What the Fire Service Can Learn from the Military

Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t be fooled; that guy is a great leader when it counts?” What does leading “when it counts” mean to you? To me there seems to be a formula: Stay calm, quickly analyze the situation, make a solid decision and adjust as needed.

That seems simple enough. In fact, most fire service leadership books say something similar. If it seems so simple and that’s the way we are taught to lead in stressful situations, then why doesn’t it happen every time?

The answer: because people handle stressful situations differently.

Losing It
Let’s look at the example of Captain Loozit. He’s the officer everyone likes–easygoing and enjoyable around the station. But when a real call comes in, Capt. Loozit acts as though someone’s replaced his windshield with 300-power magnified glass, and he’s seeing everything 300 times worse than it really is.

I’m sure you’ve heard Capt. Loozit on the radio. En route to a reported fire, the show begins. The microphone is keyed and you hear the heavy breathing, you imagine the frothing of the mouth and the spit flying in the cab as Capt. Loozit describes a major conflagration burning down the city.

Seconds later, Capt. Loozit gets back on the radio, still breathing hard from the extreme excitement, and cancels everyone. What happened? That fire seemed so promising. Well, Capt. Loozit simply got out of the cab and away from the 300-power magnified glass, only to realize the conflagration was just a dumpster fire.

That’s just a small example of how not to lead when it counts, and Capt. Loozit just doesn’t get it. You should see him on a real call. Entertaining is one way to describe it; dangerous is another.

The polar opposite of Capt. Loozit is Capt. Cool, who sounds like he’s ordering a bottle of wine at a fancy restaurant while he’s describing a five-story apartment complex going up in flames.

The truth: Most of us fall in between these two extremes, but I’m sure we all would rather act like Capt. Cool when it counts.

Leadership Under Extremes
I recently read a book called “In Extremis Leadership,” written by Col. Thomas Kolditz, a West Point professor. The book researches how people lead in perceived life-and-death situations, from recreational situations such as mountain climbing and skydiving to professions such as the military, law enforcement and fire.

The first chapter, “The Key Characteristics of In Extremis Leaders,” struck a chord with me. Kolditz interviewed Army personnel involved in extreme athletics, such as competitive parachuting. His findings were consistent with interviews from other people working in high-risk occupations.

The interviews were based on a U.S. Military Academy survey that ranked nine leadership competencies endorsed by the Army’s leadership doctrine. As I’ve listed them here, the nine competencies are in no particular order. Before you continue reading this article, take a minute to rank them based on what you think are the most important characteristics for leaders in occupations that deal with potential life-and-death situations.

  • Communicating: The leader displays good oral, written and listening skills for individuals and groups.
  • Decision Making: The leader employs sound judgment and logical reasoning, and uses resources wisely.
  • Motivating: The leader inspires, motivates and guides others toward goals and objectives.
  • Planning: The leader develops detailed, executable plans that are feasible, acceptable and suitable.
  • Executing: The leader shows proficiency, meets standards and takes care of people and resources.
  • Assessing: The leader uses assessment and evaluation tools to facilitate consistent improvement.
  • Developing: The leader invests adequate time and effort to develop individual followers as leaders.
  • Building: The leader spends time and resources improving teams, groups and units and fosters an ethical climate.
  • Learning: The leader seeks self-improvement and organizational growth and envisions, adapts to and leads change.

Well, how did you rank them? I have to be honest: I put motivation fairly high. After all, we’re always told that good leaders must be able to motivate people. But what I failed to remember was that we’re ranking these competencies while leading in serious, potentially life-threatening situations.

Motivation Comes Naturally
Kolditz found that motivation ranked second-to-last when a risk to life is involved–and this makes sense when you think about it. Kolditz found that people dealing with potentially dangerous situations are inherently motivated. I guess the fact that you could die is motivation enough, and you probably don’t need a “rah-rah” speech to get you fired up.

As Kolditz puts it: “People need to be motivated to endure misery or physical challenge, but not through in extremis circumstances where threat of death or injury is high.”

