Fire Service Leaders Prepare Learners For High-Risk Situations

Real life stories help create a setting for critical thinking and a lively exchange of ideas

olk-salem-live burn

Photo by Tim Olk.

via Wiselike:

How has your experience as a firefighter and chief helped you in the classroom as a college professor?

Here’s my answer:

Firefighting is a high-risk environment that provides events, on a daily basis, for understanding how to lead not only in life-and-death situations but also everyday situations. The personal connection a firefighter gets from helping people and the demands of a chief officer to identify real problems and lead strong teams can also be applied to business, government, sports, or any other time when people must perform under challenging conditions. That “people experience” has provided me with real life stories that help me create a setting for critical thinking and a lively exchange of ideas.

All of my fire service experience has better prepared me to grow as a leader and to help others grow as well.

Be Thankful

Olk-firefighters-shadow-compressThanksgiving is a day of reflection, a good time to slow down and take some time to consider all we have to be grateful for as firefighters despite the many challenges we face. Feeling grateful doesn’t come naturally, it’s a choice. So today I am grateful for many things, such as a great family, good friends, a nice place to live, food on my table, and a rewarding job as a firefighter. I discovered this poem recently and I believe it describes what a firefighter should be thankful for. Take a moment to read it and reflect on its powerful message.

May your Thanksgiving be more about gratitude and reflection.

Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire.
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don’t know something,
for it gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations,
because they give you opportunities for improvement.

Be thankful for each new challenge,
because it will build your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes.
They will teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you’re tired and weary,
because it means you’ve made a difference.

It’s easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who
are also thankful for the setbacks.

Gratitude can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles,
and they can become your blessings.

~~ Author Unknown ~~

Command Presence: Presentation is Everything

Command presence. We know it instantly when someone has it. And we know it when they don’t.

Language, body language, tone of voice, and behavior all reveal command presence or the lack of. It’s how you look, act, and communicate. It’s how you present yourself, especially under stress. And during a stressful situation, presentation is everything.

A lack of command presence from the leadership, in any kind of organization, can be hazardous and will definitely lead to ineffectiveness. A leader’s command presence is essential for moving the organization forward and sometimes controlling chaos. It provides confidence and credibility to the members of the organization. It builds trust and motivates them.

From the archives, read my article on Command Presence that focuses on leadership and presentation. It was originally posted at on September 11, 2006.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself regarding command presence:

1. Do you LOOK the part?

2. Do you CARRY YOURSELF with confidence?

3. Do you ACT the part?

4. Do you SPEAK the part?

Historical Stories: Another Way to Learn Better Decision-Making

My recent article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.

Lessons from history help us make decisions in the present and be ready for the future

By Billy Schmidt
Published Saturday, May 12, 2012

“We like to hear good stories retold. What is more interesting is our need to tell stories, again and again and again. Each telling helps us understand more about the lessons embedded in the story.”             Gary Klein- Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions

What are the qualities of a good leader? What combination of experience and personal characteristics enable leaders to make rapid decisions during critical events? What processes do they use to make decisions with little information under extreme pressure?

Work on the fireground, like soldiering on the battlefield, demands an acute awareness of what’s happening, the ability to adapt to the changing situation, and the skill and will to be deliberate, decisive and fast. History provides timeless lessons from leaders who successfully made fast decisions under stress—decisions that made a difference.

Numerous books, articles and personal letters have been written detailing the complex and confusing aspects of both military battles and fireground incidents and examining the ways critical decisions were made. There are hundreds of movies and documentaries that depict these events, providing another medium through which to learn better decision-making.

Storytelling can be an effective learning tool that passes along wisdom and experience that others have obtained as part of a historical event. The stories allow the audience to experience a moment in history and can give them a sense of “being there when it happened.”

This FF-360 column is not just another article that simply tells a story. This column is the first of several in which we’ll take an imaginary “staff ride.” Staff rides, originally used by the 19th century Prussian Army and widely used by today’s military and wildfire professionals, are case studies conducted on the ground where the event happened. But in place of actually being there, we will experience historical events first-hand through stories delivered to stimulate our imagination. These historical stories, ranging from military events to fire incidents, will focus on decision-making lessons so that we can learn how to better lead during chaotic and stressful situations.

