Leadership When No One Is Watching
Every year in April approximately 30,000 brothers and sisters of the fire service descend on Indianapolis, Indiana for Fire Engineering’s Fire Department Instructor’s Conference: FDIC. For the past few years I’ve been proud to count myself among them as both a student and a teacher. It is an amazing event that educates the mind, teaches the hand and inspires the soul. Still, like anything that involves travel, it can be difficult to be away from home. Yesterday was one of those times.
For as long as I have been a new shift commander in our department, I have also been a new dad. Both about five months and both often exciting, sometimes scary, maybe a little bit aggravating, but mostly a source of pride and joy. In different ways it is difficult to be away from my son, and my crew, especially as I am still getting used to my new roles. I know that both my shift and my boy are in good hands while I’m away, but I still don’t want to hear that a big event happened back at home and I wasn’t there to be a part of it.
At about 6 o’clock at night I was having a wonderful after conference dinner with one of our firefighters, the chief of our department, and several guys from a neighboring department when we received notification of a multiple alarm condo fire in our town. My own shift was working and I would have been the first due officer and incident commander. The guys that I was eating with joked that “If you leave right now, you might just make it!” I’m not going to lie, I felt like kind of a tool firing up the radio app on my phone right there in the restaurant to listen in on what was happening back home. But you know, if my son had to go to the hospital I’m sure my wife and the folks at the ER would take great care of him, but I would still like to know what’s going on and see for myself that he was okay. The same held true for my crew, especially when I heard that flames were blowing out the window and they were going in for a rescue with a reported two people trapped.
You can see more details here ( Ridgefield Fire Department Rescues Mother and Son ) but I can tell you that our guys made a fantastic stop and a great save from the second floor. On top of that, the second victim they pulled out was in cardiac arrest and, because my guys don’t leave anything half finished, they were able to revive her after about 30 minutes of resuscitation on the way to the hospital.
Then a really odd thing happened. Before the crews even finished their cleanup I started receiving calls, texts, and emails telling me what a great job my shift did and how proud of them I should be. It’s not that that surprised me, it’s that it made me feel terrible. I wasn’t jealous that they caught a job that I missed (okay, maybe a little), it was that we are a relatively small suburban department and this was our biggest incident since I have moved to my new shift. In the context of the many inspiring leadership lessons at the FDIC conference I found myself contemplating how leaders affect the operations of a group without direct supervision and the nature of Indirect Leadership.
Five months ago
I knew most of my guys, but didn’t know them as a shift. As we began to work together I felt truly blessed and honored to work with such a great group of talented, committed, and honorable firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. When you are in charge of a great crew it pushes you to bust your ass to live up to their expectations and I hope I’ve been able to do that to some degree. When we first worked together I kept a close eye on everybody – mostly to get to know them, but also to see where our shift really shined, and where we needed a little work. I don’t think they needed a lot from me at that time, but I like to think that I helped coordinate things to make it easier for everyone to get their job done. That was the direct leadership phase. I was grateful to be a part of the team that made it so easy to be in charge and enjoyed being a direct, hands-on participant in daily activities.
So I found it odd that when some people were telling me what a great job our crew did (no surprise) it was implied that I had something to do with it when I wasn’t even there. I wasn’t making command decisions. I wasn’t choosing strategy or directing tactics. And yet the words of some of the fire service leaders that I’ve been absorbing over the past few days made me think about things in a different way.
It is a terrible leader that feels that he or she needs to be watching their people every second “so they don’t screw up”.
Sure, some issues need hands-on involvement from leadership, but the ultimate goal of leadership is to develop independent operators. One of the people that I got to listen to here at FDIC was the commander of a special forces unit. He explained that when they go on a mission they never know who the “number one man” is going to be. That’s the person who is in front when the “stuff” goes down. That may not be the team leader which is why in special forces, like in emergency services, it is crucial for every member of the team to be able to step up to that number one position and make decisions and take action independent of Direct Leadership.
Which brings me back to our fire.
Our team had great direction from the officers on scene, but the details of the incident let me see how well our guys made decisions and take initiative with their tasks, not as independent operators or freelancers, but as part of the team that really got things done. This is what makes me think about what I can contribute to this team. It is that Indirect Leadership for which we should all strive. To serve the people that you lead by doing the right thing, little by little, every day, even when no one is watching. It is what will help your people do the right thing in your absence, even when no one with collar brass is around. I’m not implying that I had anything to do with their great performance. I’ve only been on the shift for a few months. They did what they did because they’re a great bunch of guys. But this does help remind me how I want to make it easy for my guys to always do the right thing, even when no one is watching.