Shaping the Future " Creating Leaders in Our Youth"

As we quickly approach a time when much of the current fire service leadership will be retiring, we are destined to face the loss of great leadership in the fire service. The challenging times we are currently faced with amidst a worldwide pandemic, budget cuts, rising costs of supplies and navigating uncharted territory, could prove to be a tragedy for our profession or we can make it a positive benchmark.  A lot is going to depend upon several generations working closely together. That is the baby boomers and the generation Y and X coming together and realizing that the future belongs to those who prepare. We have to work collaboratively and synergistically together to meet the challenges, changing demands and the required leadership to navigate these new territories.

For years I saw the slogan “The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare for It” posted on the training classroom wall of the Henderson Fire Department.  I have heard both retired Chief Danny Wilkerson and Chief Steve Cordell several times over use these words to many of the young firefighters and officers that walked into that setting. As an instructor and a previous part-time member of that department, it always struck me as an encouragement to continue to push to make a difference. The entire slogan was driven home with just one email blast from a great fire service colleague…Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder with one of the secret list publications. Below is a small component of what was contained in that blast I would like to share.

“Sometimes....not everyone goes home.

In the discussions, one of the young firefighters who was involved with the rescue told me that he now HATED the term "everyone goes home" because, obviously, Kevin did not. It made me start to think. Was the slogan a problem?

It has nothing to do with a slogan. The slogan "Everyone Goes Home" is an attitude...an attitude within a fire department that we'll do all we can to try and bring all of our firefighters home. It was and still is an attitude. Some of the younger firefighters understandably, just didn't get it at the time. So, what does that really mean?

  • If we don't drive like idiots, we'll probably make it home.
  • If we follow standards such as NFPA 1001, 1002, 1500, 1403, firefighter trainees will probably make it home.
  • If we require seat belts to be worn and we have an accident, we'll probably make it home.
  • If we are 100 lbs. overweight, and we change our lifestyle to eat healthier and exercise, we'll probably make it home.
  • If it is obvious the building most likely will collapse and we stay out of the way, we'll probably make it home.
  • If we have the right amount of trained staffing and knowledgeable officers at a fire, we'll probably make it home.
  • .....and it means that if we drill and train on the identified areas of deficiency, we'll probably make it home.”

The above excerpt really drives me to focus on the topic of "Shaping the Future".  We as leaders today will face the end of our careers soon. Many of my mentors are at that point currently. However, the leadership lessons they still share are countless and we can still pay it forward. I am thankful that these individuals took an interest in us, the leaders of the current and future fire service, when we were youthful firefighters. As I look over the fire service today, and especially after spending much time in social distancing recently, I can see that our fields are full of ripe future leaders just waiting to be harvested. Consequently, we often scorn at the work ethic or analytical decision making that these individuals use as they make critical decisions.  I can see clearly where my first mentors Jerry Green and Rick Rice (both officers with the department I began my fire service career with in Mullens, West Virginia) could see a ripening prospect as they made extra efforts to shape the future through shaping me for the future.  As I see it, the old practice of using our youth to accomplish our work is the base preparation needed to make them tomorrow’s leaders. 

So where do we start this development process?  We start by not accepting anything less than the best in everything we do.  We further need to teach and share with the youth in our organizations our experiences, even the ones which were not victories.  Albert Einstein never viewed any unsuccessful attempt as a failure, rather a win in knowing one more way that didn’t work. These experiences will be carried as lifelong lessons learned. I often find myself referring to previous situations, experiences, problems, successes and lessons learned as it relates to similar issues we are facing, as I mentor younger fire service members. To make it as simple as I know how, my father used to call this the “School of Hard Knocks Education of Life”. But today many fire officers never take time to share, mentor, coach and teach our future leaders. 

 As we begin this process, we must create an appealing environment. I always remember Chief Dan Jones (retired) of the Chapel Hill Fire Department in North Carolina being positive even when the chips didn’t fall the way he wanted them.  He could make any black cloud have a silver lining.  As I travel and have the opportunity to spend time with department leaders from across the county, it never fails that someone is always negative. They can’t make a win-win situation out of anything. These folks are destined to make the same type of leaders. 

