Mentoring as a Mandate for Successful Fire Service Leaders

Successful organizations are built on the wealth of their human capital. Nothing is of more critical mass to an organization than the quality of its people.

Successful teams know they consist of team leaders and captains who act at times as formal and at other times as informal leaders to develop all team members. The fire service is no different: much has been written about the necessary tools senior fire administrators must possess through such industry staples as the National Fire Protection Association, professional credentialing and fire-officer coursework.

However, most senior executives have attained their position through perseverance, tenacity and dedication to professional development. But more than likely, they also attained it through a mentor’s experiential learning.

Organizations that are keenly focused on succession planning are built on strong foundations and excel through inevitable leadership changes. Many organizations that have otherwise excelled have faced dismal downturns and even collapse by ignoring succession planning and mentoring opportunities within their ranks. As successful leaders move on, organizations that have ignored both the professional and organizational investment in mentoring are at risk of faltering.

Many students of organizational success believe that senior leaders should dedicate a significant portion of their energy and time to mentoring and developing those around them. In doing this, they enhance experiential learning, knowledge transfer and skills development.

This has great potential application within the fire service. Chief fire officers may be more singularly focused on compartmentalized areas of department operations, such as training, communications and operations. They can benefit from the knowledge transfer of a more global set of knowledge and skills needed to lead in the complex environment the fire service operates in.

The complexities today’s successful fire service leader must not only master but mentor others in include:

  • rapidly changing technology
  • the cultural influence of generational changes in the workforce
  • unprecedented economic challenges
  • evolving fire service delivery expectations
  • enhanced accountability expectations

These very global yet necessary skill subsets, which are required of successful senior fire executives, are of critical importance in developing future leaders.

What focus do you and your organization have on succession planning or organizational mentoring? Does your calendar reflect the investment needed to ensure your knowledge base, experiences, wisdom and talents are being imparted to those being prepared for future leadership?

While some have opportunities to impart knowledge from academic study and didactic training, in today’s complex operating environment, it’s essential that situational learning from both successes and failures be shared with future leaders as well as the inherent lessons.

One of my career mentors often shared that you can’t “get these lessons and experiences at (insert your favorite academic institution).”

While knowledge attained through formalized education certainly provides great value to leaders, experiential learning has a tremendous synergistic effect. There’s an old adage: “Hear one, see one, do one.” It speaks to the importance of learned knowledge.

As senior fire leaders, it’s paramount that you ensure an appropriate focus on mentoring those around your organization and beyond through networking and knowledge sharing professionally, as well as by developing that cultural norm within your organization and networks. Remember that lessons learned are lessons lost if they aren’t imparted to a future generation of leaders.

While this may seem a hefty investment, it’s paramount both to your professional responsibilities as a fire service leader and to the long-term success of your organization and the greater fire service as a profession that’s prepared to continue to develop.

The art of mentoring can be embraced through formalized in-house knowledge sharing—General Electric and other companies have exemplified this in their leadership schooling. Or it can be embraced through such informal means as regular mentoring one on one or during retreats.

Regardless of the format you identify and implement, the challenge clearly remains: Are you and your organization investing in the human capital of future successes or failures?

Todd LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, MIFireE, is an assistant fire chief for Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff Fire Rescue. He’s also a director at large for the Safety, Health and Survival Section and a member of the IAFC On Scene editorial advisory board.

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