Volunteer Vision: Building unburnable bridges
The other day, I heard someone say “don’t burn your bridges,” a phrase that at first conjures up what I consider to be obvious. You shouldn’t destroy the path you used to get to where you’re going, as you may need to use it again to get back to where you came from. This is a common metaphor often referred to if someone, for example, quits a job and bad mouths their organization on the way out the door. Chances are you’re going to run into those folks again somewhere down the road and the bridge will be gone.
From a leadership perspective, this phrase makes me think well beyond that. First, let’s consider the bridge itself, the actual structure built with the intent to take you from one point to another. Usually this is done to cross over an obstacle and it’s often a shorter, easier path to travel. A bridge is a complicated structure. Sure, you could place a log across a creek and walk over it, but over time that simple walkway will likely need an upgrade. Soon it will become used by others and the needs of these others will likely prompt a redesign. Build something for one person and everyone will want to use it. In hindsight, you should have built it right, for many purposes, from the very beginning.
So, how does this metaphor apply to the fire service? If there are bridges to burn they have to exist in the first place. Life is a journey and the fire department, for many of us, is a big part of that. As I have travelled my way through this service in the last 35 plus years, I can’t help but look back at those bridges I’ve crossed to get to where I wanted to go, and more so, the input I had in creating or building those very paths to my destinations.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t credit this entire idea to a friend of mine that I met over 20 years ago. Murray Johnson is retired as a volunteer fire chief in British Columbia, and he and I were both attending our very first fire chiefs’ conference at the time we met. As it turned out, we had a lot of things in common, and in particular, we were both builders of bridges. And not just in our fire departments because in Murray’s case, as an engineer, it was literally his profession and to this the simple fact that almost any gap can be spanned through engineering and design still makes incredible sense. I couldn’t help but think that the same holds true in the fire service. What may seem out of reach to some is easily attainable with the right approach.
When I began as a new fire chief, I thought I was fortunate as I was the local person. I grew up in the community. I was one of the volunteer firefighters and everybody knew who I was. As their new leader they would have no issue in following me wherever I chose to take them. Well, for anyone stepping into a leadership role, and for the first time at that, one of the hardest roads to the top is through the often rough terrain of a veteran team. Those are the members that back your vision 90 per cent. The problem is the 10 per cent that’s stuck in the ways of the past that will always hold you back, and if you’re packing anything that resembles change, it will be a hard ride.
For many this will be a gap that will forever widen and, at times, may seem insurmountable. Delivering new ideas down the same path will never be well received. The veteran members have seen it all before and will quickly send you back down the same road you came in on. Some chiefs will continue this pursuit and choose to take the long way around, perhaps hoping that the problems will be gone when they finally get to them.
In order to be successful, you really need to bridge a gap like this. How you do it, however, will set the tone for the future. Now is not the time for a one-pass crossing. Now is the time to build a strong and solid connection to the other side since you may need to go back and forth several times in order to get your ideas and points across. This is the opportunity to bring change even if it takes several trips because you will be rewarded in the end.
Strong leaders will not stop there. They won’t just build one bridge but several at a time and often in what seems to be many directions, all, however, ending up in the same place. Yes, the destination may be the same, but you’re giving everyone alternative routes to travel. Some routes may take a little bit longer to get there, but you always know where you want to be in the end.
People will always appreciate a good bridge, especially when they feel you’ve built it just for them. They were on one side and you, on the other, reached out to deliver. Whether it’s a message, an idea or a new way of thinking, what you build will remain standing forever, will become your legacy — something that will never burn down.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Originally a radio broadcaster, Tom’s voice could be heard in the early 1990s across Canada as one of the hosts of Country Coast to Coast. Tom is very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia as communications director and conference committee chair. Contact Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept.