Leadership suicide: failure to focus on the future

CarolinaFireJournal - By Douglas Cline
By Douglas Cline
08/04/2013 -

I hear this phrase from fire officers across the world, “You just can’t find good people today. They just aren’t like we were at their age.” So what does this mean? Some may say that the future isn’t too bright looking at the current generation. Others may say what is wrong with us? I say if you asked the officers who trained us, they would say they said the same thing about us, “You just can’t find good people today. They just aren’t like we were at their age.”


So is the fire service really that bad now? I say no, we aren’t that bad but we could always improve what we are doing and I believe succession training is the key utilizing the predicated knowledge, skills and abilities of our diverse younger generation. Teach others from our mistakes and victories capitalizing on what they bring to the table, not what we want them to bring.

A successful leader must have a well defined vision of where the organization is going. Often times you can measure vision as it is in direct proportion to accomplishment. As we begin to develop the future generation of fire service personnel we must navigate that road with vision. Vision is like a navigational system guiding you precisely from point “A” to point “B.” With vision we must be focused on the mission as well. Like vision, the mission gives a successful leader a sense of direction and purpose. This same mission and vision gives personnel and future leaders the same sense of direction and purpose.

As we navigate our pathways of development we must learn not to utilize a “shoot from the hip” philosophy. We must learn to set SMART Goals. SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time dimensional. As we set goals we must set specific or well defined goals that can be measured. Measured is usually specific to statistics or set time tables. The realism is often the area leaders fail in. They either set the goals out of reach and they fail or set them too easy and never excel. Setting realistic goals means to set them where you have to stretch yourself but not fail in doing so. Without a time frame, the goal becomes merely a wish or dream.

As officers and leaders we are faced with developing the future leaders of the fire service. I often look around and see officers not setting a very good example in all aspects of the fire service. If you picture an individual you consider to be a great leader, like Dennis Compton, I can promise you will find one trait that they will exhibit — that is they will show integrity in all that they do! To have integrity you must have strong values like innovation, honesty, a positive attitude, team work, mercy and much more. But most of all you must take responsibility for your actions. Far too often I see officer’s sale their subordinates down the road for their mistake. Here is a responsibility check:

  • Do you get defensive when you are criticized?
  • Do you learn from your mistakes and start fresh?
  • Are you comfortable in admitting when you made a mistake?
  • Do you try to hide your weaknesses?
  • How do you feel when you make a mistake?
  • How does it feel when others know you made a mistake?

Depending on how you answer these questions will determine if you are willing to take responsibility for your own and others actions.

So we are at a point in this article where I either take you down the road for a bashing or I take the high road. Well if I want to commit leadership suicide I begin blaming you. But I want to take the high road here. So what do we do to correct the old saying, “You just can’t find good people today.” They just aren’t like we were at their age.”

You begin by promoting education and innovation. The more training and education the next generation can receive the better they will be. The problem is some of us old guys are just not the most willing to give up that information. We are afraid that we may not be the leader anymore. I got news for everyone out there, sooner or later you won’t be the leader, and so does it really matter? Besides if we utilize the knowledge the younger generation has and add it to our already gained knowledge, I don’t think we will get over run before our time.

Allow For Mistakes

This is a hard one. But look at it this way, when they make mistakes they have learned one more way that doesn’t work, they didn’t fail. If you allow for mistakes I will promise you they will soar on wings like eagles.

Be Adaptable and Proactive

Learn to embrace change. A lot of the problems we identify with the younger generation is not them — it is us! Ouch that hurt didn’t it. That’s correct I just bashed us. We are so set in our ways that many of us can’t change or adapt to something new. I had a firefighter tell me that he had been on the job for 25 years and a few little changes had him so confused that he did know what to do. This is a prime example of the inability to be adaptable to change. These changes put this firefighter outside of their comfort zone and he was not willing to adapt. Change is inevitable. You better get ready because it is going to happen whether you are ready or not.

Listen to Understand

As leaders we commit suicide by not actively listening. Wise people will listen and learn more. By not listening we are not truly communicating. So as a leader how many times have we not truly listened to our youth and we just blame it on their ethics. Maybe if we would slow up and open our ears we may hear what the true message is, help me and teach me in a way I can understand. Ouch, hit another nerve.

That’s correct, we have to adapt to their way of learning and educate them so we can create a bright future. The way we learned is not how they learn today. We didn’t wear breathing apparatus in the 70s either, but does that make it correct today?

Recognition and Rewards

Link recognition and rewards to their performance. By making these visible we enhance their egos and everyone has an ego to some degree. I was taught that you need to clearly define the goals and expectations, make it sincere, meaningful and unique and except nothing less. As these goals and expectations are met recognize them and give a reward. Think about it — what motivates you?

Winning Thinking

Finally promote win-win thinking. This will set the stage for many things to come.

So how many toes are hurting right now? Well I know one person who just got their toes stepped on — ME! It is far too easy to fall into the old mind set and forget about being proactive, setting SMART goals or even giving the true effort to develop our future. As an officer and a leader we are charged with many duties, the failure to focus on our future is a critical failure that has catastrophic consequences. We must step up to the plate. As the leaders of the fire service, we must have to have “The Guts to Do More.” We must set a precedent for the future. We begin that precedent with the instructor in the mirror. We have an obligation of dedication and commitment to educating the future of the fire service.

Douglas Cline is a 32-year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Rescue. Cline, a former Fire Chief, is a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor, National Fire Academy Instructor and an EMT-Paramedic instructor for the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services. Chief Cline is President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and the Immediate Past President of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC).
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