WHAT IT TAKES: Pass A Good Book On

Help others stretch and grow through reading

I was once asked by a new-promoted chief who was shadowing me, “Hey, you like to read, right? What’s a good book for me?” I perked up and immediately turned from my task at the moment and faced him. I was excited; someone wanted to talk about books! Unfortunately, after recommending a few books on leadership and personal development, my excitement was short-lived. He responded to my suggestions with, “No, I don’t mean that stuff, I’m looking for some fire books, like tactics.” My first thought was, Isn’t there more to the fire service than just strategy and tactics? Absolutely!5 books

There’s a  great story in the sports section of the Wall Street Journal today about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew luck and his love for reading, and more important, his desire to “pass a good book on.”

Football, like firefighting, is very dirty and physical. Both professions wear protective equipment and perform as teams. But, football and firefighting also require exceptional mental skills that answer those so important questions: why, how, and what? The only way to achieve that level of teamwork is through learning together. And a great way to do that is by reading some good books, passing them around, and then talking about them.

Andrew Luck leads in more ways than just on the field. He consistently recommends his favorite reads to his team mates. And they’re not about football. Luck’s book suggestions range from fiction to the classics, depending on where he’s at and who he’s giving them to. By passing a good book on, and then talking about it, he’s influencing more than just the tactics of football, he’s growing other leaders and building a stronger team.

Firefighting books that focus on tactics, chemistry, construction, and administration should be required reading in the fire service. They are the nuts and bolts of our machine work. But also needed are those books that speak to values and character, that increase personal knowledge, and improve analytical and reasoning skills. They are the grease that makes the machine run long and smooth.

So, if you were to ask me, “What’s a good book for me?” here’re a few I would recommend. They will help you discover insights on team building, influencing others, applying intuition, managing things, establishing a culture, and just becoming a better person and a healthy organization.

  • Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield
  • The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership by John Wooden
  • Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy
  • Young Men And Fire by Norman Maclean
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • 5 Minds For The Future by Howard Gardner
  • Flawless Execution by James D. Murphy
  • Start With Why by Simon Sinek
  • Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach by Col. Dandridge M. Malone (Ret.)
  • The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield
  • In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It by Thomas A. Kolditz
  • The Challenge Of Command by Roger H. Nye
  • The 21 Indispensable Qualities Of A Leader by John C. Maxwell
  • Warfighting by The U.S. Marine Corp
  • Comrades by Stephen E. Ambrose
  • The Warrior Mindset by Michael J. Asken, Ph.D. and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
  • Team of Teams: New Rules For Engagement For A Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal
  • We Were Soldiers Once… And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore
  • Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales
  • The Classic Touch: Lessons In Leadership From Homer To Hemingway by John K. Clemens and Douglas F. Mayer

Go here to Books I Recommend to find these books and more.

Go here to Read To Lead Podcast for current book reviews and recommendations.



There's always some angle on it, if you just hang in there

My old fire chief, Herman Brice, used to say, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” He was our leader and he was reminding us that we make our own luck. To be lucky, you have to have the right mind for opportunity, be ready for it, then grab it!


Photo courtesy of PBCFR.

Reading the Wall Street Journal the other day, I came across a column where they asked some famous people what they thought about luck. Barbara Corcoran, real estate guru and Shark Tank judge, said it best with her positive approach here:

I love the word luck. My whole life, luck has been my partner and bedfellow. I feel like it’s been standing right by my side, and I expect it all the time. I don’t always get it, but I expect it. In any situation I assume it’s going to spin to the positive. Of course, not everything works out OK -in fact, the great majority of things don’t. But you try. And then immediately as I’m falling or failing or realizing it’s not working out, I’m thinking, This is going to lead to something better. And it always does. There’s always some angle on it, if you just hang in there. I steer clear of negative people because I see them as thieves in the night that are going to rob me of my good fortune. Maybe luck and optimism are the same thing. If you get lucky and recognize it as good luck, you expect more luck and it finds you.

Preparation. Positive expectations. It all makes for more opportunity. Combine it and you get better luck.

Get Ready

If you’re going to be a leader when lives depend on it, you should “get ready.” I talk to a lot of new fire leaders, and I tell them, “You’re going to be tested soon, so get ready!” When you find yourself in the middle of a serious situation, you’re going to lose 25% of your confidence to nerves. So you better be overqualified. You better have practiced before the real event. Develop an appetite for chaos, because its either going to defeat you or it will teach you. Get ready.

On Retiring: Mentorship

Mentoring relationships are friendships that help shape your future.

Mentorship has been a crucial part of my safety and success in the fire service. It’s been enlightening to have a variety of people over the years that I could observe. They included firefighters and civilians from all ages and life experiences. My mentors had been places I’d never been, read books or listened to leaders I hadn’t heard of, and and done things I had never done. Many of them experienced the pain and processes that I would go through, and there was a lot I learned  from them. I believe I was able to take away many lessons from them to help me work with and lead firefighters.


