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Fire & Life Safety: "Leadership Manager" and Other Abuses of English

Every year, our friends at Lake Superior State University publish an annual list of banished words, those overused words and phrases they'd like removed from our language. With the help of some colleagues (namely, you), I hope to produce a list of similar terms related to the fire service. Terms like routine fire, basement-savers or riding dirty.

Just ban them. They're a disservice to our profession.

Equally important is semantics; leaders are for people, managers are for stuff. They're not interchangeable, and the former is far more important than the latter. It's also far more challenging and time-consuming.

As a people business, we need individuals within our organizations to be competent leaders at various levels. Within the volumes of information and instruction available on leadership development, we would find an off-the-shelf solution, process or system to develop leadership, as if it's something you find at the store, get it in your size and color and just buy.

Like buying an accountability system and training on how to use the system, the results will be directly proportional to people's ability to track and organize. If they couldn't do it with paper and pencil, the system isn't going to fix it. They're lacking the underlying knowledge, skills and abilities to make the system work.

Our need isn't a system or process; we need individuals—people—to be competent leaders. There's no product that will solve that. Developing leadership in others is a long-term, hands-on, interpersonal investment in people. No short cuts. We can be better at this by focusing on why—that is, the individuals—and on the what—our need for them to lead well.

There was a time when we looked at the rock stars at every level of the organization as those future leaders. We would promote them to a new position based on their performance in their previous position. Oddly, we were caught off guard when they would flounder at some or many aspects of their new position. Having not been evaluated on their ability, capacity or desire to perform the new or additional skill sets, tasks and functions, we set them and ourselves up for disappointment.

Now, we recruit integrity and capability, train for proficiency and promote for competence to perform the requirements of the next level. Being clear, consistent and supportive on expectations and reinforcing the guideline that individuals aren't eligible for promotion until they've trained someone else on how to do their current jobs have yielded positive results.

Competent leadership of people is markedly more valuable to us than management of stuff. We're striving toward a goal of putting as much time into individual development plans and mentoring activities for each fire officer's direct reports as we put into managing our stuff. I believe the value of that investment will be great!

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