People in the fire service sometimes forget what we do for a living. I hear firefighters downplay it all the time, and see them laugh off near-miss situations like they’re jokes.

One caveat: Motivation isn’t high on the list of key characteristics for leadership in extreme situations, but we must be extremely motivated when the situation isn’t extreme. When we’re not responding to a call and there isn’t a real threat to our lives, we must train and learn–because our jobs are dangerous. As Chase Sargent says, “Don’t forget the business of our business.”

Sharing Risk
“In Extremis Leadership” draws quite a few comparisons between “in extremis” leaders and leaders in the business world. But one thing that separates these two kinds of leaders is that in extremis leaders must share risk with their subordinates.

If your crew doesn’t think you’re sharing in their risk, it’s next to impossible to get them to successfully follow your lead. Why would someone venture out onto a roof, find the hot part of the fire and cut a hole over the top of it while their captain stands on the ground encouraging their every step?

My rule of thumb: Never eat something the chef won’t eat first, and don’t trust a captain who isn’t willing to do what they’re asking you to do. As far as I know, the company officer is responsible for devising most of these ingenious plans, and should be there side-by-side with their crew to implement them.

Competence Leads to Trust
In my opinion, sharing risk–and being the first one in–is the single most important thing you can do to gain respect from your crew. Of course, this only applies if you know what the hell you’re doing. If “competent” wouldn’t be a good word to describe you, you can lead the charge all you want, and more than likely you’ll be the only one following.

Lt. Col. Pat Sweeney was referenced in the book because of his research with combat soldiers during the war in Iraq. He asked soldiers to describe in their own words the attributes they look for in leaders they can trust in combat. He then asked them to relate these attributes of leadership to trust. After the research was completed, one leadership attribute floated to the top: competence. A leader’s competence was the most important attribute that influenced trust in combat. Imagine that: Soldiers like to trust and follow people who know their job. As far as I know, so do firefighters.

Competence starts and ends with any leader, but it’s the basis for trust during dangerous situations. If a crew stays together long enough with an incompetent leader, one of two things generally happen: They look for a new leader or they become incompetent themselves. When someone doesn’t feel comfortable, is disinterested or is plain lazy, incompetence is right around the corner.

Let’s be honest. We don’t get dangerous or life-threatening calls every day in the fire service. In fact, it’s fairly rare. But when that dangerous call comes, you better be ready. You can’t expect to sit around playing cards all day and not lose your skills.

Putting Competence to the Test
Just the other day my crew and I practiced cutting some vertical ventilation holes on a city-owned abandoned house. We spent a few hours reviewing several ventilation techniques and abusing a chainsaw.

The very next shift, we were finishing lunch when a reported structure fire came in. En route, we received a report of a person trapped. About a minute before we got on scene, I heard Medic Engine 132 request ventilation because of extreme heat and smoke down to the ground.

We got on scene and went to work. We had a hole cut within 90 seconds, which significantly helped the interior crew advance and find the victim. Unfortunately, the victim didn’t make it. But we did what we were supposed to do, under increased stress, and we did it well.

I can’t believe we would’ve been as quick and effective if we hadn’t just trained on ventilation. That was a huge reminder to me how important training is to keep sharp. It also motivated me to train more.

That scenario is the opposite of what usually happens. We usually train more when things go bad on a call, not when things go well. I’ve been on the “Let’s train because I screwed up” side more often than not. The fire service is great at being reactive, not proactive. We turned it around in this instance, and it was a vivid reminder of how things are supposed to be.

In the last decade or two, the fire service has looked toward the business world for leadership examples to apply to how we do business. I’m sure we can learn a few things from Fortune 500 companies, but let’s remember that we don’t sell things. We’re in the business of saving lives and helping people. But we can learn a lot about leading people during stressful situations from our armed forces counterparts, because they’re “leading in extremis” every day. If you’re on the business end of a fire apparatus, you should be learning leadership skills from the people on the business end of a military firearm, not from someone flipping a chart during a board meeting. Don’t forget what we do for a living or who’s ultimately responsible for preparing you to do your job. Let me give you a hint: It’s not Bill Gates.

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