Are you a Breakaway Leader?

CarolinaFireJournal - By Chief Kevin Gordon
By Chief Kevin Gordon
01/10/2013 -

Many times throughout my career and formal education, I have heard of and seen many visual images used to help inspire and lead those atop organizations. Please indulge me during this article as I use the visual image of a bicycle racing peloton to describe what should be the strength and unity of the leadership of any fire service organization.

The term “peloton” is defined as the main group of racers who take turns leading and drafting to support the goals of the team. Occasionally, a “member of the group” may fall back or drop out of the peloton for various reasons, but they should never be allowed to fall back or out for too long. It is important for this “member of the group” to get back into the race, leading and drafting on different issues as soon as possible. This constant change is a benefit to keep the group strong and united.

Another term closely associated with the peloton is what bicycle racers refer to as the “breakaway.” A breakaway (or break) occurs when an individual or small group of riders successfully opens a gap ahead of the peloton. In this visual depiction, one might view a breakaway as an unproductive waste of energy and/or a stunt for self-glorification or personal gain. However, some breakaways could be motivated by the pursuit of excellence. Throughout history team members whose actions could only be described as making a breakaway have made major innovations and contributions to the fire service.

Can you lead? Can you make a difference? Everyone has untapped leadership abilities, but winning leaders do three things — they challenge the status quo, build confidence and train people on what to do and how to do it.

Challenge the status quo — “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” – Mark Twain

It takes courage to break from the norm, challenge the status quo and seek new opportunities. Likewise, it takes courage to cut your losses and make the tough decision, to listen rather than speak, to admit your faults and forgive the faults of others, to not allow failure to dampen your spirit, to stand for those not capable of standing for themselves and to remain true to your core values. You can do none of these things without courage. Courage is the quality of mind and spirit that allows us to face adversity and life’s challenges with confidence. It is fortitude of spirit that is not necessarily about strength. It takes strength to win, but courage to surrender. It takes strength to support the status quo and courage to change it.

Although some firefighters may not realize it, if it was not for the breakaway efforts of Leo Stapleton working with the folks from NASA, self-contained breathing apparatus might still be a work in progress. Commissioner Stapleton broke away from the crowd and recognized the value of respiratory equipment. He rode hard and strong against tremendous headwinds and brutal opposition to make sure that the self-contained breathing apparatus would be accepted by the fire service. Stapleton brought the self-contained breathing apparatus into everyday use, and as a result, countless lives have been saved through the years. No one will ever be able to measure how many lives were saved and debilitating diseases were avoided by the early adoption of the self-contained breathing apparatus, but firefighters everywhere should know that it was the efforts of Leo Stapleton that made the difference while making a breakaway.

Build confidence —“Confidence comes from hours and days and weeks and years of constant work and dedication,” — Roger Staubach, Hall Fame NFL Quarterback

During the Vietnam War, Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, which was once George Armstrong Custer’s regiment. General Moore always stressed the necessity of instilling the will to win in one’s command. He was adamant that commanders should not place any second place trophies in the unit. “Focus on winning, being first,” and the soldiers will respond more rapidly. His views were reminiscent of former Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi, who demanded a commitment to excellence and victory above all else. To Lombardi the greatest joy in life was to give one’s last ounce of strength and to lie exhausted in victory. General Moore always outlined four basic principles of leadership while under pressure:

  • “Three strikes and you are not out!” A leader must display a self-confident and a positive attitude. You must exhibit determination to prevail no matter what the odds or how desperate the situation. You must have and display the “will to win” by actions, words, tone of voice (on the radio as well as in the board room), by appearance, by demeanor, by countenance and the look in your eyes. A leader must never give any hint or evidence of uncertainty about a positive outcome, even in the most desperate of situations.
  • “There’s always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor —and after that, one more thing — and after that, one more thing!” Ask yourself the following questions: “What am I doing that I should not be doing?” and “what am I not doing that I should be doing to influence the situation in my favor?”
  • “When there’s nothing wrong, there is nothing wrong except there’s nothing wrong!” This is exactly when a leader must be most alert.
  • “Trust your instincts!” One’s instincts amount to an instant estimate of the situation. An officer’s instincts are the product of education, training, reading, personality and experience. Leaders must act fast and impart confidence. You can’t second-guess your decisions. You must face up to the facts, deal with them and move on to the next situation.

