness facility like Fairfax County and an 8-week mindfulness-based resilience training program for our recruits.
  • At the end of the workday, how do you recharge? I love to read and workout (choice is based on how the workday went). I also live for naps.
Dena Ali is a battalion chief with the Raleigh (N.C.) Fire Department. Prior to becoming a firefighter, she served five years as a police officer. She has a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina Pembroke, where her research focused on firefighter suicide. Ali is an adjunct instructor with the NFA and the founder and director of North Carolina Peer Support. She is an avid fitness enthusiast and cyclist, and was recently named the 2022 Remarkable Women Winner for Central North Carolina.
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