By Dr. Mark Rivero
Leadership is known to create great discussions among people and public safety is no different. Leadership can be defined in the simplest terms as doing the right thing even when no one is looking. But what does that really mean, and how does that affect the generational differences that can be present for a discussion either at a career or a voluntary department? Leadership is an art that is built from experience as well as learned from the educational process. Not too many years ago one could qualify for a chief position with just their experience in fire and ems. Today, some chief positions are requiring a Master’s degree in public administration. Many people can and will state that everyone has an opinion and everyone is right in their own mind.
Let’s look at the fact that multiple generations can be in the workforce at any given time and how does one attempt to create leadership from the top down and also from the bottom up? One way is to remember that rank does not always mean you are a leader. Genuine leadership is supportive to all levels of the workforce and is not coercive. In this statement, we need to look at the 18-year-old who is just starting their career. Do we demand that they always listen to the fact that it’s always been done like this before or do we show them the way things were and how they are today.
When we think about shaping future leaders, are we looking toward creating a workforce well-equipped with skills and education? Are we being proactive in developing the youth that will replace us as we move up through promotions and retirement, so that they will have what they need to best serve the communities that will be counting on them? How are we doing when it comes to succession planning? Who in your organization is well-prepared to take over responsibilities if something tragic happened to a company officer (up to and including the chief)? Leadership building for the youngest generation of employees should not be a challenge of authority but instead a development effort for this group to gain experience and understanding of the expectations that will be asked of them during the years ahead in their career.
In discussions with some co-workers that I went to the fire academy and graduated with some 29 years ago, I asked what is different today when compared to when we went through fire training. Collectively, it was stated that attention to minor details and discipline were the most discussed topics. In today’s world of firefighting and EMS, where does leadership development come from? Ironically, most of the suggestions were in the education and on-the-job training outside of the academy. While it does not require a college degree to put out a fire, one needs to stay actively engaged in the creation of policies, practice collective bargaining, and effectively deal with the city and county managers. As we mentor our youth in critical thinking and training to do the right thing, are we demonstrating the need for leadership in the above-mentioned areas? The discipline and attention to detail required while donning personal protective equipment is just as important as that required during the use of universal protection equipment at a medical scene. This is really the beginning of teaching leadership skills to the youth of our career field because this is where techniques are known to become potentially lifesaving. This is also a demonstration of who is doing the right thing even when no one is looking. These techniques build confidence and confidence is what develops leaders.
Education in the fire and ems world has become a valuable avenue and many agencies even provide tuition reimbursement to those enrolled in college programs. Leadership courses can lead to a certificate and even to a degree on multiple levels. Leadership development is best demonstrated when an employee goes above and beyond their skill level and performs at a level that is unexpected of them and they in turn continue to be a humble individual. An example would be when the youngest person in your workforce comes to the station or firehouse on their day off to do something for the job while off duty, and a company officer recognizes them for their outstanding effort. This isn’t to say that it can’t happen while on duty because that happens as well. Remember what President John Kennedy said at his inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” In closing, “Leadership is an art, to be learned and applied sensitively. It is not to be confused with mere position.” -The Art of Leadership, Donald Walters
Mark Rivero worked for the City of Las Vegas, Nevada, Fire and Rescue until 2011, as firefighter, training officer and ultimately professional development officer, creating degree pathways for fire service personnel. He currently serves as a program advisor/site coordinator for Southern Illinois University and as chairperson for the doctoral degree path committee for professional development at the National Fire Academy. Rivero also works with the American Council on Education, reviewing fire service courses at various institutions across the United States. He received his doctorate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2004.