Note to Readers: This is a longer article, which first appeared in Minnesota Fire Chief Magazine, the publication of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association (www.msfca.org).
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but this is a bunch of bulls—t,” the officer said. Frustration was evident on his face. “These are some good techniques and stuff, but they don’t matter. You can’t teach leadership. It’s either in you, or it isn’t.”
Are Leaders Born or Made?
That officer was participating in a leadership development program I was leading in his department; his objection represents a common point of view about leadership: that “leaders are born, not made.” There’s some truth to that statement: leadership capacities like public speaking come easier to some people and others, and some people seem naturally more charismatic than others. However, the bigger picture of leadership is a lot more complex, and a lot more hopeful.
There are many great definitions of leadership. Let’s say for the purpose of this discussion that leadership is enabling others to achieve more or be better than they otherwise could have done or been. Leadership an organizational force multiplier. It is also a critical ingredient in any successful fire department. Effective leaders enable, encourage, and insist that a clear mission is understood and that team members at all levels are dedicated to achieving that mission. They set and uphold standards, for themselves and their teams. They command, and they also coach, mentor, empathize, and participate, all at the right times. When you look at the complexities of what “leadership” entails, it’s a little silly to write leadership learning off because “you’re born with it, or you’re not.” It’s also a little dangerous to do so.
Leading consists in a great many specific tasks and tactics, and requires as many distinct capacities. Some aspects of leadership will come easier to us (in part because of what we’re “born with”), and some will be difficult to develop. Regardless of that starting point, we can all get better at some or all aspects of leadership. The best basketball players in the world certainly have innate talent, but they train as hard as anyone to put their talent into action. By the same token, the worst player in the slowest pickup game in the world could certainly get better with training and practice. Great players, and great leaders, are both born and made. We cannot control the gifts we were born with, but we can work with those gifts to become our best.
Leadership Development is Mission-Critical
The stakes for fire service leadership are higher than a pickup game. Fire agency leadership at all levels can make firefighters sharper, more ready, more committed, and thereby safer and more effective. Good leaders assure that when the tones go off, the team is ready. They also assure that the agency takes care of its own, and contributes to the community well beyond emergency response.
Everyone who wants to lead can improve as a leader. Indeed, leaders have more than an opportunity to develop – they have a responsibility to do so. The good news is, that can happen every day, by learning from our experience, and especially by engaging others in our reflections and learning. Training programs can be valuable (and I say this as a provider of such programs). Even more valuable are the opportunities to learn from our experiences through reflection, especially by engaging trusted peers and mentors.
Everyday Leadership Development
Our character and our capabilities develop primarily through our actions and experiences. That happens whether we are paying attention or not. If we care about how we develop as leaders over time, we must pay attention and guide our actions thoughtfully. One time-honored way of guiding that development is by using virtues of character. Using a framework of virtues provides a target and a framework for our development. It helps us understand our experiences based on qualities we can observe and improve.
Ethical Leaders in Action teaches five Virtues of Ethical Leadership as a dynamic framework for leadership development:
- Service is the desire and ability to work with others toward a worthy purpose. It describes the core motives of an ethical leader, striving and enabling others to achieve positive outcomes.
- Competence begins with command of relevant knowledge and skills. It includes specific information and knowhow, along with practical wisdom and sound judgment. It also includes more general leadership competencies, such as communication.
- Creativity enables us to build, to improve, and to solve problems. It features a desire for improvement and the capacity to generate possibilities and to create solutions.
- Clarity helps us to see and share what is truly important. It includes the abilities to craft and share vision, as well as to discern and evaluate reality. It also encompasses moral clarity with respect to our individual and shared values.
- Courage is the capacity to do what is right in the face of obstacles. Courage enables us to overcome our fears in order to pursue our duties and our worthy goals.
We develop these Virtues through learning, observation, and experience – but especially through experience. One district chief uses the Virtues of Ethical Leadership as a problem-solving framework: “I might look at a situation and ask myself whether I need to show more Creativity to improve a situation, or if I need more Clarity to understand what I’m seeing.” After he takes action, he reflects on what he learned: what he’s pleased with, and what he could have done better. “It’s hard to face up to my shortcomings, but having a framework for improvement makes it feel more constructive.” He also shares this process with a partner, who understands the Virtues and helps him “connect the dots.”
One five-year, part-time professional firefighter who aspires to formal leadership sets regular Virtue-based development goals. “Every quarter, I work on a new Competency, and one other area. “In January, I’ll focus on an upcoming EMS refresher as my Competence goal, and I’m working on Courage, too. I need to speak up when I know something isn’t right.” Last summer, she exercised her Creativity by participating on her department’s employee wellness and engagement committee, seeking better ways to bring back those firefighters who’ve drifted a bit. She also consults with a lieutenant who, she says, “encourages me to keep moving forward.”
Leadership Development is a Team Sport
One feature that these and other leaders have in common: they are connected to others who can help them grow. We need people in our corner, mentors or trusted friends, who can help us see our shortcomings, and who join in celebrating our successes. Chief officers have many opportunities to connect with one another, and most successful chiefs maintain a trusted group of friends to help them make decisions. Firefighters and officers of all ranks should follow that lead, and connect informally with people who share their interests, along with a passion for bringing out the best in others.
To learn more about the Virtues of Ethical Leadership, download a free, two-page description at https://ethinact.com/additional-resources/ Or, reflect and develop your own framework of character traits or values that describe the leader you aspire to be. Then start building your team. Who knows you well? Whom can you trust to give you straight feedback? Share your successes, and your challenges, with others. You, your teammates, and your department will be better off for your efforts.