Did you resolve this year to lose that extra 10 pounds and regularly exercise, learn all the features of that new smartphone or tablet, or take that new class at the National Fire Academy? These all are worthwhile goals, and I encourage you to work toward them. But as fire chiefs and officers, I’d like to suggest a resolution of a different sort. Each of us should recommit ourselves to three traits so necessary in today’s fire service: character, ethics and leadership.
These traits are the hallmarks of a successful officer and the goals of an aspiring one. They also will help carry you and your department through the next few years. Even if the economy becomes more robust in 2013, it will be at least two years until local governments begin to feel any of the affects or see increases in our corresponding tax base and budget.
For discussion’s sake, let’s attempt to define these traits. These three traits are intertwined, yet each has a distinct place in this discussion.
Character is the sum of your moral qualities and principles. It sometimes is referred to as your reputation or your moral constitution. It is not just a part of your routine; it also is what Steven Covey referred to as having a “moral compass,” which transcends into the future to areas as-yet uncharted or where the ethical standards have yet to be clearly defined.
Peter Drucker, in his book The Leader of the Future, asks: “What do people look for and admire in a leader?” More than anything people want their leaders to be credible — that their word can be trusted. Other words they mentioned were honesty, visionary, inspiring, and competent. People expect their leaders to stand for something and have the courage of their convictions.
Ethics is conducting yourself within the already-defined rules and standards of a profession. Ethics also is adhering to the established rules of conduct recognized with respect to rightful humanitarian action.
In Principle Centered Leadership, Covey writes that ethics is the standard of conduct accepted within a chosen profession. We align ourselves with a core character that emulates the best, or ethos, of our profession. Several fire-service organizations — the , the National Society of Executive Fire Officers and the International Association of Firefighters, among them — have issued codes of ethics for us to consider.
Leadership is not only the ability to lead but, more importantly, the ability to have subordinates willingly want to follow.
In On What Leaders Really Do, John P. Kotter makes a simple distinction between leadership and management. Management essentially is maintaining the status quo of an organization once it is up and operating. As long as that organization can function effectively without change, management is all that is needed. However, leadership is needed during a dynamic transition, much like where the fire service finds itself today. Leadership is about effectively coping with change, setting a direction through a shared vision, and then aligning people to that vision. In today’s world, that may be fire-service leaders who adopt the best of business, science and technology and apply that to fire, EMS and rescue. Kotter believes that there is a direct relationship between moral standards, leadership and excellent performance.
Using these principles, what then should a fire chief or officer do to cope in today’s highly fluid fire service? First and foremost, be optimistic, yet honest with those you lead. Firefighters are known for being able to adapt and overcome. An honest discussion of the situation may result in new ideas. At a minimum, the discussion will prepare them for change, be it different methods of operations, new staffing levels or adjusted overall capabilities. When faced with the need for change, firefighters will want to know how it may affect them and what they can do to help with the transition.
How can you and your officers prepare yourself for leadership? Education is important; but education means more than earning a university degree. It’s a lifelong, continuous process. Remember what Kotter wrote: Managers maintain the status quo; leaders transition an organization through vision and change. So how do you continually prepare yourself?
Networking always is high on my list. This can be done via e-mail, LinkedIn or other social-media site, at meetings, and conferences, or over lunch. A group of trusted peers will give you frank and honest feedback on new concepts and ideas, as well as share their insights on issues and problems. These are the colleagues who can disagree with you and offer constructive criticism without fear of losing your friendship.
Join national, international or local organizations that can assist you in your leadership development. There is the familiar IAFC and the less familiar but internationally well-respected Institution of Fire Engineers. Don’t overlook local community groups, such as business associations, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, or charitable foundations. Each can expand your network and provide you with an opportunity to work with key leaders in your community.
Read not only fire service–related publications but also sources for related fields, such as American City and County to get a manager’s or administrator’s perspective. Broaden your knowledge of financial issues by reading a publication, such as The Economist, or by watching international news sources like the BBC.
Observe what other professions are doing, especially with technology, and see if their practices can increase efficiency in your department. For example, I recently saw a smartphone app that emergency services could use to bring up a map with directions to an incident scene and a recent satellite photo showing the neighborhood and the exact building involved.
Think how all of these experiences give different perspectives to problem-solving. More importantly, look at how they reenforce the basic tenets of character, ethics and leadership.
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but neither is a true New Year’s resolution. Start today and make these three traits part of your lifelong personal and professional goals.