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Leadership Forum: Self-care and generating positive thoughts

May 27, 2023 
By Chris Harrow


Fire Chief Chris Harrow

There have been many articles written on self-care and the importance of leaders ensuring they are taking care of themselves first and foremost. I have always shied away from writing an article on this topic because of the repetitive nature of so many previous articles. But I have also avoided writing about it because self-care was something I always avoided and did not want to take seriously. Maybe because of old age, or from observations I have made from the staff I inherited in my role as interim CAO, but I genuinely believe that self-care is an important issue we leaders need to make a priority and become really good at.

Experts have harped on it for years: How can you take care of the others on your team if you don’t take care of yourself? We all know it is true. Even the best debaters can’t argue against this. However, why can’t we convince ourselves to make this a priority and start taking of ourselves first? Is it because it is too hard to schedule time for yourself and start an exercise program or better eating habits? If this was a new fire fighting skill, we as an industry would be all over it and wouldn’t stop until we had become really good at it. We would form teams on our department to purchase the right equipment and research the best teaching methods on how to master the new skill. Would the same tactics not work for teaching everyone about self-care and how to learn the skills needed to become better at it?

It is very hard for most people to be self-reflective and dig deep inside their own lifestyles to come up with ways to help. It is not in our nature as leaders to be greedy and take time for ourselves to look after our mind and body. We are too busy working extra hours and striving to make it easier for those around us to function. For a lot of people, it is uncomfortable to be self-critical and make appropriate changes that could help improve themselves.  But striving to be healthy and energetic each day is the one controllable factor we can change to prepare ourselves to face these enormous issues every day.

I recently took a “lunch and learn” about resiliency and how to take care of yourself to become more resilient. The speaker talked about five ways to help you be resilient and make you become more in control of your mind and body. Self-care was a large component of being resilient. We talked about the usual methods of self-care, like getting more sleep, more exercise and eating better. I could write about these for a while, but won’t dwell on them.  Everyone knows what they have to do to change their lifestyles to improve their health in different ways. 

The portion of the seminar that really resonated with me had to do with another one of the five ways — create positive thoughts. The leader of the seminar spoke about how it is natural for our brains to always go to a negative thought automatically. The brain remembers negative events much easier than it does positive thoughts. A brain that has suffered through a negative event will always be on the look out for that event to occur again, so it will be hypervigilant to be ready for another occurrence. It takes genuine effort to override the thought and make it a positive thought.

I talked afterwards with various staff and that portion resonated with them.  They consciously tried to think of a positive event that had occurred recently with them (within the past 24 hours) and it was way harder to think of one. They could come up with many negative events right off the top of their heads. It was a very unscientific method of proving what we had just learnt. It takes a concerted effort to override the brain’s tendency to defer to the negative side.

This newfound knowledge has shown me that changing your outlook on life and certain situations can be as difficult as starting a new diet or an exercise program to lose weight. It seems pretty easy on the surface to find the positive in each situation, but in fact it is a difficult to skill to master.  Every leader should take the time to learn more about the ways to train your brain to allow positivity to override the negativity.

I know that another article telling you to ensure you take care of yourself before you ever endeavour to take care of others is extremely redundant. But if you just take an hour here and there to familiarize yourself with different self-care methods and ideas, you will be pleasantly surprised how easy you can come up with something that will work for you. Self-care is the one thing in life that is guaranteed to improve you and how you feel about yourself. Not many other things can have that guarantee.  You wouldn’t hesitate to encourage your firefighters to do it, so why not you?


Chris Harrow is the director of fire services for the Town of Minto and Township of Wellington North in Ontario. 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.


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