When initially asked to write a couple of paragraphs on leadership I was hesitant, but honored just the same. I asked myself if I was worthy to speak on leadership knowing so many firefighters and chief officers would read this. After twenty years in the fire service, I promoted to Fire Chief just a short few months ago after serving as Assistant Fire Chief for almost six years. It was my biggest honor in my professional career to be the “leader” of the greatest group of firefighters and paramedics I have ever met serving the men and women of the Prosper Fire Department.
Leadership is a term that I hear so frequently used in the fire service, but I often question myself if my definition of leadership is the same as many of my fellow Chiefs. As a new Chief myself, I would never say my way is the right way or that someone else’s is the wrong way. The truth is I believe it is specific to each department and very much dependent on the culture of your department. While I recognize there are multiple “leadership” styles, I believe that many people confuse leadership and management.
Can you be considered a leader if you do not have followers? I believe the answer is clearly no. I sometimes hear from firefighters in other communities that they would not follow their Chief down the block, yet their Fire Chief very much considers himself a leader. Many of these individuals experience better reputations outside their organizations than within their own department.
I have worked my way up from the ground floor starting as a volunteer firefighter twenty years ago, then transitioning to a paid firefighter with the Frisco Fire Department, transferring to Prosper well over 15 years ago now. After working my way through every rank in the fire service here in Prosper, I am grateful I received the appointment to the position of Fire Chief September 1st following a nationwide search.
I made a promise to myself that I would never forget where I came from. I have learned that this is a true balancing act and nowhere as easy as it sounds. As a chief officer, you learn you have multiple obligations including to the residents you serve and to the town or city that employs you. However, I think sometimes we fail to realize what actually defines our departments. It’s not me, it’s not you, it’s a combination of the people in our organizations.
I believe to be a good leader you have to have superior management skills, but I also believe you do not have to be a leader to manage. I put the men and women of our department first. Arguably, people will say it should be your residents. They pay the taxes for your trucks, stations, and your salary after all, so it makes sense right?
I have argued that you can give me the nicest stations, the best equipment money can buy, and all the expensive tools to go on them, but give me inadequate people and at best you will have a mediocre fire department without much to offer. On the flip-side, give me a clean station that functions, decent apparatus and equipment that works, but give me the best people and I will give you the best fire department money cannot buy.
Let me be clear, I want the best of everything and we do not want for much in our department. I know that I am truly blessed. I choose to let my firefighters and paramedics know how much they mean to me virtually on a daily basis. This is not just lip service. Our staff would see right through that. Instead, it is genuine and they know it. I truly believe most our people would follow me just about anywhere.
I think at some point many in our field have forgotten that showing people you really do care and by simply making time to listen to them results in greater moral giving them the proper attitude and desire to give you their best. Yes, I realize I am not a typical Fire Chief and that does not bother me at all. I would not have it any other way. I am proud to “lead” a group of men and women who do not settle for anything less than excellence. To know if you are truly a leader or not, ask yourself if your people would follow you?