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Leadership Forum: May 2019

It never ceases to amaze me when and where leadership lessons present themselves.

April 11, 2019
By Matt Pegg

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Some of the lessons I learn come as a result of mistakes that I make. Others come from learning from the experience and wisdom of others. And, some lessons come in the form of positive reinforcement, when something that initially seems simple and rather unimportant turns into a powerful reminder of what leadership is.

I want to share one such experience with you. This lesson in leadership emerged in the most unexpected of places – in the pouring rain.

By protocol, I am not expected to respond to a fire until it progresses to the 5th alarm level. However, I have a tendency to respond to significant and complex incidents long before they reach these levels. I believe strongly that senior officers must connect with the media quickly in order to be the face and voice of their fire service, and to begin to bring a sense of calm to the community during times of emergency.

We must also ensure that effective command structures are in place and that we are doing everything reasonable to protect both our crews and the public we serve.

One such incident occurred on the shores of Lake Ontario when a massive, middle-of-the-night recycling plant fire eventually escalated to a full six alarms. I was on scene by the time the fire hit the 4th alarm level and began to assume my two primary roles at these incidents; connect with the media and connect with our people on scene.

On this particular night, the weather was horrendous. Driving rain, strong and cold winds and reduced visibility made an already difficult night even worse for our crews as they fought this difficult and dangerous blaze.

I had just finished one of many media scrums of the night and was walking back towards the command post. I was completely drenched. In fact, I could have jumped into Lake Ontario and not been any wetter. On my way back to the command post, I was able to speak with and shake the hands of exhausted firefighters as they found a much-needed hot drink and some shelter from the rain in the rehab sector.

I stopped to talk with one firefighter, who was equally drenched, obviously cold and far more exhausted. He shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Why are you out here? It is awful. Don’t you have somewhere warm and dry you can be?”  

To be honest, I was stunned. That was the last thing that I expected to hear from him that night.

I simply shook his hand and said, “If you can work in this, so can I.”

I thanked him for his hard work and moved on down the line of exhausted firefighters and then made my way back into the mobile command post.

A few weeks later, I received a note from that firefighter. He explained how he was shocked that the fire chief would be in front of the media in the cold, driving rain and would take the time to shake his hand and thank him for his hard work at a fire.

He ended his note by thanking me for showing him that what he and his crew do matters to me. In his final sentence, he thanked and explained how much “showing up” means to our crews.

Just like that, I was reminded of a powerful leadership truth. The power of “showing up,” especially when it isn’t comfortable to do so, is immeasurably important to our people.

I remembered how much that meant to me when I was an exhausted firefighter in need of rest and hydration. How easy it would be to forget that, now that I have the privilege of rank.

I set very high expectations for myself and for our senior officer team, especially when it comes to being engaged in serious incidents that happen in our city. When we are placed into senior leadership roles, we accept considerable responsibilities, none of which stop or start within a defined set of work hours and none of which are limited to comfortable, sunny days.

One of my mentors taught me that the more difficult it is for a leader to do something, the more important it is that it be done.

On that miserable night, in the pouring rain, I was reminded that being a leader is not a spectator sport. Being a leader is about being engaged, involved and present when it matters most.

After all, firefighters don’t melt. Neither do fire chiefs.


Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at matthew.pegg@toronto.ca and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.


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