In the wake of the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, it is natural to feel nostalgic and proud about our chosen profession.
At this year’s Fire-Rescue International Conference in Charlotte, our association’s members were fortunate to hear the firsthand accounts of key leaders from both the New York City and Pentagon incident scenes. As the general session concluded, I took inventory of the faces and emotions exhibited by the speakers on that stage. What impressed me the most wasn’t their story or the heroism they showed that day.
Rather, I readily realized how resilient they were and how that has allowed them to continue public service two decades later. Resiliency was essential to those speakers on that chaotic day and the years that followed to allow them to regain composure, direction and heal from the emotional and physical wounds of the disaster.
While I can only imagine the burden still carried by those individuals, their individual ability to accept the events of that day and move forward with their life and career is inspiring. I think their resiliency carries both a lesson and inspiration for all of the leaders in the fire service as we manage the day-to-day issues and challenges that can distract and detour our paths if we’re not careful.
Leadership is often a lonely and tough path to navigate. I often comment to other chief officers that the very best fire chiefs I know (the ones I try to emulate) all figuratively “walk with a limp.”
What I mean is that as educated and prepared as all people want to be to lead in this ever-changing and complex profession, we will have lessons that can only be taught through experience.
Experience, of course, is a tough instructor that doesn’t grade on a curve. In more cases, than I’d like to admit, I’ve seen good fire chiefs cut down or sidelined because they didn’t possess enough resiliency to continue to work in this profession after dealing with a particularly tough situation.
It is fantasy to think that controversy, criticism, and bad decisions won’t occur over the course of a career. The environment we lead in is seemingly hypersensitive, ripe with viral communication technologies, and quick to judge. This means that we must prepare ourselves and those following in our footsteps to encounter these rough days and deal with them in healthy, productive ways.
Admittedly, maintaining positivity and focusing on the good dividends that come with handling controversy and criticism is easy to talk about but tough to do in the moment.
Several years ago, a former police chief that I worked with taught me a few things about being resilient. Leading in the modern fire service is tough, but I believe that being a leader in law enforcement seems much more difficult.
He would regularly remind me that in order to lead and make our organizations and communities better, we must first remain employed. As simple and cynical as the advice was, I think it speaks directly to our need to be resilient in our jobs. We will undoubtedly encounter circumstances that seem unbearable. Still, our ability to accept the habitat of complex leadership, stay positive during trials, and focus on getting through the particular issue of the day is what resiliency and leadership are all about. As the saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.
Tom Jenkins serves as the fire chief for the City of Rogers, Arkansas, a position he has held since 2009. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Follow him on Twitter @tomcjenkins