Be Your Own Hero: Defining Your Why to Create and Develop Your How

Springfield IL firefighters at the scene of a 2018 house fire

By Heather Moore

Are you aligned with your life’s purpose, your “why”?  If so, does your purpose, your core values and how you live your life, align with how you show up to work? How you show up with your family?  How you treat yourself?  Are you being who you said you would be when you took your fire department oath?   Do you clearly understand and live your values? How do you frame your decisions outside of the emergency scene?  The intent of this article is to share the lessons I learned as a member of the working group that developed the Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Leadership Development and Decision-Making course. 

My story is just that, MY story–what right looks like from MY perspective and what right looks like for ME.  My intention is for you to realize that every day of your life is a practice that gives you the opportunity to show up, to prevent harm, to be smart, and to always choose to be nice.  You must have the courage to be the best version of you in every aspect of your life every day.

To understand life from my perspective, it is important for me to share that my formative years were framed on right vs. wrong, left or right, open or closed.  Do what you are told and never talk back or question authority.  It is important to note that I had a loving childhood, filled with opportunities, and that both of my parents worked extremely hard to provide for my sister and me.  However, I remember asking in Sunday School, “How do you know what WE think is right and everyone else is wrong?”  I did not believe the explanation, but at seven years old I quickly learned it was easier to assimilate and do what you were told. 

I began my career as a firefighter on February 14, 2000.  I soaked up everything I could learn to create, develop, and own how I accomplished the core responsibilities of physically doing my job.  My work ethic, curiosity, and determination constructed my confidence in my skills and abilities, which led me to assemble my personal “how,” how I executed my skills.  I don’t know if it was a fear of failure or a fear of not being able to “save” someone that fueled my relentless pursuit to understand more, do more, and lift more to perform the mental and physical job requirements.  I was keenly aware that I did not execute fireground tasks in the same manner as my male counterparts, but my task efficiency, outcome, and performance time aligned.  To accomplish this, I had to listen, observe, and continuously practice refining and maintaining my physical capabilities and their emergency scene application.

I was tactically and technically proficient as a firefighter, a technical rescue specialist, a driver engineer, a captain, and an incident commander.  I understood how to accomplish the emergency scene tactics, how it impacted the strategy, and how to command an emergency scene.  I was proud to have mastered the competencies of task execution associated with firefighting, providing EMS care, the various disciplines of technical rescue, providing instruction, and planning and organizing the execution of courses. 

In the midst of all my confidence, I recognized that I had failed to learn how to cope with the everyday uncertainty of life, interacting with people who did not do what they said they would do, did not uphold the same values, and did not act in support of the mission.  There was no amount of personal work ethic I had created that would instantly change Firefighter Jones’ behavior to be brilliant at the basics, to prevent harm, to be smart, and to be nice.  My leadership brand had been focused on my physical capacity to accomplish the work, not on “how” to navigate through the gray, the fog, the prickly nature of how to deal with unmotivated clay heads during nonemergent times in the fire station and in the uncertainty of everyday life. 

How could I be 40 years old and not know how to lead myself through uncertainty?  I lacked a clear understanding of who I was, my “why,” and how I framed my decisions, my actions, my behavior.  I lacked a system, a personal decision-making infrastructure, that would provide me with context; comprehension; and a relationship with all my behaviors, actions, and communications.

I recognized my deficiency, so I deconstructed my perception of the problem to find solutions.  Why were others’ behaviors so obtrusive to my thoughts?  I was exhausted by my mind ruminations and my mental noise that blocked my capacity to think clearly and objectively, causing me to respond (vs. react) to opposing opinions.  How could I continue to grow, push past this mental hurdle, to be a leader who practices situational awareness, marvels in mental uncertainty, and harnesses reacting to respond with tact, professionalism, and a smile?  I realized that observing and staying around negative behavior were not true connection but more accurately association through misery and distrust.  Intellectually, I realized associating with this type of high functioning, task accomplishing group was not connected around true belonging but existed only through negative behavior.

I realized I could no longer just muscle through 12- to 16-hour days of physical and mental work without some kind of personal upgrade.  I had hidden most of my life within the confines of absolute mental constructs to make my world safe, a fortress to stay small.  It was an awakening, a reckoning, a cage match, a mental and emotional internal struggle of perfecting and executing effortlessly.  I worked to understand how to not just survive but to thrive when the tones were silent, during the routine time in the fire station, the nonemergent times, the times when there was no longer a well-defined problem to fix.  I had to learn to honor where I was mentally, emotionally, and physically throughout my day to be my best at completing my daily schedule.

In 2012, retired Marine Corps Colonel Royal Paul Mortenson became the director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute.  In December of that year, he asked if I would be a member of the Leadership Development and Decision-Making (LDDM) working group.  Who turns down a request made by a Marine Corps colonel? 

During the completion of my assigned tasks within the LDDM working group and through the hours of research and reading, completion of countless drafts of presentation content, and executing small group Socratic method discussions, I finally had what some would call an awakening, a eureka moment.  Author Brene Brown would call it “being in the arena and leaning into the uncertainty, being vulnerable.”  I call it a relationship, a connectedness with the words I used, the values I upheld, and breathing life into my actions and the principles that had always framed my life.

