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11 Gifts for Your Members: Be a Leader, Be a Giver

Once you become a chief officer, you no longer put out fires, extricate trapped victims or provide emergency medical care; the people who work for you do all of those things. Your responsibility is to give them the support and tools they need to do the job. Here are 11 important gifts for your people.

Give Them Direction

To be a leader, you must have followers, but you can't have follfowers if they don't know where you want them to go. You may have heard the old saying, "I'm their leader; which way did they go?"

Not a good start. When you take on new responsibilities, you need some idea of where you want to take your battalion, division or department; you need to clearly articulate that vision. Your people will want to know what you expect of them.

Give Them Training and Educational Opportunities

None of these gifts will work if you don't first provide vision and growth opportunities through training and education. You can provide time for training on shift, but encourage your members and staff to take advantage of outside educational opportunities as well. Do this through tuition support and flexibility about time off or swaps to attend classes.

Conduct training sessions where emergencies occur to keep them interesting, challenging and useful. Stacking ladders and dragging hose at your training tower is all well and good, but you don't respond to fires there.

Go out to the apartment complexes, shopping centers and industrial plants—any facility that will challenge your resources. Property owners are usually delighted to have us use their facilities for training. Doing so indicates you're interested in protecting these assets and serves as a much better use of your training time.

Give Them Respect

You may have asked yourself, "How do I create good morale among my team?" Nothing builds morale better than respecting the opinions of your people and allowing them the freedom to excel.

Most firefighters and EMTs come to the job because they want to help others; nothing discourages them more than a boss who doesn't respect their abilities. You'll get far more out of your people by giving them the flexibility, responsibility and authority to perform.

Give Them Your Trust

Trust goes hand-in-hand with respect. While a few may take advantage of this freedom, most will accept the responsibility gladly and surprise you with their willingness to take on new challenges. Don't micromanage them; if you give them direction, training and educational opportunities, follow through by allowing them to use their knowledge, skills and abilities.

One way to show your trust is to allow them to participate in decision-making and doing so might relieve you of some of the research required to change SOPs, purchase new equipment or upgrade technology.

No one knows what tools are needed to get the job done better than the people that use those tools. Assign individuals or form committees from the ranks to do the research and make recommendations. You'll be surprised at how resourceful your troops can be.

A word of caution: if you give them the opportunity to do the work and make recommendations, you can't over rule them without just cause. Even then, you'll have to explain why you're doing so. Nothing kills the spirit more than being told all your hard work was a waste of time and not appreciated.

Give Them Your Attention

You will be amazed at how much you can learn if you will only pay attention to your people. Many years ago at a fire conference in Philadelphia, then Fire Commissioner William C. Richardson was a featured speaker. He apologized for being late, saying he had been having morning coffee at one of his firehouses. He told us he did that regularly, and it helped him understand what the troops were doing and thinking.

You can't properly run an organization from behind a desk. If you show respect for your people, they'll appreciate it and open up to you. The concept is commonly referred to as management (or leadership) by walking around.

Give Them the Tools to Do the Job

If you expect your people to perform vehicle extrications, get them the best tools you can afford. When operating at emergencies, communication is critical to the safety of your people; get them the best radios you can buy. If you operate in steep terrain, buy apparatus with enough horsepower to climb the hills as if they're flat. When stuff breaks down, get it fixed ASAP!

You get the idea. You'll frustrate your people and hinder operations if you don't provide and maintain the best tools available. Make sure they have what they need.

Give Them Challenges and the Opportunity to Succeed

Firefighters are adventurers; they get bored easily. If you challenge them to go beyond what they think they're capable of and support them, they'll accomplish great things and feel better about themselves. Whether they're learning a new computer program, starting up a new service or researching a better way to do the job, challenge them and watch them excel.

Give Them Recognition for Their Contributions

This is another morale booster; we all love to be recognized for what we do. I used to give my members little "at-a-boy/girl" cards whenever I became aware of someone doing something good; these days, you could send an email. Five of these kudos got them a letter of recognition in their personnel file.

You can recognize new hires and members at city council meetings, as well as promotions. Issue press releases when great things are accomplished. Volunteer firefighters should be recognized at company meetings and banquets.

Give Them Discipline When Needed

Discipline is the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

The first, primary part of that definition isn't punishment but training. Most often, discipline involves giving direction; when more is needed, use progressive discipline—a multistep process. Depending upon which organization you look at, there are anywhere from four to nine steps.

I always hated to discipline my people, but done properly, it can be a good thing. When I retired, the people I had disciplined over the years gave me some of the most rewarding compliments.

Give Them Consistency

Whether giving out discipline or rewards, assignments or new gear, you have to be consistent. You may hesitate to recognize the one who consistently excels or not recognize the one who continually gives you heartburn, but you have to treat them all as you would like to be treated.

Give Them Your Support in Every Way

The primary job of fire officers is to support their people. If you do that, you will be a true leader and they'll follow you without hesitation.

If you want to be a leader, you have to be a giver. Get out from behind your desk and support your people!

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