Many personality factors contribute to success in career development: determiniation, willingness to learn, political savy and more. But there are three qualities above all others that are necessary for both personal and professional development.
To lack in any of these three qualities means a stalled — if not prematurely finished — career. Defining these traits is easy; applying them to your lives and to your careers may be a challenge. But if obstacles are not overcome, such challenges could result in a complete disassociation from your intended self, as a professional firefighter and as a person.
The three qualities are:
Sense of responsibility. As a rookie, you more than likely became tired of raising your hand to acknowledge every mistake you made. Putting gas in a diesel tank, leaving the halyard untied, or buying the wrong size bag of corn chips all required accountability. Being imperfect in a world that seeks perfection through training and response is frustrating. But it's when you realize that acknowledging a mistake means learning from it that you begin to better yourself and ultimately those around you.
So, are you moving forward?
Some firefighters find it easier to stand still. When asked who ripped the jump seat with a halligan after the last fire, these firefighters are mute — and it works. The seat gets repaired, everyone begins putting away hand tools after every call, and the station goes back to normal.
But normal is not where we work and live. Scenarios like are early evidence that a team is lacking synergy. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, and individual behavior replaces teamwork — and this can prevent the task from being completed. Even when the job is completed, the notable achievements will be minimal at best.
By not taking responsibility for the ripped seat, you increase the odds — if not the culture — of applying the same behavior to create an even greater injustice down the road. Imagine ignoring an inappropriate tactic on the fireground and allowing it to develop into a high-risk situation simply because you cannot or will not acknowledge that a straight-forward miss-calculation has been made. The same trait further compounds the fire’s critique when you defer blame to technical errors or worse, to subordinates.
Staying safe does not apply to acknowledging mistakes and taking responsibility. The cornerstone of leadership is the ability to admit mistakes, knowing that honesty ultimately will deteriorate without it. This is a penalty far greater than the limited consequences of confession. Your only hope is that the atmosphere around such acknowledgement will be supportive and not punitive by nature.
Trustworthiness. Trust is the lynch pin of the fire service. Whether it is on the fireground or in the office, promises made are promises kept. Whether you are waiting for a ventilation crew or you need support for a budget request, you want to believe that taking responsibility for all actions — good or bad, effective or debilitating — is acceptable within your culture of leadership. Your values should be reinforced by your ability to depend on those around you.
So, how dependable are you?
There are those who are so busy “taking care of number one” that commitment and dependability become circumstantial to their benefit. Quick to take credit for success and even quicker to point fingers in the face of blame, whether subordinate or superior, these are the firefighters that present a direct challenge to the element of trust. Lacking a consistent moral direction and absent any ethical decision-making criteria, all their actions are eventually drawn inward effecting a sense of isolation for all those in contact with this individual. Remoteness is confused with separation.
This form of personal inaccessibility results in a collective micro-management style implemented in an effort to justify all decisions NOT made. This is done in a futile effort to protect themselves from all threats — real and imagined. Here we have the very definition of paranoia and it is as insidious as it is pervasive. We have all witnessed such behavior in the deterioration of a company if not an entire station or department. Nothing gets done and it is everyone else’s fault. Or worse, if things are going well, something must be wrong.
Trust comes from a continuing sense of responsibility and a commitment to a calling higher than individual recognition and success. In the fire service, trust must be earned, with and by each firefighter. While the “Y” generation of firefighters may argue that trust should be a given until proven otherwise, it is far more prudent not to allow for an opportunity to be disappointed or worse, endangered. Old school, yes. But none the less, a tried and true formula that allows for proof by example. Generational prejudices aside, this is the only way a firefighter can achieve real respect, the ultimate byproduct of trust.
Positive attitude. If responsibility is the cornerstone and trust is the lynchpin in our service to others, then attitude is the lubricant in which all things move forward. Without a positive attitude; lethargy, excuses, and doubt grow within their own momentum.
A bad attitude is like the proverbial rotten apple — it corrupts everything and everybody around it. So often you hear that things are bad morale wise, but a good fire will change everything. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While a meaningful call can change the atmosphere for a moment, it never lasts, regardless of the hope and need. A big incident only serves to magnify an already weak situation, serving not to focus on the overall positive outcome, but to bring to light all of the miniscule elements of selfish behavior and inaccessible decision-making; the critique of such an event turning into a debacle of negativity.
In the beginning we all have great attitudes. We imagine our career like a movie. But in the movies they don’t show the 4 hours of salvage and overhaul for every 20 minutes of knockdown. Knowing what this job is really about and mentoring toward its revelations are the components needed to move attitudes toward constructive behaviors and supportive actions. Rookies need to replace entitlement with humility and seasoned officers need to promote the success of others to inspire excellence in themselves.
This is why you can fish a stream, never catch one, and still feel satisfied at the end of the day. You took responsibility for a poor fly selection, you trusted yourself to recognize what brings you joy, and you know it was a day well spent.