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Company Officer Leadership: Finding Leaders

Leadership. It’s easy right? You read a few books by people others believe are good (or great) leaders, attend a few seminars and there you have it. Now you’re a leader, too!

If only it was that simple.

You may be in a leadership position, like company or chief officer, but is that all it takes to be a leader? Having been in the fire service for some 28 years now, I can honestly say that I’ve worked for and observed a lot of bosses, but only a handful of them were true leaders.

A great number of leaders I’ve met aren’t even in a traditionally accepted role of leadership; at least, they didn’t have rank. Many were and are the newest firefighters among us. They lead by setting an example for others and showing their work ethic every day, just so they fit in around the station.

You see, I have a different view of how leaders in the fire service are made, or at least my own theory.

I think people who join the fire service are leaders the day they apply. They strive to be the ones others can count on during their worst times. They want to be someone who can lead others out of the darkness or the fire to safety, once they have a little training under their belt.

Show me a new firefighter who doesn’t want to be the first on scene no matter what the call. The want to be there first because they want to help, and lead others, even if that doesn’t look like the traditional description of  leadership we have all been taught.

Then something strange happens. Some of that drive seems to disappear from some people. It happens for a number of reasons, but generally, it’s because the people in the organization who fill the traditional leadership positions (i.e., the bosses) fail to recognize their efforts and they just kind of give up.

I can’t really say I blame them. It’s difficult to bust your butt every day and get the same response from the boss as someone who’s a slacker.

Then promotional testing comes up. It seems to me that two types of people generally sign up for testing: those who truly want to lead and those who simply think they couldn’t possibly do any worse than the people they work for now so they may as well become one of the bosses.

Unfortunately, all too often the person chosen is the latter of the two. All too often, promotional testing focuses strictly on tactical ability and knowledge of SOPs/SOGs and other areas that, while important, do little to judge the leadership ability and passion an applicant has for being a leader.

We should place more emphasis on an applicant desire to lead and mentor others. I can train just about anyone to understand my department’s SOPs/SOGs and firefighting tactics. I can’t, however, give them the drive, desire or heart to lead others in a manner that makes those others want to follow.

So how do we develop those leaders?

One way is through mentorship. Promising members of our departments should be mentored not only by their chains of command, but also by others who care about fire service leadership in general.

That’s one of the many reasons the IAFC Company Officer Leadership Committee started the Company Officer Mentor Program. With a growing cadre of more than 20 chief and company officer mentors to choose from, IAFC members at any level have available to them a tool to help them achieve their leadership and career goals. I would invite anyone interested to look into the mentorship program and see what it has to offer.

P.S. We’re always looking to add to the list of mentors as well.

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