7 ways to develop future fire service leaders across the generational chasm
Facing the reality of diverging leadership styles – and evolving your leadership style with the times
I remember my first day in the firehouse. Fresh out of the recruit school, I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and scared as hell.
I enjoyed, for the most part, the excitement of learning a new high-powered set of skills, like rappelling from rooftops, cutting trapped people out of cars, and structural fire control during “burn week” (live-fire training). But all of this activity had taken place in a controlled environment. I was now entering the real world, and all I could think about the night before my big day was a series of questions: Is my uniform properly pressed? Do I have all of my PPE? (I had already checked and rechecked it.) What will my crew be like? Would there be a BIG fire?
I was the first and only woman in the department at that time, so I also wondered how I would be received.
The morning finally came, and without much restful sleep, I was up and on the road, ready to report to my new duty assignment one hour early. I was driving a 1974 Pontiac Trans Am with a 455 and dual exhaust that had a fairly loud growl that could be heard from several blocks away.
I pulled into the parking lot, not so quietly, and woke everyone inside the station. I saw a wave of interior lights flick on, one after the next, letting me know that the troops had been officially roused. I began to feel extremely excited and nervous because it would soon be "showtime.”
The clock finally struck 0730, and I hurriedly gathered my things to get inside to report for our 0800 shift start.
I was met by Captain J.C. Potts, Driver Robert “Bobby” McGhee and Senior Firefighter Russell Boucher, all veterans of the job – and all had been tasked with “keeping an eye on the girl.”
A tale of two leaders
Two things stood out most to me about that day. One was the initial introduction to the crew, which had seemed in some ways rather paternal and protective. Second, it was made clear to me by each member of the crew that they took my arrival there very seriously and very personally. They each expressed to me that both my professional and personal growth and development were a direct reflection on them, and they were prepared to do what it took to ensure that I was successful. This motivated me even more to give and be the absolute BEST that I could possibly be at ALL times.
While this introduction was essential in my long-term growth, my time with them was relatively short because, after much contemplation, I made the decision to request a transfer to a busier fire station. I was anxious to go to a station where I could really put my skills to use. I wanted VOLUME!
I was granted my request. Still under the influence and illusion of previous leadership practices to which I had grown accustomed, a harsh reality check was waiting for me at my next station.
I was now assigned to a new crew of people. My new captain, I soon found, was the antithesis of my previous captain. My new captain’s leadership philosophy was that rookies need to be seen and not heard. My instructions were, “Do what I say, do not ask any questions, do not give any feedback, and do only what you are told.” This captain also let me know unequivocally that my presence was not wanted nor appreciated.
This was when I became aware of the unfortunate reality that there were different leadership styles within the confines of what otherwise seemed a fairly structured and orderly environment. I also developed a very intimate understanding of how those styles can and do affect those members who must “follow the leader.” I began to observe myself against the backdrop of my new captain and crew, and for the first time in my fire service career, I began to feel de-motivated, disheartened, and disempowered.
The newest generational shift
That was 1993, and a lot has changed since then. I now find myself on the leadership end of the conversation. I work daily to ensure that I am continuing to grow and mature as a leader while developing, coaching, and mentoring those members for whom I am responsible.
How important is the right style of leadership? Are we embracing and nurturing our new generation of rookies or are we still asking them to be “seen and not heard”?
Nearly 30 years later, this topic still requires considerable discussion, as we are in the midst of yet another shift in the leadership paradigm. As Candice McDonald, MA, writes in her FASNY article, Recruiting the Next Fire Service Leaders: The Millennial Generation, “The Millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 1999, is the largest population of potential new members for the fire service. It is critical for organizational survival to integrate and embrace the talents this population has to offer.”
There have been volumes of information written about managing and leading millennials; however, as fire service leaders, how do we ensure that all our members are being prepared to excel and be successful in their fire service careers, from entry through retirement?
7 ways to develop future leaders
In 2004, I had the privilege and honor of being promoted to fire captain in the Operations division. I got my first taste of being responsible for getting work done through others.
Since that time, I have gone through several iterations of leadership styles until I finally found what was actually comfortable and aligned with my core values and principles. I consider myself a servant leader with transformational leanings.
