april 2015

by Bill Arsenault

There’s all sorts of reasons for a pulse check, a time to confirm how you’re doing. I’d suggest we all need a moment to reflect — as you prepare for another season of never-ending wildfires, or as your season comes to a close in your neck of the woods — and ask: What kind of leader do you want to be or did you learn to be? In short, are you a student of leadership, or have you been sucked into the “bah-humbug” of being a person with a title who’s just riding the magic carpet to retirement?

As you learn about leadership, you might hear some say, “Well, a good leader is one that knows how to be a good follower first.” I beg to differ. Because if your mind is in the Stockholm, Woodstock, or Generation Y mindset of leadership-learning styles, you may be missing the boat.

Some may wonder what those critical or classic moments in the last 50 years have to do with defining moments of leadership today. Ironically, some of our leaders are now leaving the fire service because they were around when those events happened. On the flip side, some of our newest leaders are learning under different life-altering events of the last 15 years: September 11, 2001, two campaign wars, and technology growth that leaders of 50 years ago would have never imagined.

Stand by your values

Whatever events have shaped your leadership style, it may help to identify your leadership values, if you hope to stand by them. Each time I interview for a job, I end up telling the-would-be employer that I have three rules I live by:

  1. I will never allow someone to violate my integrity.
  2. The minute that money becomes more important than the people of the agency or department is the minute I walk away.
  3. I will always be an advocate for the person(s) we serve as an agency.

Let me explain. Why Rule #1? The minute you allow someone to violate your integrity, you will lose all leadership attributes you worked hard to build and maintain. The minute you get sucked into someone’s lie, you will lose all trust that you have from others. This is what I call Stockholm leadership (after the Stockholm syndrome, from the “traumatic bonding” experienced by bank hostages in 1973, whose psychological reaction to captivity led to their identifying and sympathizing with their captors). Defending someone or even yourself for something that has a bad outcome because you have been sucked into the psychic captivity of their little world. In the end…a bad outcome!

Rule #2 comes from a simple premise in the fire service. It doesn’t matter what fire service type you are. Full-time, part-time, seasonal, volunteer, career, or combination – we all may be asked to face this same situation. The minute that money becomes more important than the most important resource you have responsibility for, you lose. Plain and simple! You won’t have to worry about a budget if you have no people that want to work for you. Word travels and people talk. When you tell someone that the budget is more important than them, they will start looking or simply walk away. Why? Because you are no longer worried about and for them. You just sold them the thought that your own selfishness is more important than they are. I label this the Woodstock leadership. Meaning, “I don’t care, because I am good. I am not worried about the problems of others. Because I am really really good.”

The third and final stance comes from the perspective that you need to not only worry about the people you lead, but the people we serve. Those who work for us as “followers” appreciate the fact that we care for them. But they also will appreciate the care you put forth for the people we serve. That behavior in and of itself makes the “follower” want to follow us as leaders because they too are able to enjoy the positive outcomes of caring for others. Look no further then the Internet and you will find tons of examples of this (Baytown, Texas firefighters at Station 4 mow the lawn of a collapsed heart attack victim, September 2014). The fire service is simply about one thing…service. And when our followers see that it is a leader’s priority, they want to follow us to become the next leader in our organization.

Values edify leadership

I recently had someone honestly ask me how values can be used to make a leader for today and tomorrow. I think before a person heads down this path, one should maybe take the time to study the leadership of others. Ironically, the “old timers” had some excellent examples to learn from, and that needs to be passed down.

Does the name Jack Lengyel ring a bell? How about Hermane Boone? Two famous football coaches who ironically made their mark on America in the 1970s because of one simple desire…to make something better. And they did so under absolute adversity. Lengyel led the Young Thundering Herd after a horrific plane crash killing the entire Marshall University football team and Boone brought the Titans into the world of a de-segregated high school football team in the south. While we all know Hollywood has a way of sensationalizing life’s greatest moments, these are also themes that can provide the leaders of today and tomorrow the groundwork to become great leaders.

The secondary component to this is that unfortunately, we do need the “bad” leaders to learn from. Leaders are not born. They are a person who has done something that most people are afraid of. They have taken a risk to step forward and be a leader. Sometimes it is the quiet ones and other times it is the loud ones who become great leaders. They have taken the steps necessary to ensure they learn leadership before leadership learns them.

Leadership learns from misplaced values

Have you ever had that “leader” in a position not because of a strong work ethic or because he/she has taken the time to learn leadership, but because he was he felt entitled or was a glory seeker on the backs of others? Sadly, you just were taught a key “anti-leadership” lesson. And those types of leaders are setting you, others, the operation, and the persons you serve — all up for failure. How crazy it is that we need them to learn from. But again, all things in life do have an opposite.

I have walked away from a significant position because a leader above violated my three rules of a positive employer. It was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make. But I would no longer allow someone to toss my integrity away; I hated seeing us lose good people because money was more important than our most valuable resource, and because someone was stuck on their own selfishness more than the service to others.

Are you Maximus or Commodus?

Do you remember the 2000 movie, The Gladiator? Have you ever watched it as a tool to learn leadership versus simply because it had cool battle scenes?

Maximus is a man of strong work ethic who stands shoulder to shoulder with his men in battle and life. He truly recognizes the value of soldiers who serve with him. His ability to exercise compassion and think of others before himself demonstrates his own abilities to lead men to follow. Ironically they are learning leadership from him without even knowing it.

On the other hand you have Commodus. The spoiled, because of who he is and his blood-line. The arrogance, building because of his time waiting to take the reins. His “serve me because I am the master” attitude also unknowingly teaches leadership. It’s guaranteed, some will follow this type of leadership in the same context of Commodus. Others, though, see Commodus and learn how they do not want to be as leaders.

Stockholm, Woodstock, Generation Y

Manipulating a person(s) to have them do what you want is not true leadership. It is Stockholm. Letting people make mistakes and not caring that they do because you want them to screw-up without guidance is not true leadership. It is Woodstock. Letting technology be the tool that teaches you, or that you allow to teach others the art of leadership, is also a recipe for disaster. That is Generation Y thinking.

The great leaders of yesteryears and present day do not make the original statement of “great leaders are people who were great followers.” They have told us time and time again, “history will repeat itself.” So in the end, find a way to change history by being a student of good leadership and not being made an example of publicly because of “bad leadership.” Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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BIO: Bill Arsenault writes the occasional “Pulse Check” column on wildfire/EMS topics for Wildfire Magazine. He’s a 26 year veteran of emergency services. He has been involved in fire, EMS, law enforcement, and the US military. He’ll discuss the “The Risks of Leadership” at the 13th International Wildland Fire Safety Summit & 4th Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire Conference in Boise, Idaho, from April 20-24, 2015. He can be reached at [email protected]