Prior to this LDDM working group experience, I had lacked the life necessity or the vocabulary to articulate my “why” to develop my leadership “how.”  Being a part of this development process changed my life.  I spent time with people who had spent their life in the fire service, who embodied what right looked like, who articulated with certainty yet maintained awareness and acceptance to other viewpoints.  I learned how to think, how to decide, and even how to disagree and maintain trusting relationships.  Absolutes no longer shaped my mental constructs.  My leadership decision making framing was reformatted to accept uncertainty, ethical and moral dilemmas, core values, principles, mission, and vision. 

Snippets of what I learned:  How to frame a meeting.  How to ask question after question to find more questions than answers.  How to push people from uncertainty to a possible solution.  I learned firsthand how to “fail forward,” how to navigate through the intellectual uncertainty under the guidance of a commander’s intent, and how to get back up when your best did not meet the commander’s intent. 

Evaluating to Core Values

Defining Organizational Values

Company Officers’ Core Values & Attitude

In the nonemergent world of leadership, the capacity to lean into this fear, the fear of not being enough, taking a risk, knowing you are scared, but speaking up anyway are all essential in transitioning from a tactician, operator, to strategist.  As a person, I learned how to harness my intensity and my passion into becoming a better listener, a more intentional communicator, and simply being more comfortable with how to think and how to make decisions.  I was no longer paralyzed by the fear of not being enough.  I was no longer a hostage to the mental circle fights that had previously owned my days.  I belonged.

Principles created out of my experience:

Relationships—the necessity of having the mental and emotional capacity to be nice when you don’t feel like it.  Even when you feel like you have zero control or influence, you can always choose to be nice.

Collaborative partnerships between the “why” and “how” to make relationships and organizations great.

Self-awareness and personal discipline (mental and emotional strength) are under your control. They both drive personal decision making to achieve positive outcomes.

The importance of self-care, without becoming needy or begging for attention. 

            Sleep is a habit that supports mental and physical acuity; honor it.

Bathe in being tired, uncomfortable when facing and moving through not knowing and failure. 

            “Braving the wilderness and staying in the arena.” –Brene Brown

Master your own happiness/well-being.  Distance yourself from negative people.  Walk away. 

Refuse to give up your energy, your focus, or your joy by feeling sorry for yourself.  

            Accept that each day and the people you will encounter owe you nothing. 

Own it when you are wrong and often when you are right. 

Hear all questions as a request for clarification–not as resistance.

Always listen, keep your mind open to other viewpoints.

Be present, aware, informed, decide, take action. 

If all this was easy, everyone would be happy, a leader, etc.

The snippets and principles are MY personal upgrades that I continue to meticulously practice, reference, share, refine, protect, and honor.  I am thankful and grateful for the people who have challenged and continue to challenge me throughout the continuous LDDM developmental process. 

Lesson learned from researching and reading throughout this developmental process:

I learned the importance of having a healthy dose of the crucial ability to question and assess information, answers, and responses from an objective point of view.  Obviously, this did not come to me naturally; I was raised to be a total assimilator to not be seen.  I also realized that somehow my fire department culture had not embraced the importance of establishing a mission-focused culture.  As a chief officer, I am diligently working to influence and grow our culture.

How do you hold yourself to achieve your “why?”  By knowing your “why,” your purpose will inspire others through shared connection and meaning.  This requires discipline and consistent actions in everything you say and do.  All your words, your actions, your behaviors, and what you do must reflect and support your “why.” 

I have had the opportunity to learn by doing, living through it, recognizing we are all flawed by the human condition, staying out of judgment, being curious about the “whys” of someone’s behavior and attempting to understand their perspective, and being a more tolerant and empathetic human being.  Because of this personal and professional development process, I know I need to be intensely connected with the people in my life to do my work and bring meaning in support of my “why.”  It is vital to learn how to discuss, respond, and ask questions with whatever personal “why” you eventually choose to support.

As we aspire to be the best firefighters, the best human beings, we owe it to ourselves and to the people we love and lead to learn how to navigate and connect through our shared emotions, fears, successes, and failures through our ability, our capacity to empathize.  We are successful and survive and thrive because we are firefighters who understand and accept the mental, emotional, and physical complexities required to uphold our collective fire service mission. 

Understanding YOUR “why” facilitates the creation of your personal “how” so you are better equipped to navigate through life’s uncertainty and become the best version of you!  Your words, discussions, and interactions connect you to the people with whom you share 24-hour shifts and life experiences.  My intent is to inspire you to take this message and make it your own, continue your personal and professional pursuit of excellence, and grow into your potential.

HEATHER MOORE is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and the Springfield (IL) Fire Department division chief of training, the Special Operations chief, and the director of the Special Operations Training Program at the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI), the Illinois State Fire Training Academy.  Moore has been an IFSI field staff instructor since 2006 and is an instructor in the Special Operations, Cornerstone, and Leadership programs.  While serving as IFSI’s Trench Rescue Program manager, Moore was instrumental in developing and designing IFSI’s above ground trench rescue prop.  In 2012, Moore developed and authored the Trench Student Field Operations Guide that provides intersecting trench shoring guidelines and strategies for trench rescue.  Moore has served as the president of the Fire Service Women of Illinois.  She is an Illinois certified Emergency Medical Technician—Intermediate, Chief Fire Officer, Training Program Manager, Instructor III, Fire Investigator, and Fire Inspector. 

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