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Don’t Train Your Firefighters to Be Leaders

In April, I attended the annual Congressional Fire Service Institute dinner in Washington. At the event were over 2,500 fire-service leaders, congressional representatives and senators, all sharing information about the fire service. Conversations focused on the needs of the communities we serve, our own fire departments and the reauthorization of the AFG and SAFER grants.

Information sharing took place in the hallways, at Capitol Hill and during dinner. The highlight of the event took place when we heard about the accomplishments of the award winners and how their commitment made a difference in the fire service.

I share this story with you because there’s not a fire-service training course that teaches what I and others experienced during this event. The idea, “Don’t train your firefighters to be leaders,” is not about stopping the learning process; it’s about understanding that training is about teaching someone to do a task, such as donning SCBA or pulling hose.

Teaching is about showing how actions leads to consequences and how those consequences can impact budgets, morale and communities.

What’s the role of mentoring?

During my 38 years in the fire service, I was fortunate to have leaders in my department mentor me and teach me how to be a leader.

They taught me that to know how leadership theories and applications work, I had to attend courses and training modules. They also taught me that knowing how and when to implement those theories does not come from the course, but from others showing me the way.

Mentoring in the work place has value, and mentoring of any kind is beneficial to both the individual and the organization. The value of mentoring is derived from the three benefits the employee and the employer experience:

  • Recognizing that mentoring is about making the organization and the individual successful.
  • Believing that mentoring is about building the individual so they can make the organization better and stronger.
  • Believing that mentoring is not about one person being the teacher and one the student, but that both are students and both are teachers to each other.

Moreover, it’s about the relationship whereby the mentor provides the individual with psychological support and career development.

Let’s take psychosocial support; during this process, mentors introduce mentees to other leaders and allows them to attend meetings, conferences and events. The reason for introducing mentees to different opportunities is to teach them the ways of the organization and pass on experiences that helps them understand how decisions evolve into line item budgets, policies and SOP/OPGs.

In other words, it’s providing the mentees with exposures to the processes of the department, government and communities.

Career development, on the other hand, is about providing individuals with small, controlled projects so the organization can learn how efficiently and effectively they can decipher problems, analyze them and provide solutions. Updating a policy would be an example of such a project.

Where does learning come from?

There’s an assumption in the fire service that learning comes from gaining experience: the more experience you have, the better you are as a firefighter or as a chief officer.

To a degree, this assumption has value and truth, but let’s not forget what research states. People learn by one of three methods:

  • Trial and error
  • Observation of others
  • Education

These three methods give rise to facilitation, guidance and input. The rationale behind this is based on how individuals process information.

In mentoring people, or teaching them to be leaders, mentors function as learning facilitators, and both mentors and mentees provide for the development of critical reflection and self-directed learning. In essence, mentees begin to reflect on what they’ve learned, forcing the individual to update information they lack.

As mentors provide information, both mentors and mentees learn each other’s limitations and they agree on the level and depth of information that can be taught.

Finally, as mentors facilitate learning, they develop a level of trust with mentees and so expand or restrict the information they have available about the department or processes.

What information is needed to be successful in creating fire-service leaders?

Career mobility depends on two factors, education and training.

With education, it is about the level of education the person possesses that provides mobility.

With training, it’s about the type of training the organization offers the individual that provides mobility and this proportional combination is the deciding factors in career mobility.

Programs on leadership are offered all the time. For the most part, these programs are offered as requirements to advance to the next level in the organizational chart. They have value and are needed for growth and advancement.

Yet, research on career mobility also contends that when people take courses without knowing if they’re relevant to the position, it may make them appear to be overeducated.

On the other hand, when they fail to take the needed courses they then become undereducated, concluding that taking courses for the sake of lifting the resume are not necessarily a good idea, especially if the organization does not find the course relevant.

As a result, when a person is considered overeducated or undereducated for a position, it forces the organization to offer the position to the person with the proper level of education and training.

How do you help them reach their goals?

Finally, the concept “Don’t Train Your Firefighters to Be Leaders” is about having mentors teach the individual how to reach their goals.

We have learned from research and experience that the rate of ascension for individuals is based on mentors helping them create career maps they can follow.

This includes teaching them what level of education and training they must attain, and teaching the individual the requirements of the position.

In essence, what the mentors are doing is aligning the individuals with the organization’s goals, providing the mentees with projects (career development) to help meet those goals and introducing them to senior members of the department (psychosocial development) so these senior members can notice them.

In summary, Don’t Train Your Firefighters to Be Leaders doesn’t suggest we should stop offering leadership courses. Rather, we need to think about how we as officers can build relationships and invest time and energy in making our firefighters successful, recognizing that their success will make the organization better.

It’s about creating identifications where firefighters can see footprints mentors have left behind and how those footprints can create a path for success.

Finally, mentoring is about creating competence and abilities in an individual so that when change occurs in the department, there can be a lateral transfer of power and information and not an initiation for someone starting from the bottom and work the way up to the top. 

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