The story shared here features a Civil War battle and a pivotal decision made by a leader in the heat of the conflict that very likely changed the outcome of the Battle at Gettysburg.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the Battle at Little Round Top
It’s July 2, 1863, and you’re near a little town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. It’s a hot, humid day and you find yourself witness to probably one of the greatest conflicts fought on American soil. On the first day of the three day battle at Gettysburg, only parts of the Union and Confederate Armies were engaged. But today, those armies will face difficult and deadly battles in the Peach Orchard and on the Round Tops. The decisions made by both sides will dramatically affect each army’s ability and motivation to continue. (See image 1)

Little Round Top - Library of Congress

Little Round Top – Library of Congress

You sit on the slopes of Little Round Top watching the Union Army’s 20th Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, prepare for battle. Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College but today he is a Union colonel. Colonel Chamberlain and his comrades are about to face a fight where his decisions will shape both their lives and the outcome of the battle.

Chamberlain and the 20th Maine are in a dangerous, and what appears to be losing, situation. Positioned on a 500′ rocky hill, they are the end of the Union line and are to hold that position against a Confederate flank attack. From your vantage point, you hear the thunder of cannon balls crashing around you. You smell trees burning and you hear the screams of injured and dying soldiers. Through the thick smoke, you see groups of soldiers, dressed in gray, pushing upward toward the 20th Maine’s left flank. The Confederate Army is quickly making its move and Chamberlain needs to rapidly make a decision. (See image 2)

453px-Little_Round_Top2.svgYou watch Colonel Chamberlain survey the situation: (1) more than half of his regiment is dead, (2) many of his remaining soldiers are wounded, (3) and almost all of their ammunition is gone. He stands quietly, taking everything in, and then you hear him give the order, “Fix bayonets!” You can see his men are surprised by the order. You then hear Chamberlain quickly yell, “Fix bayonets and charge!” Suddenly, you watch as his men scramble to their feet and move together down the hill, following their leader and changing the course of the battle for Little Round Top.

Within minutes, you witness the exhausted group of men under Chamberlain’s command capture hundreds of surprised soldiers in gray. And it all happened because of one leader’s ability to make a split-second decision in a critical situation.
Watch a video of Chamberlain’s story here.

Footnote on Chamberlain: Colonel Chamberlain was professional, tactically proficient and understood human nature. He had the ability to quickly understand what was happening, adapt to the changing situation and make a critical decision. Later in the war, Chamberlain was chosen by Ulysses S. Grant to command the special honor division of veteran brigades formed to receive the surrender of arms and colors of General Lee’s army at Appomattox.

Thoughts, Questions and an Exercise for Learning
What insights into leadership and decision-making can we gain from this compelling story? Here are some questions to consider:

  • How did Colonel Chamberlain make the right call amid confusing and rapidly changing conditions, under extreme pressure and with incomplete information?
  • What are the intricacies of decision-making in a large organization, the Union Army, and a large group, the 20th Maine Regiment, and how did culture affect what was possible?
  • How, and when, did Colonel Chamberlain share his vision for success and reduce the possibility for misinterpretation?
  • What process did Colonel Chamberlain use to make the decision to “Fix bayonets and charge?”
  • Are there lessons from Chamberlain’s story you can apply to your own life or organization?

Here are some personal questions you should ask yourself?

  • How do you make your decisions? Do you use a specific decision model?
  • When you make decisions, do you consciously develop and compare possible courses of action to come up with your plan?
  • How do you evaluate your decisions?
  • Does your organization provide training on decision-making?

Thought Exercise
Think about a recent decision that you made, or perhaps that someone else made, in a dangerous and stressful situation. How did you/they go about the decision-making process? Was it deliberate or did it appear to be arbitrary? What factors were considered? What courses of action were considered? How was the decision communicated? How was it implemented? What were the outcomes?

Some Thoughts on Future Lessons from History
It’s no small thing to say that history is an excellent self-help guide. It remains true that history repeats itself because we refuse to learn from it. So we should study history not just to acquire facts but also to get better at everything we do.

