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Officers, it’s time to stop doing and start leading

It’s one thing to check the boxes; it’s another to create opportunity for your members


Officers have a profound impact on their organization, and make a significant difference in the lives of many members.

AP Photo/Ben Gray

This article originally appeared in FireRescue1’s Fire Chief Leadership Briefing newsletter. Sign up here for the latest leadership insights.

Do you want to develop your leadership potential? Yes? Then I would tell you, quite simply, to stop doing and start leading.

Many chief and company officers just go through the motions of leadership. They have no real desire to lead, but they are satisfied with their current rank within the organization, so they check the boxes of duties without thinking about their greater organizational impact.

Officers have a profound impact on their organization, and make a significant difference in the lives of many members. It is therefore essential that they understand the difference between doing and leading.

It starts with passion

To lead you must be bold and courageous, and have a deep passion for leading. Yes, passion. Stop for a moment and ask yourself, Do you really have the passion for the job that you had 5, 10 or 20 years ago? If you cant answer yes to that question, then maybe you aren’t really leading; maybe you’re just doing.

Here’s another question: What was your best day in the fire service? Could you answer that question in less than 10 seconds? What if I asked what you really like about your current position? Could you come up with an answer in less than 5 seconds? These are simple questions. The answers should roll right off your tongue.

If you struggle with these questions, it’s time to look in the mirror to determine whether you are just going through the motions and, if so, how you can reinvigorate your passion for leading.

Offer opportunity

As noted, officers can have a significant impact on the entire organization. One way is through recognizing opportunities that will benefit the department and its members. After all, opportunity may come knocking, but someone still needs to answer the door.

Leaders see opportunities and share them with others, often to help others grow and to reduce an organizational challenge. They seek out opportunities for others to tackle a challenge, offer coaching and then stand back and allow the member to go forward. Will the member make mistakes? Absolutely. Should the leader allow the designee to make mistakes? Absolutely, as long as they are not creating a dangerous situation where someone could be injured.

This influence is a huge factor in the leader’s success, too. People want to work for someone who helps them become personally and professionally successful. Remember, the leaders who hoard opportunities for themselves will create resentment in others.

How to help others be successful

There are many actions that leaders can take to help their members grow and be successful. Here are 16 actions leaders should follow to not only be effective at leading others but also develop their leadership skills:

  1. Keep your ego and emotions under control: Be proud of what you have accomplished in the past and want to do more in future, but don’t become consumed by ego. You may think you are important because of rank/title, but the people you work with determine your importance and whether they desire to follow you. Don’t let your ego control your actions and words. Egos eat brain cells and destroy careers. [Read next: ‘Ego eats brains’: Chief Brunacini’s lesson underscores the problem with dirty gear]
  2. Pay attention to what is going on around you: Be alert for signs of unrest among your members.
  3. Recognize others: When someone meets and/or exceeds your expectations, recognize their performance appropriately. [Read “7 ways to recognize your fire department’s top performers.”]
  4. Be fair: Be aware of your personal decision-making process to ensure that the decisions you make are fair and impartial.
  5. Watch your stress: Acknowledge how your stress levels can become increased and how you can manage or reduce your stress.
  6. Manage conflict: Deal with conflict quickly, fairly and firmly.
  7. Listen more than you talk: My father told me repeatedly, you have two ears and one mouth; use the mouth sparingly. This is important as you progress up the rank structure of your department. You will learn more by listening. As a leader, when you invite people to meet with you over a problem/situation, you are asking for their opinion. They will probably give it to you, but you have to be quiet and listen.
  8. Be straightforward: Communicate with others openly and completely. If you can’t tell them the entire story, let them know that more information will be coming and you will keep them posted.
  9. Acknowledge the need for change: Recognize when there is a need for change in personnel, policy or procedures.
  10. Embrace decision-making: Leaders cannot fear decision-making. When you are confronted with a problem, gather the facts, determine options for implementation, communicate your decision and begin the implementation phase. Hesitating to make a decision after you have evaluated the options will hurt your ability to lead. Firefighters want to be lead. Someone has to make the tough/unpopular decisions quickly. Delays create a lack of confidence in your ability to solve problems.
  11. Be mature in your interactions: This comes with age and time in your role. Having the right social skills to be able to interact with others in a meaningful way has a lot to do with your ability to influence.
  12. Own your mistakes: You are going to make mistakes. Don’t try to place blame on someone else. Further, you have to be able to move on. Don’t get stuck and dwell on the issue. Say “I’m sorry” when you have hurt someone else.
  13. Slow down to go fast: Take a moment to plan out your day, week, etc. It may feel counterintuitive, taking the extra step, but it will help you get more done faster.
  14. Accept criticism: It’s important that leaders learn how to take criticism from others and learn from their feedback. I am not saying you accept criticism from others for all things that others want to be critical about. If you don’t deserve the criticism, then stand up and defend your actions.
  15. Spend time on your own personal development: Read. Take courses. Attend conferences, especially the educational sessions. I see a lot of leaders who attend conferences, but they only wander the exhibit hall floor to see the new apparatus and equipment displays.
  16. Work hard: What is the price of success? Hard work. Pure and simple. Nothing beats hard work to becoming successful in all of your endeavors. Hard work does not substitute for luck. Hard work means you are willing to make sacrifices to be an influential leader.

Understand your influence

Anyone can sit on the bench, wear the fire department T-shirt and purport to be a leader. But calling the shots from the sidelines doesn’t make you a leader. Real leaders get off the bench and confront issues head-on. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum either, as true leaders who have followers who believe in them and support them. And this is where influence comes into play.

Influence is not dependent on rank or position within an organization. Influence is about creating an environment where others want to be because they see you, your team and your organization as successful. When you focus on leading, not simply doing, your influence will grow, as will your members’ opportunities and strengths.

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.