How did I find my mentors? It really wasn’t through any official program or plan I followed. I just stayed curious, so it came pretty easy and naturally. They were people with the same general passions that I had: always trying to do their best, to work better with others, and to find ways to help others. Here are three ways I found them:

  1. They were accessible to me. They were other firefighters, officers, teachers, community leaders, and friends and family. They were people I worked with, worked for, and met casually, sometimes in a classroom or coffee shop.
  2. They were people I met when I traveled. I attended the National Fire Academy and many conferences and seminars where I met new people who enriched my thinking and world view.
  3. They were people I listened to or read about. Some were speakers I watched on  TED videos, while others I found in an assortment of magazines and books I read, from fiction to biographies to business.

Mentoring relationships are valuable. They don’t have to be complicated programs; they should just be simple friendships that help you shape your future.

a curious mind

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life (2015)

Brian Grazer is a picture of curiosity. His hair stands straight up, with the help of some gel. But it’s not what he looks like that creates so much curiosity, it’s the movies and TV shows he produces. He’s the co-founder of Imagine Entertainment and his hit movies and TV shows include real-life stories such as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights, 24, and Empire.

I really like his onscreen entertainment, but what caught my eye was his recent book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, where he describes his trick for staying inspired is to have what he calls, “curiosity conversations.” Over his 35 years in the entertainment business, he has had these conversations with a diverse group of people exploring a variety of topics. Much of what he discovers from the conversations provide the inspiration for the discussions of creativity and storytelling in his book, and his on screen work.

Grazer believes that curiosity conversations can help you  step out of your own world, widen your perspective, and give you a taste of experiences you won’t have on your own.

Here’s a couple of Grazer’s “curiosity conversation” takeaways:

  • Think in advance about what you’d most hope to get out of the conversation, and think of a handful of open-ended questions that will get the person talking about what you’re most interested in: “What was your first professional success?” “Why did you decide to do [whatever their job is]?” “Tell me about a couple of big challenges you had to overcome.”
  • Don’t share your own story or observations. Listen. Ask questions. The goal is for you to learn as much about the person you’re talking to as you can in the time you have. If you’re talking, you’re not learning about the other person.

Good leaders stay curious. Through “curiosity conversations” they seek out other perspectives, experience, and stories, which will multiply their own experience a thousandfold. They keep asking questions until something interesting happens!

CHOICES: 4 Practices to Ensure the Best Possible Outcomes

Mark Fernandes at Values Based Leader
January 6, 2015

Confused, young businessman looking at chalk drawn arrows on a cThe choice is ours, everyday, to treat people better, do things better, and leave our world a better place. This blog post explains how we can positively impact the direction and outcome of our choices more by aligning them with our personal core values, principles, beliefs, and purpose- our genuine or real self.

Can We Do It Better?

This question always lingers, “Can we do it better?” What does it take? How do we get everyone involved and make it stick? How do we build a culture that wants to do it better?


We live in different and dangerous times today. Our incidents are getting crazier and more complex. We’re challenged by mysterious bio-hazards, unprecedented natural disasters, and unexpected terrorism that can happen anywhere. Our communities are becoming more diverse and they need our help with risk reduction and education.

To face these ever-changing and complex challenges, we must continue to do it better. There are a lot of people counting on us, so we have to be ready for anything, at anytime, and anywhere.

Here are a few suggestions on how we can do it better:

Train and Work Safer

Train, respond, and work safely. Wear your seat belts and your SCBA. Stop breathing so much smoke. Follow your policies and procedures and execute them safely. Stay aware of everything, and watch over your brothers and sisters; have their backs. Speak up when you need to, in the right way. Maintain the readiness of your equipment, and use it properly and when you’re supposed to. Practice personal accountability, all the time. And, know where you are at all times.

Practice and Master Your Skills

Whether operating a saw or starting an IV line, don’t just settle for proficiency; be a master at what you do. Stay physically fit, because your work involves great physical exertion. Keep learning about everything. Know why and how we do things, not just what to do. Be disciplined and use the incident command system. Constantly train for readiness and improvement. Always look back at what you did and ask, “How can I do it better next time?”

Act Like a Professional with Honor and Integrity

Be courageous, but calm. Be patient, because it can be difficult dealing with people who are in a considerable state of stress. Sometimes they are the people you work with. Practice a positive image, everywhere and all the time. Set a good example for the young people in your community. Get involved in your fire department and your community, and provide ideas to make the job safer and the community better.

Treat Others Better and Practice Servant Leadership

Be nice to everyone you encounter, especially the people you work with. Practice compassion and consideration for everyone. Engage the people in your community, including the leaders, staff, and citizens. Get to know them and what they need. Improve relationships with other agencies, especially law enforcement; we need to have their backs. Be a servant to others, because that’s the true calling of the fire service.

It’s not a matter of can we do it better, we have to do it better. Start this discussion in your fire department. Ask that lingering question, “Can we do it better?” And if each of us keeps calm and makes a real effort, we will do it better.

Get Smart

Mark vonAppen at Fully Involved
November 6, 2014

vonAppen-get smartMost problems that firefighters encounter do not have easy fixes or short answers. That’s why they call us; we’re problem solvers.

But we need “thinking” firefighters to safely and effectively unravel the complexity we face. Mark vonAppen’s point is right on.

Education makes you respect the job.  Ignorance breeds bravado.  Fatigue and ignorance make cowards of us all.