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FRI 2023: ‘Principled Leadership from the road less traveled’

How fire service leaders can learn from key principles advocated at The Citadel

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“Take the opportunity to invest in your people with your principles, and you will see them grow into better leaders than we could ever be,” writes Griffin.

Photo/David Griffin


All four years of college at The Citadel are focused on making you a leader.

Photo/David Griffin

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, I knew many people who went to The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, but I never thought I would end up there as a student.

During the first nine days – then called “Hell Week” – I quickly realized that it was one of the best decisions of my life. It gave me direction, routine, discipline, education and leadership lessons that many will never have the opportunity to experience. I’m so thankful for that because I go back to those four years on a daily basis as I’m leading in today’s environment.

The Citadel was such a unique experience. All four years of college are focused on making you a leader. Many of the students don’t know what or when they will lead in their lives. But as they grow at The Citadel, the focus is on how utilizing key principles will make them an impactful leader, both in work production but also in the value they place on their team members.

What is principled leadership?

According to Sarah Mangia, senior director of the Leadership Institute at The Ohio State University:

Principled leaders are those who articulate their values, make decisions guided by their values, and consistently live their values in a transparent manner, all while clearly adhering to the ethical codes and standards of their environment.”

As you read that, you may have made a value judgment on yourself. Are you living your message or is it an act?

Let’s consider the acronym LEADERS, pulled from The Citadel’s “Characteristics of Principled Leadership – Staged Development Guide” (first edition), defining seven characteristics specific to principled leadership:

L – Lead with humility. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What is humility?
  • How do you lead with it?
  • Why is it important?

Humility is not something you walk into a firehouse and tell people you are leading with; it’s a way of life. It’s an action. It’s the way you treat people who can do absolutely nothing for you.

I read this once about humility: “Humility is the first step to greatness. In admitting that we do not know everything, we open ourselves to learning. In admitting that we can fail, we open another pathway to success. In admitting we are flawed, we open ourselves to accepting others.”

E – Embrace a true, authentic self. It’s important to stay true to your ideals and to be authentic. There is only one you, so own it and do not let others influence your principles negatively. As Dr. Seuss says, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you!” Being a leader is a challenge. But it’s even more of a challenge if you don’t have a compass and are easily swayed in your beliefs. Have a code and live by it. Be YOU.

A – Act and speak with courage. This takes bravery, courage and the strength to keep your composure. Sometimes it’s hard to say something that needs to be said. This is your job as a leader. Be respectful but don’t be afraid to be direct with tact. When you beat around the bush and soften a message that needs to be direct, you reduce the importance of the message. When I say direct, that in no way means be mean or disrespectful. That means be tactful and speak with courage. Again, being a leader is hard. It takes special people to do this.

D – Develop and value people and resources. When you value your people, the team can grow. You must mentor and coach your team every day. Build relationships more than just going to work. That’s the easy part. You have to be there. When you dedicate your free time to help your team grow, they know they are valued and more than someone who you work with. It takes effort to spend time with teammates to show them they are valued. Do you eat together during the day? Do you go to breakfast together before work? Do you chat during the day outside of work-related items? All business all the time doesn’t allow for relationship growth and trust to be built. If you value people, you make time for them.

E – Empower and hold others accountable. It’s interesting that empowerment and accountability are discussed in the same sentence. When you empower others, you give them the strength and courage to make decisions and try new things. When you’re empowered, you also have to realize that if you do make a decision that is out of the scope of expectations, then there will be accountability. With team members, it’s best to empower them and let them make mistakes but with the caveat that there may be a time to hold them accountable with a counseling or coaching session so they know the expectations on them.

R – Respect others by building trust and learning from mistakes. Remember, without trust, you are not a leader. Once you lose trust, it is very difficult to earn back. On your leadership journey, you must be brave enough to call yourself out. It’s also important to learn from others’ mistakes and mentor them when a mistake is made. We’re all human and we all make mistakes. A good friend of mine who is a leader in the modern environment says, “When I have a perfect day, I’ll expect you to have one.” That helps me every day. People will fail, but it’s our job as leaders to help them learn from failure. Often we see failure as a negative word, but life has failures. The earlier you can teach people that, the better they will be in the long run.

S – Serve others before self. This is the essence of what we do. Have you ever had a self-serving leader who worried about their rank instead of the people? How did it make you feel? Also, how do you exemplify service before self in your daily actions? It’s not something you talk about; it’s something you live. People see it in the way you talk with others, the way you treat them, how much time you give them, and how much you genuinely care about them and their family as people and not just a cog in the wheel of your organization.

Invest in your people

Principled Leadership is a concept that leaders can utilize to define their moral compass and stick to that compass throughout their career. Every day you lead your organization, you make decisions that allow your team members to see you as either a Principled Leader or someone who is punching a clock, unaware that they have a direct impact on the growth and success of a department and its members. Take the opportunity to invest in your people with your principles, and you will see them grow into better leaders than we could ever be. After all, isn’t that our goal?

Dr. David Griffin is the assistant chief of administration in Charleston, S.C. He was the operator of the first-due engine on June 18, 2007, when nine of his fellow firefighters perished at the Sofa Super Store fire. Griffin has come through the ranks in Operations in every uniformed position from firefighter to assistant chief during his 18-year career in Charleston. He has a bachelor’s degree in education from The Citadel, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctorate of education in organizational leadership and development. Griffin is a certified Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer with the Center for Public Safety Excellence and an IFSAC/Pro Board-certified Fire Officer IV. Additionally, he is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer program from the National Fire Academy; Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Executive Education program: Senior Executives in State and Local Government; the Psychology of Leadership program at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson College of Business; and Yale University’s School of Management Values Based Leadership program. Griffin is currently completing the Fire Service Executive Development Institute (FSEDI) through the IAFC. In 2013, Griffin began speaking on leadership, development, and mental health. He has spoken in 44 states, plus Canada and Mexico, to more than 200,000 attendees at fire departments, police departments, military installations, universities, conferences and other events. He is the author of “In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy” and three other books. Griffin is the owner of On A Mission Inspirational Speaking and On A Mission Coffee.