Not long ago, I attended a national conference in the Midwest. It was a great opportunity to network, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones who will be the fire-service leaders of the not-too-distant future.
During the conference, I had a chance encounter with an individual who previously worked in Ohio and had moved on to become a chief officer in another part of the country. This is a dynamic individual who is destined to great things. But I noticed that he had put on a considerable amount of weight since our last meeting — almost to the point that it detracted from his image as a leader. Then I looked at the rest of the attendees; conservatively, 40% of those I saw were either overweight or obese. I began to wonder how they could be effective at a fire or an EMS incident scene.
Before you think that I’m just bashing people, let me give you some personal history. I’m 5 feet, 10 inches tall. In my younger adult life, I was as heavy as 240pounds and as light as 150pounds, following my return from an overseas assignment while in the U.S. Air Force. I understand being overweight, and I understand being almost dangerously too thin to accomplish the mission. Most of all, I understand the motivation to stay in shape as a firefighter. Currently, I weight 180pounds — fairly close to what the medical community sets as an ideal weight for my build.
The problem that I see as a chief is two-fold. First, at times I feel that I may be in better shape to perform difficult tasks compared to the 40% of personnel I estimated as overweight or physically out of shape. Are fire departments really taking training and or physical conditioning seriously? Or, are we just hoping firefighters never have to face the really difficult tasks at an emergency? Are we allowing individuals to be firefighters who can’t perform their duties and sending them into difficult situations?
Let me insert one caveat: I believe there is a place for everyone who wants to volunteer their time to the fire service. That does not, however, mean everyone should be an interior structural firefighter — there is huge difference in the two.
The second problem is fire-service leaders need to set a better example with their appearance as well as cultivating their ability to lead.
Let me give you some of my motivation. When I weighed 240 pounds, one of my goals in life was to become a commissioned officer in the Air Force. Over one summer, another ROTC candidate and I decided that we’d lose the weight we needed to continue toward our goal. We both took jobs working in the shipping department of a large company, where we did everything from wrestle large containers of raw materials on the manufacturing floor to load the finished products into over-the-road trailers. We were motivated by a common weight-loss goal — in my case nearly 60 pounds — to pass a physical exam. We accomplished this short-term goal and after completing college both commissioned in the Air Force.
Fast forward to my fire-service career, and I’ve continued to be motivated to keep off the excess pounds so I can be at my best on an emergency scene. Others have said to me, “It’s so easy for you — you’re naturally thin.” My wife, Diana, could tell you this isn’t the case.
Here’s what keeps me going. I know that my effectiveness on the fire scene, whether as the incident commander or in a support role, greatly depends on my ability to perform. I have an unwritten rule for myself — and Diana is the person who helps keep me honest — that I have to be 185 pounds or less to consider myself an effective leader capable of assisting in any role on the emergency scene. If I stray over 185 pounds, I take steps to get my weight back within my established limits. I have both an ideal weight and an acceptable weight, but firefighting is my motivation to keep my weight under control.
A leader consistently needs to be a good example to his or her subordinates. That not only means setting an example with their personal character and integrity, but also by keeping physically and mentally fit. My hope is others will want to keep physically and mentally fit, as they choose to emulate those they hold as examples in leadership positions.
A leader also must always look, dress and be prepared to speak effectively regarding the role they play as an officer. Let me give you two examples.
Following a particularly difficult fire, Prince George’s County (Md.) Fire Chief Marc Bashoor was asked to speak at a local church service. An excerpt of his address is available at http://tinyurl.com/c6fxah3/. Note his appearance, his tone and his genuine message to the community on what firefighters and medics do every day.
Another example comes from the business world. I had the opportunity to hear Carly Fiorina — former CEO of Hewlett Packard and one-time candidate for the U.S. Senate — speak at the annual meeting of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Fiorina was professionally dressed in business attire as she spoke on the need for leadership that would foster a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit in America, Her book, Tough Choices, outlines her journey from being a clerical assistant to the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company in the U.S. Her discussion on leadership reflected on the high and the low points of her business career as well as her roles as a wife, mother and grandmother. Keeping each of these dynamic roles in mind, she premised that no matter what happened in life, true leadership must be grounded in character, values, candor and trust.
So, here’s my challenge: If you lead by example, does that include trying to remain physically fit in your role as fire chief?