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‘Be a not-knower’: The power of leading with humility

Leaders who model “not knowing” foster environments where members feel they can explore new ideas and offer solutions

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No matter our rank, there is always something we can learn from others.

Photo/Mike Legeros

Listen to Battalion Chief Dena Ali on the Better Every Shift podcast here on FireRescue1 or wherever you get your podcasts.

You are the only person who knows what you don’t know. You must speak up about the things you don’t know, so you can learn about them before someone is injured or killed because of your lack of knowledge.

Pierce Pumper Operations & Maintenance Manual, Section 1-2: “What to do if you lack knowledge”

I don’t know if it’s just my personality or because I felt that I entered the fire service at a disadvantage, but from day one, I sensed a need to prove myself and my worth to our profession. Initially, this attitude served me well. It instilled in me the discipline necessary to give 100% effort when studying, practicing and becoming a sponge of all things fire service related.

My first few years were spent learning from anybody and everybody who had information to share. Then, right when I started to feel comfortable about my skillset, I realized some of those skills I learned in the academy were depreciating. I looked around, and it seemed like my peers were getting more confident and competent while I was taking steps backward. I started to feel ashamed of my perceived loss of skill.

I didn’t realize that it was normal to lose the skills that aren’t practiced, and that it was OK to work on areas that were weakening. Fortunately, I was able to attend fire conferences and had the opportunity to encounter great leaders in our field who instilled in me a new skill – the skill of being a perpetual learner.

I’ll never forget the first time I took a Nozzle Forward class with Seattle Firefighter Aaron Fields. He demonstrated the need for constant sets and reps at our most basic skills. He explained that to be a trustworthy firefighter, you must recognize that comfort and ego are the enemy. They prevent growth, and no matter who we are, we must always be willing to not only learn something new every day, but also recognize that the most important things you can say as a student, instructor and leader are, “I don’t know and/or I made a mistake.”

With this knowledge, I developed the courage to start practicing the basics again and to even admit when I needed to work on a depreciated skill.

Growth through humility

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every man I meet is my master at some point, and in that I learn of him.” I took this quote to heart, and recognized that no matter my rank, there was always something I could learn from anybody.

As I promoted through the ranks, I realized that by modeling “I don’t know and/or I made a mistake,” I was giving those who worked with me the right to do the same. As a crew, we became comfortable admitting our weaknesses and helping each other, regardless of rank or time on the job. I recognized the power of this behavior. Our crew became respected for not only our performance on scene, but also our habits at the firehouse. While we rarely did anything advanced, we became brilliant in the basics, and others took note.

Today, as I continue to have opportunities to lead and mentor, I recognize that one of my strongest skillsets is that of being a “not knower” and leading with humility. There is always more to learn, and we must be humble and willing to hear diverse perspectives when faced with complex problems. Being humble does not mean you can’t be confident. One should always have confidence in their abilities and their knowledge, but they should also recognize that no one person has all the answers. Furthermore, research demonstrates that teams are more willing to engage in learning behavior when leaders demonstrate humility.

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We must always be willing to not only learn something new every day, but also recognize that the most important things you can say as a student, instructor and leader are, “I don’t know and/or I made a mistake.”

Photo/Mike Legeros

Somehow a dangerous myth has grown in our profession that makes our leaders feel that their teams will lose confidence in them if they don’t have all the answers. In reality, the opposite is true: People gain confidence from leaders who admit when they don’t know something. Some of the most successful leaders are those who model the positive trait of “not knowing.” Leaders who model “not knowing” foster environments where people feel they can explore their own ideas and offer solutions.

More importantly, leaders who not only model “not knowing” but also failure in training demonstrate that the only true failure is not trying. Mistakes made in training become powerful learning opportunities.

Businessman Harold Geneen once said, “People learn from their failures, seldom do they learn anything from success.” We must recognize the power of failure and mistake making and seek to never be afraid to grow in the training environment.

Verbal armor

Today, as a battalion chief, one of the most dangerous conditions I witness is the ego that prevents honesty about one’s skill level. While I would rather see a firefighter, driver or company officer practicing basic skills, I often witness those most insecure about their skillsets hiding behind verbal armor or making comments such as, “this is a waste of time” or “that’s a recruit-level drill.” This reminds me of a quote from Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu: “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know.” It’s also an interesting demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to The Decision Lab, this effect occurs “when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone, and underestimate their relative abilities as well.”

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The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone, and underestimate their relative abilities as well.

Bottom line: Mastering our most basic skills requires consistent practice. No matter the level or the skill, if you don’t review, drill and practice, you will not maintain competency. As Ryan Holiday says in his book, “Ego is the Enemy”: “You must sweep the floor every minute of every day. And then sweep again.”

Students of our craft

“Let No Man’s Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down.”

This sign hangs at the FDNY training academy. While this message is so incredibly important, we must remember that the message is not just for probationary members; it’s for everyone who wears the uniform. We must always remain a student of our craft. Put another way, “If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying” (Holiday).


Watch Dena Ali on the Better Every Shift podcast

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 Triangle 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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