Keeping Leadership ALIVE

Every boss you had, good or bad, is a learning opportunity.
Running the day-to-day operation is being a manager, not a leader. (pixabay)

The difference between ethics, morals, and integrity

By Alan J. Berkowsky

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”—John Quincy Adams

With more than 40 years in the fire service, I have watched our industry evolve in many ways in terms of strategies, tactics, and leadership. When I first started, many of my bosses were World War II veterans who were steadfast in their ways.  It was hard to get them to agree to any new concepts or procedures. Their response was typically “no” (a labor attorney always reminded me that “no” is a complete sentence). Though they were not very flexible in their ways, they had a certain leadership presence to them. When the fire engine rolled up to a scene, everyone knew, including the public, who was in charge. It was part of their tough and rugged exposure to the world during the 1940s.

It seems like the generation that followed produced a different type of leader. These leaders had little military experience, their leadership experience was limited to the department they served on, and they find it challenging to use leadership skills among their co-workers/peers. Some try to encourage consensus and avoid conflict. Though this creates a friendly environment, it does not always make for a good leader. Your subordinates want to work for someone they can look up to and trust. I have worked for many company officers in my career, and my favorites were always the ones who demonstrated excellent leadership skills. I felt the company officers who just wanted to maintain status quo and stay “below the radar” lacked energy, creativity, and pride.

What is a leader, and what traits are important to becoming a successful leader in the fire service? Over the past 20 years, I have taught numerous classes in the fire service. In the past eight years, I have had the opportunity to meet and discuss leadership with many new fire service officers in a Chief Fire Officer class that I teach for the Illinois Office of Fire Marshal (OSFM) called “Personal & Professional Development.” This one-year program is the highest level of certification that the OSFM offers in Illinois. During the class, up-and-coming fire service officers from across Illinois discuss the many aspects of being a fire service leader. It is important that as a new fire service officer, you are not just coasting into retirement but keeping leadership ALIVE. Good leadership is important for the organization to thrive and succeed.

For this article, I am going to boil it down to five important leadership traits that I refer to as the “Keeping Leadership ALIVE traits.” They are explained below.

Trait #1: Approachable

Communication is critical, and if leaders are unapproachable, they will not be able to understand the impact of decisions they make. Pettiness, spite, and vengeance are beneath a leader, according to Abraham Lincoln. Yet, some leaders readily display these attributes. Your ability to communicate and the perception of being approachable work hand-in-hand. If you are not approachable because of your personality or lack of confidence, it creates a separation between you and the rank-and-file. It also squashes creativity and increases the rumor mill. Being approachable includes having a sense of humor, being personable and knowledgeable, and having the ability to keep your ego in check. The ability of a subordinate to approach a leader to discuss an issue or suggest an idea is critical.

I understand the chain of command. However, the fire commissioner of a large department would still benefit by visiting the fire stations to maintain some communication with the “boots on the ground” personnel (those who respond to the calls). This type of communication pays off in dividends. This type of leader is usually described as “a nice guy, good listener, advocate for us, fair, good communicator, caring.” It is important that the members of the department see the leader and can approach him without a condescending feeling. Remember, you are in the position to lead the department, and the task becomes much more difficult when there is disdain for the leader because of an inability to communicate. Poet Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Trait #2: Leadership Presence

How is it that some leaders can be picked out of a group of people just by their demeanor and conduct? What makes a leader have that type of savoir faire (knowing what to do in any situation)? How is leadership presence developed?

Have you ever seen or worked for fire officers (of any rank) who have that certain “wow” factor?  As soon as they walk into a room, everyone knows who is in charge. They are neatly attired, competent, genuine, and fully present. When you ask them a question, you have their undivided attention. They make their subordinates feel as though they too can make a difference. Their focus is to lead the organization with a true vision, and they do not let their ego or nay-sayers get in the way. They try to see the best in everyone. Think of the leaders you have encountered in your career, whether past or present. In my Chief Fire Officer class, I ask the students to name people whom they thought were excellent leaders. Names such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, and Norman Schwarzkopf were suggested.  It is much easier to be a leader during non-confrontational times. Yet, these leaders were knee-deep in turmoil.  Not all were liked, but they were respected in their positions. Each one of them had that leadership presence necessary to help provide guidance to the nation.

What are the attributes that lends themselves to leadership presence? According to David Limardi, former village manager for Highland Park, Illinois, some of them include the following:

  • Attractive appearance.
  • Articulate.
  • Present when not present (employees follow the leader’s vision even when the leader is not present).
  • Ability to forge relationships built on trust.
  • Seriousness of purpose.
  • Confident.
  • Focused awareness.
  • Respected.
  • Decision maker.
  • Certain magnetism.
  • Competent thinker.
  • Genuine.
  • Fully present.

