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Leaderboard: May 2014

You lead as you are. I learned this adage from a dear friend and mentor of mine – retired Cambridge, Ont., fire chief Terry Allen.

April 24, 2014 
By Douglas Tennant

You lead as you are. I learned this adage from a dear friend and mentor of mine – retired Cambridge, Ont., fire chief Terry Allen. It took me a while to really appreciate what Terry was getting at with this short but very profound observation, especially as it pertained to the fire service. As I have come to understand it, Terry was advising those who made the effort to listen and appreciate his statement, that we are all leaders in some way or another around the fire hall. It is thus up to each of us to take stock and determine how we will take on the responsibility to lead as and, ultimately, how we are.

No matter the composition of your fire service (full time, part time, volunteer) there are leaders in every rank and stage of their respective careers in the fire station. From the newest recruit to the oldest-serving member, you will find formal and informal leaders, good ones and not-so-good ones, and those who don’t even realize they are leading.

They, or rather we, are all leading as they, or we, are.

Indeed, as Lyle Quan and Les Karpluk wrote in their Leadership Forum column in the March issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, leadership is “about sharing what you have learned, yet at the same time, allowing others to make mistakes as they grow into their roles as leaders.” It is through this sharing that mentoring is so effective.


Mentoring is all about change; it is about transitioning from one static form of leadership to a dynamic and diverse way of leading our ever-evolving fire service. We should never stop seeking out mentors. Sometimes we need to go outside of the fire service and spend time with people from other emergency services, or those with other experiences, maybe a teacher, a neighbour or even a young person with a unique perspective on life. My point is that just as we have wyes, reducers and all sorts of adapters in the compartment of a pumper, so we should have more than one (type of) mentor. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can even find the odd elected official who can offer some pretty amazing mentoring.

Mentoring is a two-way street. We can be mentors even while we are being mentored. To say that we should always be only in a state of being mentored is somewhat limiting; there is also the unique responsibility of being a mentor to someone else in your department or the one down the road at the same time. I have had several exceptional mentors during my career in the fire service; some were informal mentors while others involved the formal assignment of an older fire service member as a mentor. I have also been honoured to have been a mentor to others in the fire service. And even in this type of an arrangement, I was still able to be mentored by the individuals I was mentoring.

It’s not easy being a mentor. It is also not easy being mentored, especially when the mentor takes the time to let you, as the mentoree know that yes indeed, you do have broccoli in your teeth.

Mentoring entails making yourself vulnerable, having shortcomings pointed out, being called upon to explain why you took this or that action in regard to someone in your fire service. Spending time with your mentor should cause you to take some serious personal (non-screen) time to ponder, mull and ruminate on how to interact with someone, incorporate a certain issue into your department’s strategic plan or develop a new SOG about an emerging issue affecting your fire station(s).

These days a fire chief has instant access through technology to just about any topic related to the fire service from leadership, management and dealing with difficult people, to how to fight fires and use a defibrillator. We can read books, blogs and trade-magazine articles on a vast spectrum of topics. There is an incredible array of fire and emergency service seminars and conferences to attend. But there is nothing quite as unique or effective, despite all of our technology and formalized seminar and training settings, as face-to-face mentorship opportunities. It is too easy and, dare I say, less of a rewarding learning experience, to try to be mentored via the Internet or through social media. Call me a dinosaur, but just as we still make house calls with the big red trucks to those who call 911, having a face-to-face, good old-fashioned fire-hall mentor is worth the investment of time and effort. Put the tablet down, invest in yourself and others and go get a mentor. You lead as you are.

Douglas Tennant is the fire chief in Deep River, Ont. He joined the fire service as a volunteer in 1978 and has served in several communities as a fire-prevention officer, chief officer and also as a manager with the Office of the Fire Marshal in Thunder Bay. He was treasurer and a vice president for eight years with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact Doug at

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