Building The Team

CarolinaFireJournal - By Steven Marks
By Steven Marks
10/26/2015 -

Whether we have been on the job for a day or for a lifetime, understanding the importance of teamwork is paramount. The job may be a paid career position or it may be volunteer service. Regardless of any financial compensation or service provided, we function best as a team. Perhaps we operate as a team of two on an EMS unit. Or maybe we serve as a four-person team on an Engine or Ladder Company; or as a 20 person Hazardous Materials Response Team. And we are always part of a larger organization, functioning as a team no matter what the assignment may be. The team approach has always been a foundational element within the emergency services community.


Teamwork doesn’t always come easy. Yet we really have no other options but to function together as a team in every aspect of our service to the community if we are to be safe and effective. Anyone who has been in emergency services for even a short time has some war stories of teamwork gone wrong. Sometimes the issues are with leadership. Sometimes problems arise when members attempt to derail the team. Teamwork is a balance of personalities and skill sets, orchestrated by a leader who has the appropriate technical and people skills to develop and maintain a group of individuals focused on a common mission.

If we look at the core components of a team, we can categorize members into two basic groups. Within a team there are leaders and there are followers. We often assume that leaders are those who are designated as supervisors or officers within the organization. A crew chief or company officer has often attained a high level of technical skills, experience, and/or time on the job, and is therefore promoted, appointed or elected into a leadership position. There are circumstances, however, were leaders are placed into the position only because they are popular, or because no one else is willing to accept the responsibility to serve as a leader.

There are also occasions where team leaders are not the formal leaders we recognize as the crew chief or company officer. In some instances, a member who has more leadership knowledge, skills and abilities than the appointed or elected leader leads the team. Such informal leadership is not necessarily counterproductive to the overall team effort as long as conflict between the designated formal leader and the informal leader does not develop. However, long term sustainability of this teamwork model is generally not effective as conflict or team detachment typically develops over time.

Equipping the formal leader for success is the ideal approach for effective team building. Unfortunately, many organizations have not yet allocated the necessary financial or logistical resources for leadership development. Often senior leadership will mentor the rising leaders within the organization. While this can be an effective method for personnel development, it is simply not enough. We spend hundreds of hours training our personnel on technical skills and significantly less time on preparing our personnel to serve as leaders. Fortunately, more options are available now than ever before to train our people on leadership principles and effective organizational management.

Whether we are leaders or followers, to be successful in emergency services, we should always strive to further our education. Learn something new every day. There is more than enough material to keep us engaged. Read an article, study some notes, review a video. There are trade publications available as free subscriptions and most everyone has some type of access to the Internet. Make every day a learning day. For those of us who choose to be leaders or wish to continue serving as leaders, we can never stop learning. We must set the example for our followers and we must work to prepare our followers to one day be leaders within the organization.

We should not depend on our organizations to provide for all of our learning and experience. As team members and leaders, it is incumbent on us to take some responsibility for our own success. Years ago I began reading “The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player” by John C. Maxwell. I needed to be a team player before I could become a team leader, so this presentation of team building and leadership was perfect for me. What is on your bookshelf? There are many team building and leadership mentors and authors to choose from. Find one or more to whom you can relate and develop your own library.

Learning about leadership and learning how to lead is the first step in building an effective team. Taking what we have learned about leadership and applying it in the field is the next step. Consider the first time you performed CPR or advanced a hose line into a burning building or dressed out in Level B PPE. Would you consider yourself highly proficient right out of the proverbial chute?  How many times did it take before you were comfortable performing a task? Most of us need plenty of practice before we become consistently proficient.  Such is the case with our team building and leadership skills as well.

We all make mistakes. Hopefully we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. Sometimes we are aware of our mistakes, but at other times, we may be blissfully ignorant. As followers, our leader will normally correct our mistakes. But who corrects the leader? Has the leader of our team created an environment where the followers are comfortable addressing team and/or leader mistakes? This environment of respect and trust for one and another is crucial for the overall success of the team, and must be completely embraced by the leader.

As such, an effective team will always have an effective leader. Education and experience are key factors in the development of effective leadership. But exactly what constitutes an effective leader can be difficult to measure. In one instance, a leader can be familiar with the technical skills necessary to perform well, yet lack the needed people skills to manage the team. And conversely, a leader can be wonderfully warm and fuzzy, loved by all but unable to get the job done. The effective leader must have that illusive balance between technical capability and influential charisma.

Effective leaders mature into their positions. The adage of being a born leader is nonsense. We are all gifted with various team and leadership skills. How we choose to develop and then nurture those gifts determine the effectiveness of our ability to function within and potentially lead a team. If we take time to assess our gifts and then play to our strengths, those gifts will make up for any shortcomings we may have. But it takes a constant effort to grow and mature. It’s not simply an achievement but rather a continual journey towards success.

“Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.” This quote from legendary Coach John Wooden speaks to our role in achieving success as leaders in the emergency services. We often find ourselves in the role of the coach. Consider that coaches were once players so they understand the game. As they developed their gifts, they chose to develop and lead their team. We all function in teams in our various disciplines much like a player on a sports team. As we mature and develop our leadership skills, there are times when we take on the role of the coach.

In reviewing Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, we find the attributes of his 12 Lessons in Leadership are very applicable in our role as team builders and organizational leaders. His Pyramid of Success is available on-line at no cost and can be printed off to serve as a constant reminder of effective team building and leadership skills. Whether we serve as followers or leaders within an organization, these foundational lessons will serve us well in developing and subsequently leading our team to success. And a successful team with an effective leader at the helm is what we all strive for.

Building and leading the team is a never-ending process. And it is typically never an easy process either. But the outcome will be personally rewarding. Organizationally, the effectively led team will promote safer and more effective emergency operations as well as provide for a more cohesive day-to-day work environment. Team building and organizational leadership requires commitment and dedication on the part of the leader and the followers. If we make it part of everyone’s responsibility, we can lighten the load while becoming more efficient. We all become part of the solution when we work together as a team.

Steve Marks currently serves as the assistant chief for the Cove Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Vilas, North Carolina. He has been involved in various capacities within the emergency services community since 1982, working in both operations and administration. As a certified instructor, he teaches leadership, disaster management and multi-agency coordination. Marks earned a Graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Masters of Science in Emergency Management from Jacksonville State University.
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