Maintaining Our Legacy Through New Leadership
Tim Bradley, EFO, CFO, FIFireE
The loss of Chief Bobby Halton in December, who was the editor-in-chief of “Fire Engineering” magazine and the educational director for the Fire Department Instructors Conference, left those of us who knew him and knew his work in in a state of shock. A native New Yorker, he was a longtime chief for departments in New Mexico and Texas, but he built a legacy through his leadership at FDIC and as a leadership speaker across the country. Many of us have heard his lectures and read his articles. I met him first when I was a State Training Director attending FDIC years ago. His support of the fire service and training was phenomenal. It brings back the age-old question, how do we fill that void in his passing? In the wake of any passing, and over the years we’ve lost many leaders, there is reflection on the past and the future. The present never feels quite so real as it does when we lose a leadership beam of support within our industry. How can we work on the blank sheet of paper we have to write our future, without keeping the best the past has to offer? We do that by keeping the lessons we learned from those like Chief Halton, and passing them on to those who will follow us, combined with what we learn today. That consistent evolution of succession and succession planning have to move forward, and it is absolutely critical that we do that for future leaders.
It bears keeping in mind that at some point in our past, someone saw in Chief Bobby Halton the potential for leadership and helped move him into a position where his style and leadership could do the greatest amount of good. Someone set the example, served as a mentor, or helped coach him during his career and life. We have to find a way to mirror that preparation.
The American history is wrought with impressive narratives of those who have given their lives for the cause of liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the promise of the American dream. As with many other vocations, the fire services history is laced with progressive individuals who have used their expertise to move the industry forward, to maintain our legacy, and to prepare us for the future. There are several levels where that progressive pursuit must occur; locally within our own department; statewide within our states fire service leadership; and nationally within the organizations and associations who help promote policies and guidance to be passed down to State and local fire services. Just think of the numerous state and national organizations whose staff and Boards need a constant exchange of new leaders.
It is important to note here that succession planning does not simply mean finding individuals with the necessary technical knowledge, but also involves finding individuals who have the enthusiasm, charisma, and personality necessary for people to listen and take note of what they are saying. The success of individuals like Chief Alan Brunacini, Chief Bobby Halton, and other successful presenters involved their presentation styles and enthusiasm in addition to their technical knowledge. As the old saying goes, you still have to sell it even if you have a great product.
One difficulty, even after you’ve found effective leaders, is getting people to agree to serve. Locally that is usually not an issue, since it comes with the term “job”, and there are many great leaders locally. The difficulty comes in getting them to expand their universe of leadership to the state and national level, often through voluntary Board positions. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they aren’t interested in a position on a state or regional board. In some cases, they have good reasons, a young family, conflict in their job, etc., but in many cases, they just don’t see the potential they have to mold the future at a more expansive level. To borrow a similar idea and modify a quote attributed to Jim Rohn:
“All good men and women in the fire service should take responsibility through their leadership to create legacies that will take the next generation of the emergency services to a level we could only imagine, locally, statewide, and nationally.” TB
We have to continually find good, enthusiastic leaders who are willing to serve, not only in their jobs, but in a host of other leadership positions that are always available at the state and national level. We’ve all discussed at one point or another succession planning. Succession planning is a way for our service to ensure a sufficient source of possible leaders for the future. It ensures the sustainability of the service by preparing individuals to take the helms of different agencies and carry them into the future.
We know that professional development enables an individual to better perform his or her work duties, and we spend a tremendous amount of training and teaching resources to provide that development. However, leadership preparation differs slightly from professional development, which can often focus primarily on a person’s job. Leadership preparation requires exposure of individuals to activities that provide them with the skills necessary to be effective leaders, and in some cases that simply means getting them involved.
Succession planning needs to be inclusive. Organizations often fail because only certain people are allowed to participate. Succession planning does not single out the “chosen one” or good old boy. It’s supposed to provide a group of future leaders that reflect the demographics of our service, and as such, involve All of our personnel in our future.
How many times have you heard the comment that we don’t train Company Officers in leadership until they get in the position? As such, they struggle with supervisory and leadership issues immediately upon getting the promotion and some never recover. While it is probably a documentable fact in some departments that we don’t provide leadership classes, it is misleading to say we don’t provide them any training. If they haven’t received any leadership training while preparing for the position, it’s because of one or two issues; (1) no senior officer, instructor, or company officer took the time to mentor them, or, (2) they didn’t listen. To begin with, leaders are not born, they are grown. In his paper “Growing Leaders for Public Service”, Ray Blunt shows research that indicates that we learn to lead far more from tacit rather than cognitive knowledge, as apprentices of senior leaders. Tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal or explicit knowledge) is knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. In other words, we learn more from watching in relationship to leading than being taught in class. We learn to lead from significant relationships with senior leaders who take the time to serve as our coaches, mentors, and above all, our examples. We learn to lead from the very stuff of life such as the hardships that shape our character and the people who help us walk through those tough times. We learn by watching people weather the storm, and how they managed to come through. It begins with our parents or guardians, our school teachers, and other influential adults, but it can begin at any time. The hope is that those providing the tacit knowledge, or those whom are being watched, are providing good leadership fundamentals. Leaders are people who have followers, not because of who they are, not because of the rank or power they hold, or even their charisma, but because they have earned trust through humility, moral courage, integrity, caring, and a clear-eyed focus on purpose. People take orders from bosses, they follow leaders. One critical test of a leader is not so much whether they make smart decisions or take decisive action, but whether they teach others to lead and build an organization that sustains itself even when they are not around.
Growing leaders can occur in three ways outside of leadership classes, even though classes may be important eventually to formalize their training. The first way is through personal example as an exemplar. As a leader, people watch you all the time. How you make decisions, treat other people, and handle tough issues speaks volumes about you and serves as an example to those that follow. This is the tacit knowledge mentioned above. The second is through significant relationships as a mentor. Take the time to mentor recruits, individuals looking to move up the rank, and people who seem interested in learning. You have far more to offer than just telling them what to do and what you expect. When you handle an issue, take them aside and explain why. Take a personal interest in their development. A third way is through varied experiences provided to the individual as a coach. Give them some problems to solve after you’ve mentored them, even if they are hypothetical, and then discuss their handling of those problems. Admit when you make an error so they learn humility is a leadership requirement, and no person is perfect. All of these are considered servant leadership, or a leadership philosophy that focuses on others rather than self. If you truly want to lead your organization, then serving as a servant leader and mentoring, coaching, or setting the example for those that follow is a critical aspect of good leadership. Assume personal responsibility for developing other leaders. Have a teachable point of view that they can articulate and show others how to organize, what behaviors are needed when, and what values are essential. Use stories to embody this teachable point of view. Always generate positive energy and encourage them when they have tough decisions. This doesn’t have to formulate an “I know best” attitude, but walk them through the thought process you would use and the values you would apply. These relationships with exemplar senior leaders acting as mentors or coaches will do more to prepare our future leaders than $250 seminars.
If today’s leaders take time to serve as exemplars, mentors, and coaches, tomorrows leaders won’t walk into the job ill prepared, and we’ll actually be serving as better leaders.
While talking of succession planning and mentoring leaders, the aspects between developing them within an organization, or developing them to serve in leadership positions with a broader geography such as state and federal levels, are the same. We have to look for good people, mentor and guide them, and convince them they have a significant potential of doing something great in guiding our industry.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” —Benjamin Franklin