By Ray Gayk
Published Tuesday, May 1, 2012
| From the May 2012 Issue of FireRescue
In Part 1 of this column (“Dare to Care: Company officers must understand the true meaning of ‘taking care of our people,’” March issue, p. 58), I discussed what it means to take care of our people. Of course, a company officer has several responsibilities when it comes to taking care of their people, but I narrowed them down to four major items:
- Preparation/Training: Ensuring your team is well trained, equipped and prepared to do their job.
- Priorities: Putting your team’s priorities above your own.
- Future Focus: Preparing your team for the future.
- Responsibility: Taking responsibility when the team fails, and giving credit to the team when they’re successful.
I touched on the first two items in Part 1, so in this article, I’ll discuss Future Focus and Responsibility.
Preparing Future Leaders
Many departments don’t have a formal succession plan in place, so many times, an informal one takes its place, and it’s handled at the company officer level. Company officers are the driving force behind future fire service leaders, because they’re the ones who help firefighters develop and hone their leadership skills. Training firefighters early on for leadership is extremely beneficial to the fire service, because it allows firefighters to learn what works and what doesn’t, to make mistakes without any serious consequences, and to receive instant feedback from a company officer.
Opportunities for firefighters to take on leadership roles within their organization arise every day. The trick to benefitting from those opportunities: having a company officer who provides a good learning environment and who recognizes opportunities to lead when they occur. These opportunities come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve found that teaching is one of the best opportunities for firefighters to get their feet wet in the leadership world. It seems very simple, but it can be one of the most challenging things a new leader can do.
Teaching a class takes preparation, challenges your ability to effectively get a message across, forces you to deal with conflict/disagreement, and physically places you out in front of people (where most of us usually don’t want to be). These are all things that you’ll have to face at the next level if you want to lead, so you might as well begin sharpening some of your skills in the fairly controlled environment of training.
Of course, when a leadership opportunity arises, you also need a firefighter who’s willing to take the chance to lead. I say “take the chance” because anytime we decide to take on a leadership role, we do so with the understanding that we may not get it right—or we may fail completely.
Whenever someone takes a position of leadership, formally or informally, they’re putting themselves out there, which means they run the risk of receiving criticism—and lots of it. As humans, we don’t generally run toward opportunities so we can receive a little extra criticism, so we’re often hesitant to grab these opportunities. This is where a company officer can make all the difference in the world. They can not only offer encouragement to their members to step up to the challenge, but they can also support their efforts and provide ongoing guidance and advice.
Company officers are truly the first line of defense when it comes to succession planning, mentoring and preparing our people for the future. That said, remember that a company officer can give their crewmembers all the opportunities for leadership and preparation they want, but the most important thing is to set a good example and do the right thing. Your example will always trump other lessons you try to teach.
As stated at the beginning of this article, taking care of our people involves “taking responsibility when the team fails, and giving credit to the team when they’re successful.” That’s a very simple statement, but in reality, it can be a very difficult thing to do, because it goes against our nature at times.
When a team fails to perform, makes a mistake, causes a problem or simply screws up, the first reaction for many leaders is to look outward for who is at fault. But the correct initial response is to look at the act itself, and if you’re a company officer, ask yourself, did the mistake happen because a crewmember simply screwed up or did I not prepare them to do their job?
Whenever a crew makes a mistake, the leader should always look inward first and ask a few simple yet important questions:
- Did I clearly communicate what I wanted?
- Did I prepare my crew for success?
- Did they have the tools to get the job done right?
If the leader can’t answer yes to all of these questions, then the blame should fall directly into their lap, not the crew. To put it simply, always follow the golden rule: Whenever the crew screws up, the company officer wears it.
The company officer is ultimately responsible for everything that happens to the crew, which is why it’s important to not only prepare your crew properly but to also prevent it from driving you down a bad road and off a cliff. Usually, after your crew has driven you off a cliff, they are quick to offer up a few words of wisdom, such as “I can’t believe you let us do that” or “You screwed up—you trusted us.”
But when your team does something right, they always get the credit. The moment a leader takes credit for the success of the crew, they will have a very difficult time replicating that success. People don’t like to work their tails off for someone who takes all the glory. Example: If you watch a press conference after a football game, notice how the quarterback always talks about how great his linemen did to protect him. If the quarterback tells everyone how great he was and takes all the credit for the team’s success, his next game may be a little painful after he gets sacked 10 times.
What It’s All About
Taking care of your people is one of the most important parts of any leadership position. Remember: It isn’t about letting your crew do whatever they want, whenever they want, so they’ll think you’re a cool company officer. It’s about giving them the tools for success, preparing them to do their job, preparing them for the future, showing them how to do things the right way, always putting their needs ahead of yours and taking responsibility for what happens. If we can do these things as officers, we’ll be on the right road to building great leaders and a better, safer fire service.
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