In the fire service, we pride ourselves on teamwork and strong group dynamics often based on the division of labor. Because the job of firefighting is so labor-intensive, succession planning is extremely important to the continuity of operations. This puts a great deal of responsibility on the leadership of fire department organizations, at every level, to ensure that they are preparing successful future leaders.
So, how do we consistently develop great future leaders across generational chasms like the one we currently face?
1. Be open to diversification: Be mindful that diversifying our organizations is a viable and necessary component to broadening and maximizing our human resources. Not only are we creating opportunities for those who might not have otherwise had them, but we are creating the space for greater innovation and more effective and efficient problem-solving.
2. Develop our individual and collective EQ: Often, we prize high IQs (intelligence quotients), but we must work to improve our EQs (emotional quotients) as well. A Qualtrics survey conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found: “With high emotionally intelligent supervisors, employees appear to be intrinsically motivated. They are challenged and fulfilled. That is in sharp contrast to the experience of employees with supervisors who do not act in emotionally intelligent ways. They are upset and unhappy at work. They mention being angry – aggravated, irritated and mad, as well as underappreciated and unappreciated.”
The article further goes on to state that, “Employees whose supervisors act in emotionally intelligent ways are also more creative… contributing new ideas or original ways of achieving work goals.” The study emphasized that emotionally intelligent bosses are not necessarily optimistic or upbeat, but they recognize that employees cannot “leave their emotions at the door,” and they make efforts to see circumstances from the worker’s point of view.
3. Meet team members where they are: Every person has different goals, objectives, motivators and interests. Members of the organization are at different life stages (starting families, putting children through college, retiring, etc.), which means that supervisors must be mindful when making decisions that directly or indirectly impact personnel.
Often, as leaders, we must conduct individual and group assessments of our personnel to assist them with establishing both short- and long-term career goals. We must require that minimum acceptable standards of operation be maintained regardless of the individual’s goals and objectives; however, everything above and beyond minimum acceptable standards of operation regarding the degree of an individual’s progress is determined by the member’s interests, ability, will and desire to seek additional opportunities.
It is our responsibility as leaders to support our members in their growth and development, even when our vision for the member may not match or align with the member’s personal vision for themselves. It is alright to modulate and customize career plans that best suit the individual member within the confines of the overall organizational structure. One of the beauties of the fire service is that there is something for everyone. Our career plans do not have to be one-size-fits-all.
4. Encourage involvement: Create an atmosphere that encourages involvement at all levels regardless of tenure and/or experience. In her article, “Common Characteristics of Millennial Professionals,” Sally Kane reiterates an earlier observation that the millennial generation makes up the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. Because of this, fire service organizations should prepare to operate in ways that support maximum involvement/engagement from this group. Millennials thrive in environments where their achievements are recognized and rewarded in environments where their unique skills are sought out and utilized for the greater good of the organization. Millennials are results-oriented, not to be mistaken for process-oriented. As such, we, as leaders, must remember to be flexible regarding the methods with which projects are completed. Encourage, allow, and support creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box thinking.
5. Establish positive environments: Leaders must work to establish an affirming, encouraging, positive, and supportive work environment for all members. Create and sustain an organizational culture that is diverse, inclusive, thoughtful, respectful, proud, honorable, and professional.
6. Set the example: Contrary to popular belief, millennials will and do show respect to supervisors who have many years of experience and who lead by example/practice what they teach. Accept that we are role models. Understand that our words are important, but our ACTIONS are where the truth lies for most millennials. This is where our leadership makes the most difference, for better or worse.
7. Practice patience: This is true first, with yourself as an ever-evolving leader, understanding that regardless of where we are on the arc of our careers, there is still much to learn about the art and science of leading others. We must remain open and available to learn from even the least experienced among us. Second, be patient with those we have voluntarily accepted the responsibility to serve, guide, teach, mentor and coach.
Remember the wise words of author June Masters Bacher: “A father must lead his children; but first he must learn to follow. He must laugh with them but remember the ache of childhood tears. He must hold the past with one hand and reach to the future with the other so there can be no generation gap in family love.”
Follow before you can lead
As leaders in our respective organizations, it is our duty and our obligation to ensure that those who are dependent upon us for guidance and direction are thus rewarded with firm, engaged, reliable, trustworthy, capable, ever-evolving leadership to emulate. Truth be told, not much is really all that different among the generations in relation to our basic needs and desires – except the music we listen to.