One of the greatest experiences when entering the fire service is the immediate realization that you are part of a team. Forged in fire and bound in training, the men and women who go through academy with you remain lifetime “brothers” no matter where they are, what they are doing, or when you might see them again — a band of boots.
As rookies, you develop a clear understanding of who is good at what. Through performance and penalty, you realize who knows how to study and who is skilled at tying knots or at demonstrating the proper technique for the one-person ladder raise. You soon recognize which cadet knows how to take a test or complete a task successfully. In the beginning, you sputter as single members but eventually you learn to work together to help slay individual dragons and cooperate for the greater good. This give and take keeps you out of trouble and minimizes group chastisement. As an added bonus — and much like the feeling you get blocking a linebacker or resting for two measures while listening to the rest of the orchestra — you come to realize that the sum of the experience is truly greater than any one individual contribution. You have now successfully completed fire academy training and are ready for a station assignment and crew.
While you may feel like an outsider on your first day and even after months of hazing, you soon find your place at the table and your role in crew assignments. Your life as a firefighter has begun and a commitment to teamwork and group dynamics is reinforced and ultimately engrained with time. From now on, this sense of team performance will be tested at every turn and reflected in every decision you make.
Eventually, the comfort of your anonymity within the shift gives way to initial recognition of your increasing abilities and acumen in particular areas. Certain tasks are assigned to you repeatedly and a nickname is bestowed — however reluctantly received. Good humor gives way to a silent respect and you begin to individualize yourself within the team. Precipitated by interest and ability, nurtured in mentorship and small rewards, this personalization by and for the team marks the beginning of inadvertent but well-defined roles.
Now you are at a critical junction in your fire- service career. Your skills not only are being used, they are beginning to be acknowledged by all members of the department. After years of seemingly anonymous performance and little recognition, your first tendency may be to boast of good fortune — but you would be premature.
Individual recognition isn’t just for you — it benefits the department and, more importantly, members of your crew, each an individual in his or her own right. What you missed in all the singular celebration is that the overall effect of identifying your talents is a safer and more productive working shift. Failure to fully appreciate this important principle can delay your career development or worse, ostracize you from the group. Humility and self-deprecation are effective tools in dealing with this informal type of individual leadership recognition.
Regarding formal leadership recognition, most good officers will tell you that their bars or bugles were awarded to them as if by cosmic consensus. They believe the fire service puts you where you are needed most, that a job critical to life safety requires such sensible placement. The testing, competing and ultimately earning of rank seems to go against a basic philosophy universally held by true leaders. This is not to say these officers do not study, toil in their work, and celebrate victories large and small. They simply choose to include their labor in team activities, thereby creating an atmosphere of inclusion rather than exclusion by rank or position. Promotion feels like a logical extension of group effort rather than individual reward. Whether you agree with this or not, its effects are what make for great officers both in their decision-making process and the subsequent follow-through by their department members. It is that first lesson learned way back at the fire academy.
Remember that? As senior officers, maybe it is time to revisit this message again.
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