To rise to this level of leadership, you need real-life experience to understand the issues, the determination to “fix” the problems, energy to sustain the role, and a true desire to lead. You need to check your ego at the door and be committed to the role. You need to understand both your strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly. Few leaders exhibit true leadership presence, but when leaders have that presence, they can accomplish much more while developing other leaders along the way.

Trait #3: Integrity

This is one of the most important traits. Some people have trouble defining integrity or the difference between integrity, morals, and ethics. The words are many times interchanged but there are significant differences. Integrity is critical to a leader, regardless of rank. Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, stated, “I look for three things in hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is a high level of energy. But, if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” 

Let’s explore the difference between ethics, morals, and integrity.

Ethics: Ethics are the rules, usually adopted by a municipality, that describe what is acceptable and what is not. For example, an ethics policy might allow you to accept a meal from a contractor as long as it does not exceed $50 in a calendar year. Ethical people might be willing to follow the rules of the organization to keep their job, but off-duty their conduct may not rise to the level of good morals or a person of integrity.

Morals: People of high morals usually obtain these values from family or religious beliefs. Their morals may include abstinence from drinking, monogamous marriage, or volunteering to help those less fortunate.  Morals vary from person to person and may or may not rise to the level of integrity.

Integrity: The definition of integrity that I found most helpful is “doing the right thing when no one is looking.” Integrity encompasses morals, ethics, and honesty.  A leader with great integrity will be straightforward, consistent, reliable, and trustworthy.  In the news, we have seen time and time again that when integrity is in question, it becomes very hard for leaders to continue to lead, and many end up resigning. Integrity equals trust, and there is a tangible cost to trust.  Why did unions form?  Because the employees did not trust management to do the right thing. In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey states that when there is a loss of trust, the cost to do business escalates and productivity slows down.  When the integrity of the leader is in question, everything is challenged. This creates a loss of trust between management and employees; grievances are aired, unfair labor practices are pursued, and productivity stops. The department is embroiled in a loss of trust. When trust exists, differences are handled through various communication channels and the focus is on service delivery and innovations.      

Of all the traits discussed, integrity will allow you to maintain a forward trajectory; a lack of integrity will cause you to fail as a leader.

Trait #4: Vision

You will need a plan to lead your department. Running the day-to-day operation is being a manager, not a leader.

I remember just having been promoted to chief in 2004.  The department I was leading at the time had around 112 sworn members and five fire stations. I decided to work out each day at a different fire station. That would give me a chance to talk on a more informal basis to the members working that shift. As I began my workout, one firefighter entered the workout room and congratulated me on my recent promotion. He then asked me about my vision for the department and what my five-year plan included. With my recent promotion, I had a lot on my plate, and a vision for a five-year plan was nowhere near the top. I suddenly realized that, as the leader of the organization, the members want to know how I envision the next five years and what changes I might be considering.  In addition, how will I include their input in my visionary planning process?

As a I stated earlier, if you are focused on putting out all the small fires, you are missing the big picture. But, more importantly, you are managing the department, not leading it. Why is having a vision so important, especially to a new leader?  If implemented properly, you can obtain input from a large segment of your organization without anyone feeling threatened or penalized.  Our organizations are steeped in tradition, and any changes need to be done in a way that the members feel like their input is heard.

The easiest way to start the process is with a SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. It provides a simple process for allowing input and voicing concerns.  It also gives you an insight as to the morale and health of the organization you are leading. Second, a sign of a healthy organization is creativity.  President Abraham Lincoln was known to encourage innovated thinking.  He felt it was critical for an organization to be creative to encourage forward thinking and movement.  If organizations are focused on creativity and innovation, they are empowered and excited at the direction that lies ahead instead of focusing on disagreements or perceived wrongs. 

Finally, the vision must match the mission.  If the mission of your organization is “stale” or lacks depth, it might be time to revisit and revise it.  The mission statement of the organization should be in alignment with your vision.  If you as a leader lack a vision for your organization, it may be time to retire. You might have lost that drive or “fire in your belly.” Without a vision, you will only focus on the now and not where your organization needs to be. 

Trait #5: Experience

There always seems to be a rush to get promoted or to obtain that fifth bugle. To become an effective fire service leader, you need learn what works and what does not work.  Slow down and absorb every learning opportunity.

