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Leadership Forum: The meaning of a mentor

July 14, 2020
By Chris Harrow

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With the pandemic restrictions starting to ease, I’ve had the chance to have more conversations with a couple of new peers. One topic came up a few times was the idea of mentoring; how it works and what makes it work so well. By having these conversations with new ideas and new perspectives, I have gained a new respect and priority for mentoring and how valuable it is.

The word mentor gets thrown around quite a bit in the fire service. Some services even have or have attempted to put in place a formal program for mentoring future officers and new firefighters. I believe it is very difficult to have a program with parameters around it. It is also difficult to force people into a mentorship program with someone they may not be comfortable with. To truly be mentored by someone or guided by someone you trust, the individual needs to find their own peer that they feel comfortable with. They need to seek the person out on their own terms and know what is comfortable for them.

Each firefighter that wants to learn will find someone or hopefully a few people they can trust to help guide them and learn from. They will also find individuals who allow them to have great conversations and debates with which enable them learn from each other. Some of my greatest mentors are people I have had debates with and the odd time I would win; they would admit when they were wrong. They were also people who would work with me to find the solution and go down the path together to create new ideas. The best conversations I have had have been in hotel rooms at conferences with one or two individuals where I have learned so much from debating and arguing many points.

What should a person look for in a mentor? Does it have to be someone in the fire service or someone from within their own fire department? The answer to both questions is no. It needs to be someone who possesses the qualities that are most important to you. Each person values different qualities in a friend or someone they want to surround themself with. It is extremely important you stay with this thought process and find a mentor who demonstrates these qualities.

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There are a few qualities I believe are vital for a strong mentor to have. The obvious one is trust, both personally and professionally. You need to know the person is telling you the correct information. The mentor should be able to give you the rationale and facts behind the information to show you it is true. A peer of mine told me in a conversation that a person he once looked up to and would have kept being mentored by was giving him false information on a regular basis. But he didn’t know any better, because he didn’t expand his inner circle to include other mentors, which leads to point number two: possess a variety of mentors from different areas of your life. Surround yourself with various types of people you trust and give you good advice. Having multiple people you can bounce ideas or problems off of and get different perspectives from will help you make the proper decision in the end. Different ideas aid in thinking of ideas you would not usually come up with. It is not healthy to only have mentors from the fire service. Different perspective can assist in making a good well-rounded decision.

I also feel a mentor needs to be progressive. A mentor needs to push me to think outside the box when required. The person should be non-judgmental and positive. Nobody enjoys spending time with people who are negative and constantly putting other people down. It not only drags down your mood and attitude, but it hampers your ability to move forward and look at a situation as a positive.

Individuals who wants to surround themselves with mentors will need to come up with their own list of qualities they look for. It is like an informal interview process in your mind. You need to silently screen the potential candidate in your thoughts and figure out if they would fit in with the beliefs you have as a leader and a professional.

Mentors will change over time. As your career progresses, the mentor you had when you were a young, raw fire service leader will most likely evolve into someone else who can challenge you. As you progress through your career, you will most likely become someone else’s mentor. You will be challenged to guide and provide advice to someone else in the fire service and elsewhere. At the same time, you will still need those people you can turn to for advice and assistance when the situation calls for it. Mentors are valuable right into retirement!


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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