Leaders aren't born with leadership skills; true leadership skills must be developed. Our ability to be a good leader at any level can only be strengthened by how we choose to augment our skills with education and experience.
When we realize we don't know something, we seek out the missing answers for simply one reason: we care about it. When we care about something, either for professional or personal reason, it makes us want to act in a way that creates progress (for our personal wellbeing, our career, our environment or our community). That progress can only be achieved by learning.
When we start something new, we're often so uninformed that we don't even know that we don't know. Remember that first day at the fire station or the fire academy? It quickly becomes evident that we have a lot to learn.
More often than not, we first turn to the growing list of resources to help find answers, such as the internet, books, mentors and classrooms. That's great, but only if we know how to apply that knowledge. This leads us down the other path to learning: experience.
Experience is much harder to capture and articulate. Repetition is only part of it. In some cases, you may have learned something without even realizing you've learned it. That gut feeling you have when you know a fire is going to flash is the voice of experience. It contributes greatly to our confidence and ability on scene.
A book or a website can't tell you all you need to know to successfully fight fire. On the flip side, as each event is different, experiential knowledge only gives us one perspective at a time and is constantly changing. Each may appear deceptively simple, but in truth, neither is.
Developing into a good leader needs both education and experience. We must know the theories and understand the issues while also exposing ourselves to many different experiences that provide the perspectives and practice required to become proficient.
A fire chief should be selected for their amalgamation of skill, knowledge and experience. It can't just be education without experience or experience without education.
Here's a scenario: you need brain surgery and have three options for a doctor; which will you select?
The first just graduated top of his class from a prestigious medical school, but has never done this type of operation. He's revered as the best and his bedside manner reflects his ego.
The second took several attempts to pass his exams decades ago, but has successfully completed this surgery 100 times. He believes his success rate is due to traditional methods and refuses to keep up with new developments in medicine or technology.
The last doctor discovered a passion for medicine when he took a clerical job in a doctor's office after high school. He worked hard at average schools, earning average grades until he earned his license. He has completed the surgery successfully 50 times. During an initial exam, he mentions a seminar he just attended on a new rehabilitation program showing excellent results with this kind of procedure.
Some of the best advice given to me when I was a student was, "Learn to love to learn." Back then, I took it to heart for myself. Now, I also see it as a lens to view other and potential leaders.
There may be no such thing as a born leader, but everyone was born to learn. By cultivating both experience and education, we can cultivate great leaders.
Chief Hank Clemmensen
President and Chairman of the Board