We must present or provide helpful teaching and coaching; making the learning dynamics one of which we constantly learn by utilizing the three learning domains. Fire service leaders can really impact teaching with the effective mode of learning as students or future leaders learn basic concepts that they can ultimately apply to situations and affect outcomes. This is true learning and understanding. This concept is usually accomplished by current leaders sharing knowledge, experiences and allowing for mistakes. 

Knowledge is Power… Share It!!!  This statement is often used by many, including myself. So, what does it truly mean? It means that you will freely give of your knowledge and wisdom to others, withholding nothing.  It never fails, I will see a leader of an organization trying to hold information and knowledge from the next generation because they are afraid that this up and coming group will end up smarter than they are and as a leader, they will lose control.  Well take a reality check…for as long as I can remember each generation has obviously gotten smarter, more technologically advanced and has superseded the generation before them.  So, what makes that so bad?  I thought we were trying to make things better?  I am sure this will step on a few toes, but the truth sometimes hurts. The folks doing the withholding are the ones who are on the losing end.  If you and someone else shares knowledge, both parties win!  (Ouch!!)  That’s right I took a jab at a few of you out there who like to hoard knowledge. But, if we want to progress, and if we are going to make progress, we have to share our knowledge (both good and bad) with our next generation of leaders as the future depends on it.

In sharing this knowledge, we have to be dynamic instructors creating engaging learning environments. A leader / instructor profile needs to encompass several areas to be able to meet these challenges and changes that we will face. First, we must find new motivation.  Motivation that exceeds all previous levels.  We must bring newfound excitement to the leadership programs we deliver. The excitement level that comes with the leader carries over and motivates the student to the same level or higher. We as leaders must enter the education setting that instruction is to take place with a true teaching attitude, not one of just doing the minimum to get by. Leaders need to develop the right attitude about instructing. Attitude starts with evaluating whether you are meeting the mission of the fire service; truly developing future leaders and your department through the training that you are performing. Second, you must evaluate whether your training is realistic. That is, realistic for your situation, operations, equipment, etc.  Higher levels of training are great and have their place, but are we meeting all the basic needs of the future leaders we serve. If not, we need to re-evaluate what and how we are teaching / mentoring.

As we begin developing these new leaders, we must assure that we are creating level appropriate environments for their mentoring. Nothing can frustrate an individual more than to be placed above their capabilities, better known as the Peter Principal. We need to evaluate each person and be brutally honest with them. 

So where does Chief Goldfeder’s piece play in? I think it can be best said that for us to reach the attitude of “Everyone Goes Home” we must do the right things every time and leadership plays the most significant role in this. As future leaders begin to develop, they need to address issues, learn from our mistakes, make educated decisions, make calculated risk / benefit analysis assessments and be brutally honest when necessary.

For example, in an email conversation with a member from VFIS on seat belt laws regarding whether or not firefighters are exempt from the laws, I was trying to drive home the point that it shouldn’t matter if we are exempt or not. We know that some things just don’t add up to being good risk benefit analysis decisions as we had sound statistical data to show where seat belts in emergency apparatus saves lives. Around this time period we had witnessed several firefighter injuries and deaths from ejections from apparatus vehicle crashes. If they were properly seat belted, they probably would not have been ejected and may have survived. 

I agree with Chief Goldfeder, it has nothing to do with a slogan. The slogan "Everyone Goes Home" is an attitude...an attitude within a fire department and a leader that we will do all we can to try and bring all of our firefighters’ home. It should be everyone’s attitude. Some of the leaders and firefighters just didn't get it at the time. Therefore there were many initiatives like the seat belt pledge, firefighter fitness and others concepts that took off and it means that if we drill and train on the areas we need to do regularly, such as the ability to quickly get water on the fire, safe driving, cancer prevention, health and wellness programs and mental wellness just to mention a few, we will probably make it home.

I challenge the tenured and youth alike, if you are a current leader of the fire service…stand up, get a backbone, polish your bugles, take a stance and be a true leader.  If you are the aspiring leaders of today, I challenge you to develop yourselves and be the leaders of tomorrow. Chief (Retired) Dennis Compton put it best, “Lead, Follow or Get out of the Way”. Fellow fire service brothers and sisters, tomorrow hinges on what you do today. THE FUTURE BELONGS TO THOSE WHO PREPARE FOR IT!  Be a leader who shapes our future by preparing our next generation today.

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