I am sure each one of you can think of a chief you’ve encountered or worked for in your career whom you admired and felt had a solid understanding of the position.  There was a sense of confidence about him. When you walked into his office, you felt you had his attention, he was an active listener, and he seemed to understand your concerns or ideas. He asked questions to make sure he understood the issue at hand.  I am going to speculate and say that this leader knowing or unknowingly followed the “Law of Process” (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998).

There seems to always be a sense that we want to rush time to achieve our career goals. Yet, what I have observed are those who achieve the rank of chief without having an opportunity to experience the learning process along the way are not usually good leaders. Recently, a community hired a battalion chief to lead the department as the chief.  Though he might have been an excellent field officer, his lack of exposure to administrative functions caused him to fail in the position, and he was removed six months later. In Maxwell’s book, Law No. 3 is called the “Law of Process.” Maxwell states that leadership is developed daily and not in a day.  It can take a lifetime to be a confident, good leader.  What are critical in his discussion are the four phases of leadership growth as described in his chart below:

Basically, we start off in a position learning what we don’t know. As we learn, we realize that we need to learn more to be an effective leader. As we continue to learn and grow, our confidence in the position begins to show. In time, our actions are almost intuitive because of our experience and exposure to all the elements in the position. 

I have been a chief officer for 28 years and a chief for 16 of those years.  I have often said I wish I knew then what I know now; I would have been a much better chief.  However, this is why the Law of Process is so important.  If you skip steps, you will fail to be exposed to elements of the job that will be critical to your success.  In addition to the growth, the Law of Process will also make you a critical thinker. With all your experiences along the way, it will allow you to examine situations or projects with a more thorough understanding of their consequences, both planned and unplanned.

It has been said that our brain works like an index card system.  It has the ability to document and file an experience and then, sometime years later, pull out that “card” to recall how that situation was handled and the outcome. Yet, the fire service can still challenge even the most experienced chief.  In those extreme situations, an experienced leader will be able to draw on those “index cards” stored in the brain to look for a similar situation to use as a guide for the current event. 

As you begin to explore your career trajectory, don’t rush opportunities.  Take advantage of each one along the way.  Learn in the positions and realize every day you are putting away information that will assist you in the years ahead. Captain Chelsey Sullenberger of US Airways said it best after he landed his airplane in the Hudson on January 15, 2009, “For 42 years I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. On January 15, the balance was sufficient so I could make a very large withdrawal.”  This is a perfect example of the Law of Process.

Keep Leadership ALIVE

When someone gets promoted, they do not become a leader.  They gain a new title.  They need to learn and earn their leadership “wings.” Unless that person is a born leader, it takes time. It is truly the “Law of Process” as described earlier in the article. Much of leadership is a learned process.  Every boss you had, good or bad, is a learning opportunity. Learning what works and what does not work will make you a better leader. Along the way, it is important to “reach for the stars, but keep your feet on the ground.”  In other words, check your ego at the door.

Take advantage of every opportunity, explore different positions such as administration, quartermaster, special teams, fire prevention, and fire investigation.  This give you a well-rounded perspective of the fire service and the experience you need to make decisions that can impact the entire department for years to come. 

Do not get too eager to jump ranks; enjoy all the positions along the way.  Without these important steps, you will miss opportunities to learn.  There were many times throughout my career that I pondered the purpose of the task or assignment I was given.  But all these experiences are part of the leadership growth.

Slow down, take a breath, and enjoy each position in your career trajectory.  Think about what type of leadership traits you want to project and be the leader that you would want to work for. You don’t have to wait for the first promotion.  As a firefighter, if you begin to develop these traits early in your career, it will show and will build on your leadership skills for future opportunities. Be a leader who will make a difference. The Athenian Oath, which is more than 2,000 years old and which was recited by the citizens of Greece, still holds true today. Here’s the last line with a slight twist to fit the fire service, “… Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this department not only, not less, but greater than it was transmitted to us.”

Chief Alan Berkowsky has been in the fire service for more than 40 years. He started his career with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department as a paramedic. He then joined the Evanston (IL) Fire Department in 1981 as a firefighter/paramedic and became chief of department in 2004.  Retiring from the Evanston Fire Department in 2010, he became chief of the Winnetka (IL) Fire Department in 2011 and is currently serving in that capacity. He has an associate degree in fire science from Oakton Community College and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from National Louis University.  He served as an instructor for Oakton Community College, Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy, and the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association.  He instructs the Personal & Professional Development module for the OSFM Chief Fire Officer curriculum. Over the past four years, he has been an instructor for the Illinois Tactical Officers Association in the Active Threat curricula. He has also served as president of MABAS Division 3 and as the vice president of the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy. He is the recipient of the 2002 Wayne Leucht Humanitarian Award and the 2016 Illinois Fire Safety Alliance Life-Safety Award.

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