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‘Love is a verb’: Make a personal decision to support your fellow firefighters

Learning to truly love others is one trait that separates otherwise good leaders from outstanding leaders

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Chief Clack was named the 2019 IAFC Career Fire Chief of the Year. Here he shares his appreciation for those who recognized him for the award as well as some of his leadership lessons from throughout his career.

The nomination period is now open for the Fire Chief of the Year Award, presented annually to one career chief and one volunteer chief. Learn more about how to nominate a deserving chief here.

Have you secretly daydreamed about receiving public recognition for something you have done, recognition that occurs in front of hundreds or even thousands of people? If I am being honest, I must admit that I have had that dream.

This thought would occasionally cross my mind as I watched someone else being honored at a tradeshow or dinner in their honor. Maybe the award was given for an act of uncommon bravery. Maybe it was presented following the unveiling of an innovation that improved our job. Often, the award was not based on a single act, but rather on a lifetime of selfless service to our profession.

Like many of you, I have received some nice awards over the years. I was truly grateful and appreciated each and every one of them. Each award or recognition meant that someone else took the time to think about me and write something nice. If we take time to think about it, each was an act of love.

I would often bring the award certificate or the hardware back to my office and place it on the “I love me” display so I could show them off to people. Upon honest reflection, I probably did this to feel good about myself. We need to feel good about ourselves to be good leaders.

Love and recognition

By far the most prestigious award I ever received was the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Career Fire Chief of the Year Award in 2019. This award is given out annually at the IAFC’s Fire-Rescue International conference and sponsored by Pierce Manufacturing. The experience was just like I dreamed it would be.

The beautiful bronze statue and gold ring that came with this award are something I will always treasure. Best of all, my family and friends were able to watch me walk across that huge stage at FRI and be recognized for my work as a fire chief. I will never forget that experience.

Behind all of the hardware, cameras and clapping, there was something else that really touches my heart and soul. You see, four chief officers who work with me every day took the time to write and submit an award application, all without me having a clue. They wrote lots of very nice things about me. They also enlisted the help of my boss and other fire service leaders to do the same.

It would have been easy for each of them to decide not to do the work. Honestly, the chance that I would get such a prestigious award was pretty small, and they are all very busy people. But they did do the work, and I will always be eternally thankful for each of them.

It is important for us to realize that love is a verb. Loving people is not just a warm and fuzzy feeling. Instead, truly loving others is a personal decision to do whatever we can to help and support someone else, even people who might not deserve it. This is really hard work, but I know this is one trait that separates otherwise good leaders from outstanding leaders. This ability to love people even when maybe we don’t really have any feeling of love for them.

Learning to love everyone

As we gain more experience in public service, it slowly changes us. Often, our collection of experiences at work changes us for the better. We learn how to be a true professional, how to do things more efficiently and effectively. We pick up knowledge and habits from people with more experience. We learn what works and what doesn’t work.

I have also learned that it is critical to find good mentors. Who you hang out with and who you take advice from makes all the difference. They help us figure out our blind spots. Our weaknesses are often not real evident to us. A good mentor is like a mirror. The help us see how others see us.

One of my closest friends and most treasured mentors was Chief Alan Brunacini. He was always available to help me figure out the right thing to do in tough situations. Most importantly, he was a great friend. He was the epitome of what it means to have a servant’s heart.

Many other people, both at work and away from work, have loved me enough to help me become better. I hope that I am doing a good job of loving each and every one of them in return. With practice, all of us can learn how to love the people we interact with along the way.

One of the primary challenges all leaders face is to love all the people you work with as well as all the people you serve. I know what you may be thinking: “Loving everyone is just not in the cards for me.”

The bottom line is that our relationships with other people are always more important to our success than anything else. None of us will get very far in life if we don’t figure this out. We have all learned some ways to nurture effective relationships:

  • Treat everyone you meet with respect and kindness.
  • Smile at others and always acknowledge their presence.
  • Praise people in public.
  • Trust and believe in people.
  • See a human in need and do something about it.
  • Just be nice. (Chief Brunacini gave me than one.)

Here is one of the pearls of wisdom that I have picked up somewhere along the way: Don’t waste time wishing someone else would change. Instead, work every day on changing yourself. (I invite you to go back and read that last sentence again.) Don’t try to figure out the motivations of other people (You’re probably wrong anyway.) Don’t worry about what others are thinking and saying about you. Just do the right thing in every situation.

Finally, remember that you are in charge of your own happiness. All of us are greatly blessed to have the best job in the world. We get to solve problems for people when they are having a very bad day and desperately need our help. To love them when they need a little love. What can you every day that is more important than that?

[Nominate a chief for the IAFC’s Fire Chief of the Year Award]

James S. Clack
James S. Clack

James S. Clack was appointed fire chief in Ankeny, Iowa, in June 2014. Previously, Chief Clack served as the fire chief in Baltimore for five years. Chief Clack spent the first 22 years of his fire service career in Minneapolis, where he retired as fire chief in 2008. Chief Clack served as the unified incident commander for the response to the Interstate-35W bridge collapse over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007. Clack is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer program at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He holds an associate degree in general business administration from the University of Minnesota and bachelor’s degree in fire administration from Southwest Minnesota State University. Clack served as a platoon sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve as an Arctic Infantry Scout. Chief Clack was named the 2019 Career Fire Chief of the Year by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).