I have always been intrigued by history—especially the military events connected by strategy, tactics and human behavior—and how it applies to the fire ground. The sheer impact of so many historical events, along with the courage of the people involved, makes these truly amazing stories. After many years of personal reading and reflection, I invite you to read and learn with me as we study history, leadership and how to perform better on the fireground.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!

Recommended Reading:
Bayonet! Forward: My Civil War Reminiscences. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Stan Clark Military Books. Gettysburg, PA. 1994.
The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Edwin B. Coddington. Touchstone. New York, NY. 1968.
The Power of Intuition. Gary Klein. Doubleday. New York, NY. 2003.

What lessons from history have helped you make better decisions?

The Choices We Make: My Notes From Leadercast

Along with a few friends, I attended the Leadercast simulcast at the Office Depot Corporate Headquarters on May 4, 2012. The program, sponsored by Chick-fil-A followed the theme of “Life changing events begin with a simple choice.” In other words, we all make choices (decisions) that affect the people around us which can create a positive impact on them and others. As leaders, our choices can strengthen our families and impact our organizations. The day-long program featured energizing speakers who delivered thought-provoking ideas on leadership and practical ways to apply them. Look for the next Leadercast on May 10, 2013. Following are some nuggets I took away:

Andy Stanley

Soledad O’Brien

Dr. Roland Fryer

  • Website: The Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University
  • How do we make life better for those who are less fortunate?
  • If the U.S. has better education and technology available, why do we score lower than other countries who have less?
  • Who does it right? We should find them and follow what they do. Figure out what they do and do that!
  • Some ways for better education:
    • Spend more time doing it
    • Find the best teachers and use them
    • Use data to alter the pace of instruction
    • Have high expectations
    • Use short term learning and testing
    • Hold leaders accountable
    • Test the fundamentals early and often

Marcus Buckingham

  • Website: TMBC
  • Leadership is about “authenticity.” It’s not a model, it’s idiosyncratic.
  • What’s your leadership edge?
    • Advisor: You are practical
    • Connector: You are a catalyst
    • Creator: You make sense of the world
    • Equalizer: You are level-headed
    • Influencer: You engage people and convince them to act
    • Pioneer: You are optimistic in the face of uncertainty
    • Provider: You sense other people’s feelings
    • Stimulator: You are the host for other people’s emotions
    • Teacher: You are thrilled by the potential you see in others

Angela Ahrendts

  • Website: Burberry
  • Leadership should build a culture of trust and intuition. The combination will lead to more choices and better execution.
  • Keep asking:
    • What is our brand? Is it relevant? What’s best for the brand?
    • How do we unite the team? How do we connect with everybody?
    • How do we keep the organization healthy, motivated, and inspired?

John Maxwell

  • Website: The John Maxwell Company
  • You need to transform yourself to transform others. What are you doing to develop yourself?
  • 3 laws from the Laws of Growth
    • Law of Intentionality – What is our purpose?
    • Law of Awareness – We must know ourselves to grow ourselves.
      • Follow the 3 R’s:
        1. Requirement: What do I have to do?
        2. Return: What do I do well?
        3. Reward: What do I love?
    • Law of Environment – Grow in the right surroundings.

Tim Tebow and Urban Myer

  • Website: Tim Tebow
  • Urban Myer: Leadership is raising the level of the people around you.
  • Tim Tebow:
    • How do you lead when you are not in the game? Be ready!
    • Don worry about what you can’t control; focus on what you can do.

Dr. Sheena Iyengar

  • Book: The Art of Choosing
  • Choice is our ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment.
  • Effective leaders see choice through others’ eyes.
  • Effective leaders are choosy about choosing.

Patrick Lencioni

Choices are about intention. What choices will you make today?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


In an uncertain world, leadership matters.

My take on the Concepts of Leadership.

US Airways Flight 1549 crash in the Hudson River

The behavior of leaders and the development of good leaders is more important today than ever before. Decentralization has spread decision making responsibilities across all levels of the organization. Rapid change and greater uncertainty in the world means that the role of leaders and the challenges they face are more ambiguous. Michael Useem, University of Pennsylvania professor and author of several leadership books and articles, suggests that, “Leadership matters most when it is least clear what course should be followed.” However, many people believe that leadership is just a position, or they confuse it with management. There is a difference.

So, What is leadership? How do leaders lead, and why do followers follow?