Are You Building A Harmonious Team?

Wildland Fire Leadership
November 10, 2015

There’s more to it than just saying you’re a team. In complex and dangerous situations, teams have to work together, harmoniously. Like the improvisation of a jazz quartet, each member knows when to step in and when to hand it over to another. They’re connected.

Read here Pam McDonald’s take on Unity Through Harmony, or how fire leaders build cohesive teams to work in high risk environments.

Leaders Are Problem Solvers

After a long day, we sat quietly in my office at the firehouse just staring at each other. It had been an usually busy first half of a 24-hour shift that was filled with the typical calls for help from the community, combined with some very unique personnel issues that had caused lots of friction in a couple of our firehouses. We were refereeing conflicts; solving people problems.problemsolvingLeadership guru Seth Godin says, “The future belongs to those who can do two things: Lead and solve interesting problems.”

The greatest thing we do as leaders is to find solutions to unique problems. We should expect to encounter the occasional broken system, ineffective team, or personnel conflict in our fire department. That’s why we are the leaders. That’s what leaders do!

While much of our day is spent on managing our tasks list, the first item in our leader’s job description should be “solving problems.” We are problem-solvers, both on the fireground and in the firehouse.

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.


5 Leadership Lessons: Leading Above the Line

Leading Blog
November 2, 2015

Leaders build trust, set clear standards, and then equip and inspire people to meet that standard.

Read here an excellent book review of Coach Urban Meyer’s new book, Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season.

Here’s a quick look at the 5 lessons:

  1. Winning behavior will not thrive in a culture that does not support it.
  2. If your habits don’t reflect your dreams and goals, you can either change your habits or change your dreams and goals.
  3. Do whatever you can to reinforce someone’s confidence by helping him to achieve small victories.
  4. When things aren’t going right, the most important thing you can do is slow down, go deep, and figure out why.
  5. You can’t lead people to a place that you are not going to as well. If it isn’t happening in you, it won’t happen through you.

Keep Calm And Party With A Chaplain

What We learned about saving our own from a Fire Chaplain's Conference

Several people of various ages and backgrounds gathered for three days last week in an ordinary hotel conference room to talk about the personal challenges that firefighters face today. But the week was anything but ordinary.


This was not your familiar conference where firefighters learn to force doors and drag other firefighters to safety. But it was a meeting of the minds, some very concerned people wanting to learn more about how to save our own in the firehouse, just like we do on the fireground.

The 2015 Federation of Fire Chaplains Conference began on the right note, literally. It opened with the Star Spangled Banner, sung beautifully by the entire room, creating an enthusiastic vibe that carried on throughout the week. Nothing compares with singing for bringing people together. We were no longer strangers, but a team of people with a strong desire to help others.

The Takeaways

The energy continued with the high-powered, straight talk that included real-world advice from some fire chiefs, strong recommendations from health care professionals, spiritual guidance from chaplains, and personal stories from firefighters and their spouses. Here are a few of the take-a-ways:

  • We help everyone. We never leave anyone behind.
  • Who’s helping the firefighter families? We need to work together to better help our own; the mental health community, the chaplains, peer support teams, and the fire department administrators.
  • Issues unique to firefighters are complex and we have to be ready for the moment when we can help. Sometimes, only firefighters can help firefighters.
  • Get to know your people and connect with them. Don’t forget their families. One simple text or phone call from someone at the right time can help.
  • What is the firefighter’s spouse exposed to when the firefighter comes home? How do we handle it? Have three hard conversations: re-entry time, harshness and hallows humor, and handling the rough runs.
  • Tragedies touch everyone in a different way. Taking care of your own requires trust. Without it, you can lose others.
  • Don’t wait for a tragedy to start a chaplaincy. Chaplains don’t work for the chief, they work for the members.
  • The human heart is exquisitely fragile.
  • Chaplains must grow other chaplains.
  • Conversation is important. It’s all about emotional wellness.

We must become a team of teams

I had the honor to close out the conference and here’s some of my message:

Our world is dangerous and chaotic, both on the fireground and in the firehouse. We see the worse of it. All of our fire department members experience it at some level. We need new ways to lead and to work together. We need to break down the silos and work across divisions in the big firehouse, where the administrative chiefs work.

We have to build cohesive leadership teams, because the first step to a healthy fire department is to have the big firehouse working together.

We need to shift from efficient organizations to adaptable teams that are effective.

We must help our own. We must become a team of teams.

