What You Don’t Find in the Leadership Books

The inability to be clear and articulate will hurt you

Understand that some challenges and answers aren’t in the books. (Unsplash)

By Dennis Reilly

Reading books about leadership is a universal step that all aspiring officers take. As you progress through your career, reading is normally considered a must. Not to diminish the necessity or need to engage in continued reading and development, but many important issues associated with leadership are often overlooked or not even mentioned in the conventional leadership texts. This article, in no certain order, will explore some of the realities that you will encounter as you step into a leadership position.

Throughout this article, I will use the term leader for anyone who is in a formal supervisory position. This can be from the most junior rank in the organization all the way to fire chief and everything between. The challenges I will discuss are present at every rank, and they tend to get more complex as you advance up the promotional ladder.

One the biggest surprises for a new leader is that there is an ebb and flow to leadership. New leaders will likely experience what they will see as successes in the beginning stages of their new position. Success is good, and you should be proud of it. Success can also blind you to the realities of life and our profession. This is where the ebb and flow of leadership comes in. Sooner or later, something is not going to go right. Your decisions will be called into question by a superior, you will come up short on a project, you will have a response go bad, or you will have to deal with a difficult and challenging subordinate. These are just a few examples that all leaders at one time or another must face. Some of these situations can be crushing to say the least. The longer you go without having a leadership “downturn,” the more your confidence can be shaken. The stark reality is everyone in a leadership position goes through this. No one who assumes a leadership role will be the perfect leader because there simply is no such thing. To survive and flourish as a leader, you must accept the fact that along with the good days there will come a few bad ones. The good leaders can accept this fact, can learn from even a bad experience, and are resilient enough that a bad experience does not cripple their future.

The military often speaks about the ability of being able to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” In terms of leadership, this does not just apply to the physical environment. Everyone in the fire department knows what it is like to work outside in uncomfortable temperatures, wet, tired, and hungry. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable has many settings in leadership. Your subordinates are likely to ask your opinion about unpopular decisions coming down from headquarters. The textbook mistake that many new leaders make is to say, “Well, that’s not my idea,” or “We have to do this because the chief says so.” This is referred to as distancing yourself from the rest of the chain of command. These answers might seem like the logical choice, but in the long run they will open the door for a lack of discipline at your command. Correcting unacceptable behaviors is extremely uncomfortable, but just like distancing yourself from the rest of the chain of command, failing to act when action is needed will only make the leader’s life more difficult in the future. There is no easy way to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Often accepting the fact of what is bound to happen eventually will allow a leader to begin to plan strategies. Every leader will need to figure out a strategy that works for them. The best advice is to be prepared for this type of situation to happen, because if you are in a leadership position, it will.

The ability to communicate across generational lines is an absolute necessity. Often promotional processes will include a role-playing scenario where a young officer must supervise a more senior member. This should not be viewed as just as an exercise in the promotional testing; it should be considered an absolute necessity for anyone in a leadership position. You must be able to build relationships with those under your command. What sometimes is lost on leaders is that this ability applies to the newer generations as much as the senior generations. We often hear senior members of the fire service talking about the “millennials,” and the remarks are not always positive. There is no way to turn the hands of time back or set a hiring age that would exclude any group. Your personnel feelings about one generational group cannot affect how you interact. If you fail to appreciate the importance of this concept, you might find yourself placed in the dinosaur category by some of the younger members of your command. As a leader, you must be able to communicate and build relationships across all generations in your workplace. Effective leaders are those who know how to listen, relate, and provide a means for everyone to feel like a valued member of the team.

The ability to communicate is an absolute for any leader, and as you gain seniority in rank or climb the ladder to higher positions, your communication skills must also grow. There is a good chance you will be asked your opinion in a group setting. It is difficult to articulate a clear concise opinion on the spur of the moment, but that is what is expected of the leader. Your delivery will be in most cases as important as your opinions. The ability to be well spoken will garner you respect and trust with your subordinates, and the inability to be clear and articulate will hurt you with the same group.

Written documents tend to be the life blood of public service organizations. At some point, a report you write might become a critical piece of evidence in a legal proceeding. Lawyers are experts at analyzing written documents and bringing any shortcomings to light. Standard operating procedures and guidelines are always being written and rewritten. Even if you have no desire to be involved in this process, your boss might have different ideas. The self-inflicted damage you can do to yourself by producing an inferior document could last long after your current boss leaves the organization. The bottom line for communication skills is that leaders are expected to be good communicators. If this is not one of your strong suits, it is advisable to start making this weakness a strength.

The most successful leaders are those who understand the need and timing to be bold. Think of military leaders whom we associate with being highly effective, and you see will an element of boldness in their character. Generals like Patton and Sherman knew how to read a tactical situation and take the correct, decisive actions when needed. Apart from the battlefield, history is full of examples with leaders who were bold. Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan made decisions that were bold and made significant contributions to our nation because of their courage to think in such a manner. As an officer, your decisions will be nowhere near the scale of these examples, but your decisions can have a strong impact on your work group. Being bold does not mean being reckless or oblivious to your surroundings or the political environment in the organization. Speaking up about a situation or plan while remaining professional and respectful of your superiors is one example of being bold. Taking aggressive actions at an emergency scene based on solid training and the realistic capabilities of your company is another example. Introducing a new concept in an organization not well known for being agile and receptive of change is yet another example of being bold and professional. At some time in your leadership tenure, your subordinates are going to say to themselves, “Here is a leader we want to follow” or “The boss is just the highest paid person on the rig.” Being bold, done the right way, will build your credibility as a leader.

As long as you wear a uniform that says fire somewhere on it, the people you lead will expect you to have some semblance of basic firefighting skills. Often as people advance in rank, they lose touch with the tip of the spear. Company officers tend to have an easier time with this because they are still an integral part of a company. The idea of maintaining your skills becomes very important once your role takes you away from the fire apparatus. This distance from skills is one of the reasons you hear the phrase “He forgot where he came from” as often as you do. This is not to say that a fire chief should be pulling line and operating the nozzle at a kitchen fire. There is a fine line that you need to walk in this regard, building credibility with your personnel while not stepping out of your role and responsibilities. It does not hurt for a ranking officer to occasionally show up at a run wearing bunker gear. As you move into senior positions, block a little time every month to attend a drill or two. Getting involved with the firefighters at this level shows them you understand the importance of being connected. By making a genuine effort, the people under your command are much more likely to accept the fact that your skills are a little rusty. The effort and importance that you attach to maintaining basic skills will be well received by the members.

This article touches on some of the often-overlooked aspects of being successful in a leadership position but is not an all-encompassing source for success. As much as some people believe leadership is a science, you can make a strong argument that leadership involves an equal part of art. I have drawn on my own experience and have written about some of the curveballs I never saw coming. To an extent, finding your leadership style is like finding a good suit. You must pick something that fits you well. Use these tips to determine how well a particular approach fits.

Dennis Reilly is a 44-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Pittsburg (KS) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Sunrise Beach (MO) Fire Department and a battalion chief (ret.) with the Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department.  He was one of the original members of the New Jersey Urban Search & Rescue Task Force 1 and deployed to Ground Zero on 9/11. He has an MPA from Penn State and is a CFO. He is a combat veteran of the U.S. Army and worked as a private security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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