‘I don’t know’ and ‘I need help’: Powerful words for any fire service leader

Two fire service leaders demonstrate the humility and honor in sharing these sentiments

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Much like parenting, leadership is a perpetual responsibility. Whether it’s in our personal or professional lives, leadership is NOT something that’s a one-and-done class or certification/credential.

Learning through experience, coupled with demonstration from their own family, new parents endeavor to teach their children the difference between right and wrong and to provide their children the tools they need to lead successful adult lives. It’s no different in the fire service: We demonstrate and we learn throughout the lifespan of our careers, trying to provide our members what they need to lead successful careers.

Leading our members (and ourselves) through the labyrinth of career development is one of the cornerstones of the parent-like relationship we have with our members. The key is forming a total package of development tools. After all, books and classes don’t make chiefs, just as hoselines and ladders don’t make firefighters. It’s the synergy of our experiences that leads to long-term success. That being said, there’s a powerful tool often lost amid our advancements and accomplishments – the power of acknowledging what we don’t know and what we need from others.

"There’s a powerful tool often lost amid our advancements and accomplishments – the power of acknowledging what we don’t know and what we need from others," writes Bashoor. (Photo/Getty Images)

It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know’

Chiefs may be the ones with the bugles on the collar, but let’s face it, none of us knows it all. If we did, we would have licked the fire problem in the United States, and there would be little need for the fire service. Clearly we’re far from this, proving that no one has all the answers.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali makes this case in her recent article ‘Be a not-knower’: The power of leading with humility, highlighting the developmental and functional humility that comes with the words “I don’t know.” Ali starts her article with a provoking quote from an unlikely place – the Pierce pumper operations and maintenance manual:

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.”

These words are chilling, and mine will be equally as pointed. If you haven’t done it already, it’s time to admit that sometimes you’re the expert and sometimes you’re the student. If you can’t see yourself as a life-long learner, then please do us all a favor and retire.

Classrooms, coursework, drill fields and online environments are all important work that produces the certifications, credentials and degrees, but truly being a student of the craft goes well beyond these achievements. Every opportunity to train, to interact with the community and peers, to reach across jurisdictional or organizational borders, or just to listen are all daily opportunities to continue your student life.

It’s honorable to say ‘I need help’

Thinking about what we don’t know likely brings to mind tactics and training, but it’s also important to consider “I don’t know” in the context of needing help beyond functional firefighting. Marion County (Florida) Fire and Rescue Chief James Banta did just that recently.

If you have not already, please take 3 minutes to watch Chief Banta’s video, which he recorded following the suicide deaths of two Marion County firefighters within a 19-day period – two of Chief Banta’s fire service family members. As you watch the video, it’s easy to understand why there’s no instruction manual or playbook for this. It’s also easy to see that the chief is, as to be expected, leaning on a whole lot of on-the-job learning. Banta even acknowledges, “We’re all searching for answers and trying to assign blame” – a common experience following tragedy.

His vulnerability and honesty in this moment is leadership in action.

I encourage each of you to share Chief Banta’s video for all of your folks to watch and discuss. Take the proactive steps to acknowledge the hard work your members are doing every day and to acknowledge that we ALL need help from time to time. Asking for help, bringing in outside resources, and sharing the pain is all part of our personal (and yes, career) development process.  

Support your personal and organizational tetrahedrons

Personal and organizational success requires a critical look at your success tetrahedron where service forms the base, and the triad of physical strength, mental toughness and moral focus need support and work. None of the sides of the tetrahedron provide enough support on their own; they connect to create the strength to achieve our service delivery mission. We EACH need to work on our personal tetrahedrons, and as chiefs, we are responsible to ensure our organizational tetrahedron is as well-oiled a machine as possible.

Chiefs Ali and Banta have both recognized the importance of strengthening personal and organizational tetrahedrons. It’s also important to recognize that both what Ali underscores and what Banta demonstrates comes down to a simple, yet powerful acknowledgement that we sometimes need to help each other, and yes, we don’t know it all!

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