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Leadership Forum: Taking the lead

February 4, 2020
By Matt Pegg

It’s an exciting time for aspiring leaders. There seems to be more leadership opportunities today than ever before. For those who aspire to move into leadership roles or into more senior leadership roles, opportunities are plentiful.

Today’s opportunity-rich environment is driving some interesting conversations about leadership. These discussions include topics like what it takes to be successful, what makes someone a good leader and how high potential candidates can prepare themselves for future opportunities.

I enjoy the discussions prospective future leaders bring to the room. Their energy is both infectious and inspiring. I am often asked, “How do I know if I have what it takes to be a great leader?” While I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this question, there are a number of core competencies that every effective leader must possess: ethics, integrity, dedication, work ethic and a genuine interest in helping others to achieve their respective goals. Good leaders are both willing and able to tell the truth, no matter how difficult this may be. One of my early mentors taught me that the harder something is to do, the more important it is that it be done. These are core competencies for every leader. Of course, leaders must also possess the specific competencies and qualifications required to fulfill the role.

While each of these holds true in my experience, I learned there is one critical factor that every leader (aspiring or current) must understand, appreciate and consider. This truth applies to every leadership position, both in the fire service and beyond, and certainly applies to anyone who holds an officer’s rank. Being a leader will never define who you are, but it quickly will reveal who you are.

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I have had many conversations with leaders who are struggling to understand why they are not being respected in their roles. Some have expressed frustration because their teams or individuals “refuse” to respect them. At a young age, my father told me that respect is automatically given to those who earn it and never given to those who demand it. While he only lived to the age of 44, the lessons he taught, the legacy he left behind and, perhaps most importantly, the reputation he earned, have long since outlived him. He earned my respect, at least in part, because he never once demanded it.

If you are pursuing a leadership role because you feel that your position will finally afford you the respect you deserve, you will be disappointed. It simply doesn’t work that way.

None of us are without fault. No leader is perfect. We are all humans who make poor judgement calls and we all make mistakes. These human realities aren’t automatically fatal for leaders, but how we respond when these things happen certainly can be.

We have discussed the relationship between altitude and exposure before. The higher you climb as a leader, the more exposed you become. Leaders automatically sacrifice things that others often enjoy and take for granted — like anonymity and invisibility — and this can be difficult to accept.

I recently had a conversation with a group of senior leaders about the importance of enjoying the “privilege of criticism”. There is no “off” switch for senior leaders. We own our results and our behaviour – whether good, bad or ugly. When things go well, leaders enjoy many incredible opportunities to witness the growth and success of those around us. During the good times, the leader’s correct place is at the back of the line. As leaders, when things go bad, our place is at the front of the line. Inevitably, every leader will have the opportunity to step out in front of their team, organization or service and face criticism head on. That is the privilege of leadership.

So, before you decide to pursue that next leadership opportunity, take a few minutes to make sure that you are ready for the accountability, visibility, criticism and evaluation that you will experience once you are in the seat. There may be no more efficient means of revealing your true character than there.


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


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