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Leadership Forum: Knowing when to stay silent and when to speak

April 27, 2020
By Chris Harrow

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While on my most recent vacation, I read a book written by Jerry Howarth, the voice of the Toronto Blue Jays for over 30 years. I grew up listening to Howarth on the radio and enjoying his many calls during championships won by the Jays. He was a gentleman and so knowledgeable with every aspect of baseball. Who knew reading a book about a Blue Jay’s legend would teach leadership techniques to an old fire chief?

In the beginning of his 2019 book Hello Friends!, Howarth asked Toronto-area leadership expert Drew Dudley, author of the book This is Day One: A Practical Guide to Leadership That Matters, to write an introduction that included his views on Howarth. In it, Dudley wrote a perfect quote about leadership: “Most of the leadership on the planet comes from people who don’t see themselves as leaders — people who say they’re just “doing their job” but do so in ways that serve and strengthen our communities.”

He went on to talk about a quality that all leaders need to exhibit and one of Dudley’s favourite leadership insights is: “In your life, you will be given countless opportunities to shut the hell up. Seize every single one that you can.”

The point the author makes is excellent. It drives home the idea a leader does not have to speak all the time to show their leadership abilities. Leadership can be demonstrated just as effectively by staying silent and knowing when to speak your point.

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Fast forward a couple of weeks past my vacation and our department gets the bad news that one of our captains, Peter Henderson, passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Henderson’s cancer was fire fighting related and considered a line of duty death. He served for 35 years and was instrumental in many different areas of the department.

Hendeson was always seen as one of the best leaders in the department. He commanded respect at each and every fire scene he attended. He was also one of the best incident commanders we had. Around the station, he was quiet and respected by firefighters young and old. He would speak up only when he needed, and when he did, everyone listened. He was that quiet, respected leader.

Henderson knew when to stay quiet and let others figure out the problem, only speaking up when things were going down the wrong path. His quietness was his strength. He didn’t need to command respect from everyone, it was earned, and it was earned from knowing when to stay quiet and when to speak up. It’s amazing to look back and see how that transpired over the years. Even with new firefighters coming into the department, you could quickly see the respect.

A great deal of respect can come from a leader’s knowledge and the ability to pass on the knowledge at the appropriate time. Individuals who are continually talking or constantly instructing people on what they are doing wrong are quickly labeled a know-it-all. There is very little respect given to these individuals. In fact, they are quite annoying.

A great leader knows when to speak up; when it is a teachable moment. They pick their time wisely and impart their knowledge in a proper way. They allow the firefighters to make mistakes when it is safe to do so or to figure a situation out for themselves. Much can be gained from making mistakes and learning from them. As leaders, knowing when to sit back and not speak up when you know the solution is not going to work is just as important as speaking up too much.

I could see this with Henderson and his profession outside of being a volunteer firefighter. He owned his own construction company; in fact he and his son built the house my family lives in. I was allowed to “help” on my days off when our house was being constructed. I can see many times now when I was helping and screwing up that Henderson could have spoken up and told me I was not doing it properly. Instead, he allowed me to screw up and fix my mistake so I would learn from it. I also think it was entertaining to him and his crew to watch me attempt things I was not very good at.

Silence is sometimes the best method to use in a situation. Even though you think you need to talk and say something absolutely insightful, zip it and listen. Who knows, you might even learn something from listening. I am sure Henderson is listening to us right now and smiling. Rest easy our friend, we will take it from here.


Chris Harrow is the fire chief in Minto, Ont. He is a graduate from fire programs at Lakeland College and Dalhousie University and holds a graduate certificate in Advanced Care Paramedics from Conestoga College. He can be reached at c.harrow@mintofiredept.on.ca.