What is your personal North Star?
Defining your purpose will help solidify your connection to your fire department’s organizational mission, vision and values
One of my hobbies is photography. Recently while capturing pictures of the moon and Jupiter, I was reminded of the North Star, a star that can help travelers orient themselves geographically, as its position in the sky is in the direction of true north. The North Star has also come to symbolize something that helps us find our way – a mission or our values, for instance.
To establish that direction, most organizations, including fire/EMS departments, rely on concepts like mission, vision and values (MVV). Department mission and vision statements often find their way onto large wall signs at headquarters or within stations, and are positioned at the top of department website homepages. Regardless of such positioning, when challenging members to define or recite their MVV statements, the result is too often blank stares, eye rolls or shoulder shrugs.
It is vital that our members think of these MVV statements as their organizational North Star, returning to it in times of struggle or even to help guide them to answers to various questions that may arise. Of course, simply memorizing MVV statements has little value if members don’t eat/sleep/breathe the mantra.
Here we’ll touch on organizational MVVs but focus more squarely on how they can help you achieve your personal development goals. After all, you’ll never eat/sleep/breathe the organizational mantra if you aren’t taking care of yourself first.
Organizational vs. personal MVV
As a fire service leader, you have undoubtedly (or at least I hope you have) been part of a strategic planning session or some exercise where your organization’s MVV was defined. If your organization has not developed MVV statements, you will be constantly behind the curve with respect to budget development, political relationships and organizational growth.
For those leaders whose organizations do not already have MVV statements, it’s best to start with a SWOT analysis. This exercise will help outline your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, then work through your strategies to close the gaps in your weaknesses and threats, while looking for ways to solidify your strengths and capitalizing on your opportunities. It is through this process that effective and succinct MVV statements can be developed.
Identifying organizational MVV statements is important; however, defining your personal North Star, or your personal mission statement, is where many of us stumble. If you are to be an effective and dynamic leader in your organization, your personal mission statement must align with the organizational vision.
Understanding and buying-in to your organization’s MVV is a key step to determining whether you’re going to be a good fit in the organization. This, however, is not the first or most important part of the MVV process – identifying your personal North Star is. While identifying your personal North Star may not have been on your professional radar in the past, I assure you that it will be more important to your personal success and growth than any organizational MVV will ever be.
Developing your personal North Star
There are three steps in developing your personal leadership mission statement – your North Star:
- Identify your overall leadership purpose. This is your “why.” Maybe it’s your “why” in life or it’s your “why” with respect to leadership specifically. The overall statement is one place where I advise that you resist the urge to be too specific – you don’t want to back yourself into a corner based on a hyper-focused descriptive.
- Identify your desired impact. Considering your stated overall purpose, the next step is to identify your desired impact and determine who may or will benefit from the impact. This step allows you to be more specific. For example, are you looking to limit your sphere of influence to technical rescue teams or recruit academy instruction, or maybe to develop a specific cadre of people or establishing a new element within your organization? Maybe you’re simply looking to take the next promotional step, or maybe your desire is to be the chief of a large organization where your impact will have broader potential.
- Determine what power or purpose you bring to the table – power and purpose to specifically fulfill your mission. Maybe it’s your certifications, an expertise you possess or the aggregate of your overall credentials. This power can be driven by desire, but desire alone will not form an effective and powerful statement. I suspect your power will be driven by a combination of your desires and credentials/expertise and through leaning on a dynamic network of personal and professional contacts.
As a chief, my personal mission leadership statement is a compilation of all those things, emblazoned on the back of my personal challenge coin: “Helping others achieve their maximum potential.” Clearly, my statement has a broader focus and is not limited to a specific department, office, rank or other factor.
Like many of you, as a younger firefighter, I did not focus on leadership as much as I did on personal development. If I were to have conducted this personal self-assessment 30 or 40 years ago, the result likely would have been much different – alas, it is important to consider these personal statements as dynamic rather than static or rigid. While the comfort of your current “normal” may feel good, “the way we’ve always done it” will NOT be part of a successful MVV.
Do your people know? Will they be able to adapt?
The fire service is a patchwork of leaders and followers – none of us static in those roles. Internal and external, formal and informal, most of us spend time in both leader and follower roles throughout our careers. Beyond taking care of your family and your people, one of the most important tasks you’ll have as a leader will be to provide consistency and reliability in the leadership you demonstrate. Making sure people know your North Star will be an important part of this process and your overall success.
Positive adaptation to change and adversity must be a priority for us all. Change is indeed inevitable, and our MVV statements need to be nimble enough to adapt to that change when needed.
More from Chief Bashoor:
‘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