Leadership Forum: What legacy are you leaving behind?
March 4, 2020 By Chris Harrow
Over the Christmas holidays, I took time to stop and reflect about the firefighters I have worked with over the past 26 years. I wondered what would they say about my leadership style and what they would remember most about the department. As a leader, you hope to leave a positive legacy behind. For the record, to any firefighters from my department: I have no plans on leaving!
What is legacy? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines legacy as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” The key to that definition is “received from a predecessor.” We all know that everyone can be replaced, something that we are reminded of numerous times throughout our careers. Before you go, what do you want to leave for your successor? How do you want your entire team to remember your tenure?
Apparatus will change, stations will be renovated and procedures will update, but it’s interactions and conversations with you that personnel and peers will remember. They will remember how you handled difficult situations more than they will remember “stuff” bought.
There are very few people in any industry who have pioneered a new groundbreaking technique or piece of equipment that has drastically changed the way business is completed. Chances are very slim you will be one of those people. However, people remember positive encounters and relationships they have had with leaders more than they will remember the inventor of a piece of equipment. I have no idea who invented the thermal imaging camera or who pioneered the technique for utilizing them for a search. I do remember many different leaders who have had a memorable influence on me and my career. They stick with me each time I am having a difficult conversation with another employee or am in an adverse situation.
As I sit in another arena this hockey season writing this article, I relate the fire service legacies to hockey coaches. I can’t tell you the exact year I won any hockey titles or tournaments, but I can sure tell you the coaches that left an impression on my life. The coaches didn’t create any groundbreaking systems or schemes, but their positive influence on me and my future career is quite a legacy to me. It showed me how you can navigate through a tough situation and lead a team through it in a positive manner, similar to guiding your fire fighting team.
We have a plaque hanging in one of our fire stations recognizing the individuals who had a hand in construction of the building. From time to time, people will walk by it and acknowledge the great job they did on seeing the project to completion. But you get a bunch of the same firefighters sitting around discussing past leaders in the department, and this rarely comes up. They speak about a former fire chief who was gruff and tough and demanded respect, but at the same time was fair, approachable and took care of his people. They pass stories on to the younger generations of this individual and how much they respected him. This is what they remember — the people who directly influenced them in a positive way.
Firefighters also remember those “big calls” and how the leaders around them brought them through adversity. They remember how they were treated and brought through the incident to become better firefighters and a better overall department. Even more memorable are the times they screwed up at an incident and how the leadership addressed it and worked with them to improve on their abilities. These incidents go a long way towards how firefighters and even those around us at scenes will remember how an individual was as a leader during their tenure.
If you as a leader can be a positive role model for one firefighter or even one generation of firefighters, you will be remembered for doing so. If you have large scale incidents occur in your career, you will be remembered for how you handled yourself and the people involved. They will remember your leadership and how the department improved after the incident. Any time you are able to demonstrate your leadership abilities in a positive manner will add to the opinions and memories people hold about you.
I am not advocating for a leader to spend an excessive amount of time worrying about their legacy and how it will last. Good leaders will have no worries about what their legacy consists of. Work hard every day to leave a positive impression on everyone you encounter and your legacy will take care of itself.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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