As General Moore promised his men, he was first off the lead helicopter and the last soldier to leave the battlefield three days later in the la Drang Valley. The principles described above were clearly those General Moore followed throughout his career — both military and private. He fought alongside his men, put their needs before his own and demanded honor for his heroes and respect for his dead. His actions represent the very finest in American combat leadership. Fire officers can definitely make a difference if they will learn from the leadership traits, characteristics, and principles of General Moore.

Train people on what to do and how to do it – “Let no man’s ghost return to say his training let him down,” — Fire Service adage

Training and education is necessary at all levels of an organization if the job is to be safely and effectively completed. The level of training or education required to perform a given set of tasks varies with the task and the personnel assigned to them. The level may also vary with the organization’s depth of commitment to excellence, high quality of service or products and safety. The health and well-being of emergency responders, which is important in all aspects of organizational operation, is generally regarded as the single most important reason to train.

Fire service managers must increase their professional standing in order to remain credible to community policy makers and the public. This professionalism should be grounded firmly in an integrated system of nationally recognized and/or certified education and training. Professional development is the planned, progressive life-long process of education, training, self-development and experience. Fire service managers should consider the advice of retired U.S. Army General Colin Powell: “There are no secrets to success. Don’t waste your time looking for them. Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty to those for whom you work and persistence.”

The need for professional development, especially for fire service officers, is not a new issue. As early as 1966, this issue drew international attention as a key component of the report from the first Wingspread Conference, entitled “Statements of National Significance to the Fire Problem in the United States.” In the foreword to the initial report, the committee notes that all too often, “success is largely dependent upon the caliber of leadership of the individual fire chiefs, and there is no assurance that this progress will continue...when there is a change of leadership.”

Former FDNY Captain and former editor of Fire Engineering Tom Brennan was a true legend in the fire service and made many breakaways. In his article “Random Thoughts” he gave examples of these breakaways which often challenged the status quo. Brennan was a passionate, straightforward, and humorous individual, and his legacy as a firefighter, instructor, and fire service leader will never be surpassed. In all of his articles and teachings, it is easy to see that he believed in safe, “commonsense,” and “simple” firefighting.

To new recruits, he issued the following words of caution: “You will arrive at many plateaus in your career from here on. And this moment is most assuredly one of them. You have successfully completed training, and you think it’s over! Nothing could be further from the truth. No firefighter is worth anything to himself, his department, or his community the moment he believes that he knows enough or knows it all. Training is and must be an ongoing concept-from day one until day last. That idea should be accepted by the probationary firefighter and nodded to in agreement by the chief.”

In 1999, Tom Brennan was awarded the Fire Engineering Life Time Achievement Award (now the Tom Brennan Life Time Achievement Award), and summed up the job with the following statement: “The whole secret to the business, I think, is to know your job as intimately and as interconnected as you can.”

The success of any organization, particularly fire service organizations, depends on its leaders and the abilities to lead, supervise, inspire and train. We should teach and remind our personnel daily to respect the job and each other. Explain why fire engines are red. The color red in the fire service represents courage and valor. Describe the various tools and their history. For example, teach them that pike poles originated in Jamestown and they were used as whaling hooks to remove shacks on each side of the one to be consumed by fire to eliminate the fire from spreading to other structures.

In closing, teach your firefighters the history of the Maltese Cross and why it is so widely recognized by firefighters and our citizens. This symbol is widely recognized and instills immeasurable trust in firefighters from our citizens. This is so much the case that when you show up wearing a firefighter’s badge, a mother will willingly hand you her baby. The Maltese Cross is a firefighter’s badge of honor signifying that he works in courage – a ladder rung away from death.

Chief Kevin S. Gordon is currently enrolled in the Master of Fire Protection and Administration at UNC Charlotte. He is the Chief of Training for the Charlotte Fire Department and Fire Chief for the Waco Community Volunteer Fire Department. Chief Gordon is a member of the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Commission (NCFRC) and serves on the NCFRC’s Certification Board as Chairman of the Board.
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