At what point in a fire service career does a firefighter begin their education in leadership? Most would argue that from day one as a rookie, you observe and listen to your department leaders and they begin to shape your leadership future: How your direct supervisor treats customers on a company inspection; how the company officer interacts with a frequent patient on an EMS run; how the fire chief is involved in employee development.
Your education as a leader may be based on your experience: incidents you respond to, courses you developed and taught, mentoring relationships and formal education. As we move up in our careers, it can become easy for the distractions of each day to limit our education. Think about the last class you attended; were you engaged or did the distractions of the day (email, text, etc.) prevent you from fully engaging in the program?
It's quite possible that due to hectic schedules, we may only attend training and education that's we're interested in rather than what we need to balance our leadership abilities. At a program on fire inspection basics, two attending fire chiefs were actively participating in the program. At the first break, there was discussion about why they were involved in the program.
The first chief was leading organizational change, including company-based inspections; he hadn't been to inspection training and needed a greater understanding to help influence the change in his department. The second chief participated in the class because he was supervising the fire marshal's division and had little experience in prevention.
It may be assumed that leadership and the formal position you hold in your organization go hand in hand. That assumption isn't always accurate and leadership isn't always based on rank. Informal leaders can be some of the most powerful in our organization. As leaders, we strive for constant improvement, influence change, motivate members and ensure the projects and tasks get done. Influencing change will be based on relationships built on a foundation of trust.
In the examples of our local fire chiefs and fire inspection course, the first chief was looking for greater understanding. In talking to one this chief's employees, we heard that he felt it was great the chief attended; this interaction worked towards building trust—a key factor in leading.
It's easy to continue our education in programs we're comfortable in. Think of your program selection at the last Fire-Rescue International. Did you choose programs you're interested in or programs that offer you balance and comfort in a new topic? Did you attend programs on community risk reduction so you can understand the fire chief's role in reducing the impact of fire? Does your emphasis in your degree go beyond firefighting?
I'm hard pressed to find leaders in the fire service who don't have a full plate each and every day. Take time to sharpen your saw and study leadership inside and outside the fire service. If I don't set aside time to study leadership, months can go by without working on my critical skill sets as a leader. Study what scares you and don't forget to still study the things you like and keep that passion alive in your career.
As leaders, we set the pace for our organization on education. Our involvement, our ability to develop employees and our attitude towards education are critical to the overall success of the employees we work with. Developing a culture of varying education that supports staff through their development will lead to the overall success of our organization.