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Leadership Forum: Rookies are leaders too, so encourage them

Rookies are leaders too, so encourage them

December 7, 2007
By E. David Hodgins

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Leadership should be a compulsory subject – taught as part of your recruit fire fighter training program. Oh, there are those who would immediately suggest that volunteer and career recruits need to focus on the fundamentals of fire fighting and leave the job of leading to senior members of the department. Nonetheless, private and public sector organizations are beginning to realize that more should be required of their members than simply a "follow-orders" mentality. It comes down to one's interpretation of leadership and its application within a fire department. And what I want to address in this column is the relevance of leadership in non-emergency situations.

Typically, the role of fire department training instructors, officers and senior fire fighters is to tell recruits what, how and when to do something and to make sure they do it. The rookie's job is straightforward – simply follow instructions. I am not suggesting this arrangement be abandoned entirely. What I am recommending is the need to educate recruits and to confirm with them that the department values the demonstration of leadership. And that includes recruits. The benefit of introducing recruits to the concept of leadership from Day One is that it will encourage positive long-term performance and growth. Teaching a recruit to step up and take the lead is essential to the well-being of an organization. Teaching leadership behaviours is a win-win – both for the individual and the organization.

Leadership is much more than the art of influencing behaviour and directing people in order to win their support and confidence toward achieving organizational goals. Rookies need to be able to recognize leadership from an up-close and personal perspective. This means leadership should be associated with taking pride in performing routine tasks and meeting the not-so-routine challenges of the job. Leadership means demonstrating initiative – being the first one to take on the less desirable chores, rather than waiting to be told. Rookies need to feel comfortable in taking the lead in welcoming the public to the fire hall and providing high-quality tours. Hopefully, your department has a formal program in place for recruits to follow.

If you were asked to list the most important leadership skills, what would they be? A good friend, psychologist and leadership guru, Dr. John Moffatt, lists the ability to listen with genuine interest as number. He would tell you that the secret to becoming a good leader involves the "3 Ls": listening, listening and listening. Rookies need to be excellent listeners in order to learn their jobs but they also need to be good listeners as they develop in their career. Veterans tell stories about their unique emergency response experiences and rookies learn much and build good relations by being an eager audience.

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Listening comes with a warning bell. This relates to the false rumours and negative remarks that some debauched individuals tend to spread. What these individuals think about a co-worker or situation is the result of their relationship and experiences. Part of a rookie's learning experience is the need to learn to differentiate between valuable and unreliable information, particularly concerning coworkers. Leadership is demonstrating good judgment and realizing that there are usually three or more sides to every story.

Another skill considered a requirement for leadership at all levels is the promotion and support of diversity. With education, rookies have a vital opportunity to promote and support diversity in the workplace through positively influencing offensive attitudes. This is the opportunity for recruits to show true leadership and practice the "leading from beside" approach while challenging the "good old boys" in a respectful manner. Rookies need to know that it is okay to openly encourage diversity while promoting the need for a supportive culture of tolerance and appropriate interpersonal behaviour.

It takes an entire career, working one day at a time, to establish a solid reputation and gain the respect of one's peers. Recruits are judged with a critical eye, both during their initial training and once they are assigned to the floor. In our business, one transgression early on can mark a person for their entire career. They need to know this in order to avoid any pitfalls.

Understanding basic leadership principles encourages individuals to make the right choices and set a good example. Developing leaders at all levels has several benefits. Rookies learn that what they have to offer is important to their organization. This generates a sense of belonging, which in turn promotes trust, loyalty and good performance.

Recruits are chosen because of their above-average ability. Teach them to be leaders and they will rise to the challenge. Leadership is virtue; leadership is learning; leadership is being proactive and leadership is not the exclusive domain of senior members.

And remember, it's about respect and passion.


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