Leadership Lessons: Are Your Leaders Acting like Parents or Substitute Teachers?

Insights into leadership development sometimes come from strange places.

A fire chief at a local department recently asked me how he could get his officers to show more commitment. “They act like substitute teachers.”

I asked him to describe the behaviors that he was looking for. When he did, I said, “So you want them to act more like parents.”

Fire department leadership lessons –

The chief emphasized that he didn’t mean that all of his people were acting like children, although the look in his eye implied that maybe some were. I wasn’t suggesting anything about the maturity of his people, but rather that parents don’t stop being parents when their children grow up. In fact, this is exactly what I meant by helping agency leaders acting like parents rather than substitute teachers.

A substitute teacher doesn’t last. A parent is in it for the long haul.
Gets to know names, but not people. Knows who you are, who your family is, and what makes you tick.
Works towards a paycheck. Work towards a vision.
Just wants to make it through to the end of shift. Wants to help you grow as a professional and as a person.
We do what subs say, “Because they said so.” We do what parents say because it’s the right thing to do.
Were not sure exactly what they want from us. We know their standards and expectations.
Makes it up as they go. Follows good policies and helps change bad ones.
Lets it go “Just this once.” Enforces rules fairly.
Asks, “What can we do to not get in trouble?” Asks “What can we do to make things better?”
Work is something “We have to put up with.” Work is how we get things done.
The inmates run the asylum. We can have fun, but there’s no doubt who’s in charge.
Avoids the difficult conversations. Is someone we can talk to, and confide in.

 Thinking about leadership development in this way doesn’t just give your officers better choices, it helps make them better decision-makers. I told the chief he didn’t have to use this analogy. I’m sure that smarter people than I could find a better one. The point is, I don’t believe the best way to help people become better leaders is to give them a long list of behaviors to use. I believe that it’s better to give people an idea to emulate. This is far easier to remember and will help guide them in ways we didn’t think of under circumstances we couldn’t anticipate both on scene and in the station.

 For more on leadership lessons check out RescueDigest Leadership.

Post Script:

To be clear, our intention is not to imply that everyone working as a substitute teacher is only working towards a paycheck or doesn’t know the names of any students in the class. I have the greatest respect for educators who dedicate themselves to K-12 (and beyond) and know many who are also emergency responders. The point being made here can be applied to Bungee Bosses and other “Just Passing Through…” supervisors. The idea to focus on is that to be a true leader, you have to be in it fully and for the long haul, not “Just Passing Through…”

About romduck

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author, and educator with more than thirty years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private emergency medical services. Rom is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS Coordinator for the Ridgefield (CT) Fire Department and director of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Rom holds a master’s degree in public administration, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, and is the recipient of the NAEMT Presidential Award, American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award. Rom is the author of "Duckworth on Education," as well as chapters in more than a dozen EMS, fire, rescue, and medical textbooks and over 100 published articles in fire and EMS magazines. A member of the NAEMT Board of Directors, as well as other national and international advocacy and advisory boards, Rom continues to work for the advancement of emergency services professions. Contact Rom via www.romduck.com