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How Not to Get Burned as a Leader: Lessons from the Fire Service

I have been a firefighter since the age of 16 and it wasn't recently until I learned what the fire service has taught me revolving around being a leader, and who I am as a person.  I owe this blog to the men and women of the Farmville Fire Department for truly showing me what it means to be a leader, a follower, and a being apart of a team that means so much to me.

I have seen my fair share of fires, car accidents, entrapments, deaths, and lift assists and it wasn’t until a recent fire call we had that made me realize that my metaphor of leadership is a growing fire.  I believe leadership is starting to become more relational as we enter the post-industrial phase of leadership. This phase in leaderships is starting to become centered around our social environment and the relationships we form with others. In order for any fire to grow and not die out, there are three essential elements: heat, oxygen, and fuel.  If one of these elements is taken away, the fire will slowly dwindle and die or not able to grow and expand to other areas.  In order to be fully successful, any leader needs to display these three essential relationship principles.  These three essential components of any successful relationship and being a leader are: communication, integrity, and a willingness to learn and grow.  

Listed below are 5 characteristics that make firefighter great leaders on and off scene.

  1. Always have a clear plan: Have you ever been driving down the road and bam a bird dropped it's business on your windshield? We'll that is not how becoming a great firefighter works. It will not randomly hit you and you won't just walk into the firehouse one day and be great. Great firefighters have a plan. They outline what they need to know, what classes and certifications they need to obtain, what skills they need to master. Then, they continue to stay sharp on those skills and work on their plan.This plan takes them step-by-step toward being a great and respected firefighter.

  2. Great leaders have Integrity: A good leader must have integrity and display honesty in all aspects of their dealings with others. Without this, they will not have the trust of their followers and will not be able to direct them. By walking the talk, a good leader earns the right to have responsibility for and authority over others. Good leaders also understand and set the moral tone of a group or organization. Leadership is an art form. It requires constant practice and attention to the needs of others while focusing on the long-term survival of the organization.

  3. Great Innovators: Great leaders think outside the box to find new methods and solutions that may not conform to conventional thinking but may be significantly better. They are always asking the “what if” question, and have good ideas along with a strong vision. They are also open to consider new ideas from others, even if those ideas do not conform to the conventional way of doing things. They value participation from all members of their team.A great leader knows it is crucial not to take reckless risk while at the same time has the courage to seize opportunities.

  4. Great leaders build relationships: A  great leader bridges gaps and builds relationships. Leaders always look to improve things inside and outside the organization. Building a strong organization with competent individuals is something a great leader seeks to do and extend that to the atmosphere to the entire organization.

  5. Great leaders are positive: Being a positive person is not an easy task. In today’s fast-paced world with instantaneous information from all around the world, it is very hard to maintain a positive outlook. Being a positive leader is even harder when we’re met with problems with very limited solutions. However, staying positive when it’s tough can have a tremendous positive impact on the firefighters and everyone around us. Looking on the bright side helps make things better. Zig Ziglar said: “When you change what goes into your mind, when you change the picture, when you chart a course of action, when you set personal and professional goals, what you're doing is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about your future right now.  He also said: “Positive thinking won't let you do anything but it will let you do everything better than negative thinking will. Positive thinking will let you use the ability, training, experience and knowledge you have and that is awesome.”

We all make mistakes, but as Zig Zilar once said: “Failure is an event not a person. Yesterday really did end last night. Understand tomorrow is a brand-new day. You can make it better or make it worse. The choice is yours to make.” As firefighters we don't choose when the tones decide to drop, who we get to work with on scene, and who we are trying to help/comfort in their time of need. And as leaders we do not choose when we want to lead.  It is something we are called to do and how we apply and understand these five characteristics will determine your success as a leader, and guess what…. If we mess up that is ok, we always have the next day to learn from our mistakes.