As my first official shift as a captain loomed before me, I tossed and turned all night in bed. The buzzing in my brain as I pondered my ability to perform and lead my brothers and sisters when the call came in rivaled the fluttering in my stomach. I stared into the darkness and mused, “I have finally made it. How do I make sure I get this right?”
The twist in my stomach was somewhat understandable – I was making the mystical leap into leadership. No longer could I be the mouthy firefighter in the backseat sarcastically asking his officer, “Do you really want to do that? Okay, see how that works out for you.”
If I had to supervise the firefighter that I was, I would want to slap the taste out of my own mouth. It was time for me to put my money where my (smart ass) mouth had always said it should go. Everybody was about to find out in a hurry whether or not the guy with the big mouth from the ladder company was worth an ounce of the bovine excrement he had been slinging. With everyone watching, it was time to put up or shut up once and for all.
The buzzing in my brain rivaled the fluttering in my stomach.
It shouldn’t have been a big change, I had been working as a relief officer for years before I finally strung together enough of the right answers on the captain’s exam to earn a badge. I had been doing the job as a sheriff without bullets for a long time, yet somehow things were different. There was a sense of finality to it. I needed to get it right. From Barney Fife to Andy Griffith overnight. Take a test and voila, you’re a leader. God help us all.
|The officer owns the family.
I wondered if I could remain humble and not let ego dominate me as a new officer. My mentors told me to be wary of my ego, that selfish portion of me that had gotten my punk-ass in so much trouble since I was in grammar school, or more correctly, all of my life. Mom and dad were right. So were my teachers, principals, deans, and football coaches. I was (and still am) the sarcastic guy who’s superiority affliction could only be cured by the honesty of my mentors and peers, through introspection and humility.
I learned from some of the captains I admired that to truly excel as a leader you must surrender to the notion that the job is no longer about you. The job is about your people, and that I now owned not only their safety, but that of their loved ones. I was told to sit back and observe. I was told to listen. Sitting back and listening is hard to do when you think you’re the smartest person in the room. Most of the time you’re not. I never am.
In observing my mentors I deduced that there wasn’t some complicated formula that they came up with to reinvent leadership. There was no Theory X, Y, or Z of leadership. It was really simple – be a stand up leader, have your crews best interest at the heart of all that you do, say what you mean, and mean what you say. It is a team sport and everything is done with the best interest of the team in mind. Individuals need not apply.
People only need a few things from their leader:
- Be forthright
- Have vision
- Give direction
- Have a game plan that works
Take in everything you are witness to. If we are keen observers of our surroundings the learning never stops. I am constantly humbled by interactions with my peers, by the outstanding people that they are, and in their ability to lead from anywhere. Greatness is rarely achieved by individual means, it is achieved through the collective vision and efforts of many.
Listen more than you talk. Good listeners are not only respected everywhere, but most importantly, through listening eventually they learn something. They learn who they really are.