How does your fire department help it’s own?

Resources to help you help your own:

Rosecrance Florian Program

Firefighter Family Articles at Fire Engineering Magazine



Help, My Job Is Killing Me

Captain Jeremy Hurd to talk about helping our own at FDIC 2016

We prepare and practice for our fireground challenges, but what are we doing to take care of our own in the firehouse?

Follow Captain Jeremy Hurd as he helps the fire service tackle the real issues in the fire service: firefighter health and safety.

Where It All Began: 6 Pioneers Of Fire Behavior

FireRescue1: Fire Chief Digital Edition
October 21, 2015

In days of old, fires were ferocious and demanded that firefighters learn on the job. There were no water systems or building codes to slow the fire to give firefighters the time to respond. Many people, including firefighters, died trying to save lives and protect property. They had to make decisions, and fast. The fire service needed pioneers to design tools and develop ways to do it better. A few individuals have stood out for their contributions to do just that.

Read here in the Fire Chief Digital Edition about where it all began.

To learn more about the history of the fire service go here to

I’m excited to be teaching Command and Control of Incident Operations at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. I’ll be instructing with my friend Terry Clements, Division Chief (Ret) from Clearwater (Florida) Fire Rescue.


Date: November 29, 2015—December 4, 2015
Event: National Fire Academy
Topic: Command & Control of Incident Operations
Sponsor: National Fire Academy
Venue: National Fire Academy
Location: 16825 S. Seton Ave.
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
United States
Public: Private

Constructive Conflict

Managing tough conversations in the firehouse

When firefighters talk openly, developing ideas together, debating different perspectives and blending those views, they work better together. They work as a team.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Photo by Tim Olk.

Because different ideas and opinions are examined, that team will move forward together, actively aligned and ready to tackle any objective. Yet many firefighters avoid constructive conflict.

Do you and your team of firefighters have tough conversations? Do you air every concern, reservation, and alternative, without holding anything back? Do you debrief your training and the incidents you respond to? Do you walk away from your meetings knowing that you can count on them to do what they say and to support you as you move the team forward? Are you able to focus your energy on the team’s objectives?

Many times we see constructive conflict turn into destructive conflict, which creates tension and resentment. It undermines relationships within the team and distracts from the team’s common goals. Or, if the team avoids conflict, it becomes guarded and shares fewer ideas. Questions remain unasked, ideas and opinions go unchallenged, and members of the team do not feel united. This can lead to a lack of support in each other’s decisions, which will compromise safety and execution.

How can you and your team of firefighters encourage constructive conflict and avoid sliding down into destructive conflict? The combination of three principles can help keep your team’s conflict positive: listening up, sharing a common commitment and creating a climate of trust.

Listening Up

Leadership authority Stephen R. Covey makes a relevant point in his bestselling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The fifth habit he lists is: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

The cause of almost all conflict is often a lack of understanding. If we don’t listen to others, then how can we truly understand the situation? We must learn to listen with more than just our ears; we must listen with our eyes and our hearts. Listen to the words being said, but also get a feel for how the message is delivered. Listen to the tone and watch the body language. To really understand what someone else is saying, we should listen first, and talk second.

A team that shares a common purpose is inspired to work hard together. Team members working towards a common goal will be more willing to engage in tough conversations. Bringing everyone together in an open discussion lets them see the cause and effects of the issues facing the team. Being part of the planning process triggers a valuable buy-in from everyone. When everyone feels that they have collective ownership, they will come to know and trust one another.

Climate of Trust

Trust doesn’t just happen — it has to be earned, and it’s earned best by giving it. When trust is present, people can usually set aside their egos or individual wants and focus on the team. Because they value their relationship with the team, they can now feel comfortable communicating their intentions and perceptions or making amends as necessary. Teams that foster trust become stronger and more productive through frequent and open communication.

In recent years, the fire service has experienced an alarming number of firefighter injuries and deaths because of a lack of communication or the inability of firefighters to speak up.

Creating a cohesive firefighting team has never been more challenging. The interpersonal dynamics of a team or crew can change constantly. Members of great firefighting teams openly express themselves in ways to understand and improve the organization.

They must be willing to address conflicts, constructively, when they occur. Teams that practice constructive conflict make better decisions and are more productive.

Open communication, a common commitment, and trust will keep your team positive and productive.

This post on Constructive Conflict was originally published for The Company Officer Series at on July 30, 2007.