Inspirational Leadership Lessons from the Fire Department

Working as a program manager for a mid-size company, my chief operating officer approached me to discuss a possible promotion.  Our company was in the process of making some strategic leadership changes, and I was being asked to take on a region three times the size of my current region.  After a brief discussion, the COO finished by asking me a pointed question.  He said, “With three work locations situated many miles apart from each other, how will you handle a region this large?”

I had a simple answer: “The same way I handled my battalion while serving as a fire battalion chief with the LAFD.”  My reply was short and to the point – but requires a more detailed explanation.

Like most people, I am the product of past experiences that ultimately shaped who I am.  My professional past includes 25 years with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, with the majority of that time spent leading others through challenging situations like fires, floods, riots, earthquakes and more.

As a fire captain and battalion chief, I was in a position that required leadership skills that could inspire a workforce to perform in extraordinary ways.  For example, it was important to provide leadership for the various firefighting teams to successfully turn chaos into control at a wide array of emergency situations.  To make this happen quickly – rolling up on-scene I would always announce over the radio for all levels of leadership to hear: “On-scene and in command.”  This five word statement seems like a formality, but actually, it represents a mental checklist for critical actions that will make any leader more successful in whatever he or she is trying to accomplish through the efforts of others.

When a leader “takes command” they are initiating organized and well-coordinated teamwork.  Taking command of a fire emergency, a new business position, or anything for that matter, will empower a workforce by defining the chain of command: the management and leadership for deciding operational priorities.  This simple fire-tested and business-proven process also serves to establish channels of communication, the methodology to acquire necessary resources, and the authority for all future directives.

  1. Develop Situational Awareness

As I eagerly accepted the new position of Regional Director, I realized that I did not know much about the current situation in that region.  Faced with this lack of knowledge, I needed to take command in similar fashion as I had during my firefighting career every time I responded to a new and unfamiliar emergency situation.  This would allow me to develop situational awareness, which included learning as much as possible about the resources that I was now accountable for.  I consider resources to be: people, things, money, and time.  I started with the most important resource by interviewing all of the people who worked in my region, with special attention given to the first level leaders (my direct reports), at each work site.

  1. Two-way Communication

Having in-depth conversations with the people on my team, I was consciously practicing two-way communications in order to learn what my team already knew about the current situation.  The simple art of two-way communications is to remember that we speak, and then listen; or listen, and then speak.  Trying to do both at the same time just doesn’t work.  So, we must listen to understand, and then speak to be understood.  This communication style also means that information and ideas flow in two directions.  We can’t successfully develop situational awareness without following the process of two-way communications.

  1. Define Success

Beginning to see the current situation for what it was, I could begin to develop some ideas on what I needed to improve upon and how those improvements would happen.  I was able to define success in a way that everyone would understand what they were trying to accomplish as we all moved forward, together.

Just imagine teams of firefighters working to extinguish a major fire, or teams of business people working to develop a product line, or provide excellent customer service; but the leader of each group had not defined what success looked like. Both examples would be a chaotic mess with a very low chance of delivering a good outcome. When a leader takes command, everyone involved knows their definition of success.

  1. Set and Prioritize Goals

Once I had identified what success would look like in this region, my next step was to set and prioritize goals that would deliver success.  It is important for leaders to set goals for their team, and even more important to prioritize those goals.  In firefighting, distractions and competing priorities were always present.  Knowing the goals in priority order made it possible for all levels of leadership to make good decisions.  Similarly, in business I have found there are always competing interests and distractions that can cause anyone to lose focus.  Make known the priorities for team goals so all your people can make good decisions, allowing them to do the right things for the right reasons and at the right time.

  1. Be Accountable

The final step in taking command is to be accountable.  Take ownership for your actions, and the actions of your teams. Being accountable is accepting your position, and your duty to serve the responsibilities of that position.

Do you have important work to accomplish through others? When you think about it, by taking command of my new position I had created a vision for how I would improve the current situation within my region.  When you take command of whatever you and your team are doing, you will have a vision for a desired future to share with all involved.  Lead to inspire by using a process that has been fire-tested and business-proven to bring about the successes that can only happen through the efforts of others.

Both firefighting and business organizations require leaders who know how to take command and to lead with vision.  Take these five critical steps and be on your way to becoming a more inspirational leader.

Whatever your task, profession, or position: use these five steps to think and to act as though you are on-scene and in command.  Remember that command is vision, and visionary leaders are inspirational leaders.