Use Storytelling Instead Of Telling

Fire service leaders need to be great teachers. And great teachers use storytelling to make their points memorable. Consider the stories told by Alan Brunacini about Mrs. Smith in Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service or the drawings by Paul Combs from Drawn By Fire. We read. We see. We hear. We remember.Leadership-All-Bark-No-Bite Reciting the department’s goals, pointing to a mission statement on the wall, and drilling on policies and procedures are not enough. We will ignite more emotion and spark more thinking by telling stories that convey the why, how and what we are trying to do.

Here are five elements that will help you tell better stories:

  1. Good stories will resonate within us. Good stories will connect with our mindset, or why we do what we do. The actions or the characters portrayed in the story will stir something inside of us, helping us to identify the right and the wrong.
  2. Good stories show accomplishments and lessons learned. Good stories will show the steps that lead to success and the errors that bring on catastrophe. We learn from both.
  3. Good stories point to a greater cause. Good stories help answer the question, “Why are we here?” They help identify the real purpose for being here and doing what we do.
  4. Good stories teach, but in a different way. To present the truth, we can easily present a chart, graph, or bullet points. But telling a story will allow people to see your honesty and passion for your cause.
  5. Good stories open the door for critical thinking. We don’t have to explain everything. Leave room for the listener to form their own ideas and ask questions.This allows for more dialogue and engagement.

Question: Do you think storytelling is a better way to make your points memorable?

We Want To Be Everywhere

Yes, as chief officers we want to be everywhere. We manage multiple fire stations and lead teams of firefighters and officers. We want to visit every station and listen to all of their stories, suggestions, and yes, criticisms. We want be at the fires, the bad motor vehicle accidents, and maybe even some of the medical calls. We want to get things done for them that will help them do their jobs. We want to help them grow. But we can’t be everywhere. Or can we?

LW Street Painting

Spending time with a team of firefighters at a local city event.

In essence, we need to remember our role and embed ourselves deeply into it with the intent of developing a local influence that translates throughout the entire organization. It means we impact smaller teams of firefighters and officers who will do even better things than we do. It means that we intentionally invest in a few at a time so that they can impact the many.

If we do this, we will actually be everywhere.

Question: How are you investing your time at your fire department?

A Philosophy for Team Success

AP Photo/Darron Cummings Former UCLA head coach John Wooden talks to a group of students and college players in Indianapolis in 2005.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Former UCLA head coach John Wooden talks to a group of students and college players in Indianapolis in 2005.

The Company Officer as a Coach

Company officers alone cannot, and should not, handle the details that turn their crew’s objectives into reality. They must “coach for performance.” Company officers become coaches when they lead their crew (team) with a philosophy of encouragement and support.

Coach John Wooden, the exciting leader of the legendary UCLA Basketball dynasty, once said, “We may not control the outcome, but we can control the input — our effort.”

A capable and well-trained crew that embraces your philosophy of being prepared and ready to operate, at any time, during any intensity level, is safer and goes to the emergency scene ready to give its best effort. Your philosophy of encouragement and support is the leadership input that they need.

As the company officer, or the coach of your team, you need to lead rather than pull hose, raise ladders, or do any of the other detailed work. As their coach, develop a plan to guide your team to better performance. Here’s a simple plan that you can do:

Support your team

Without the right skills and resources to perform their job, no amount of direction from the company officer will accomplish the job. Officers acting as coaches will support their teams by making sure that they have the proper knowledge, skills and abilities to safely and effectively complete their tasks. It all begins before the event through sustained training, together as a team.

Know when to push your team

Just like when the coach of a sports team knows when to yell, company officers need to know when to “push” their team when they need it. Observant coaches know when team performance is lagging and when to apply pressure. And knowing how to apply that pressure, or how take the team to the next level, is just as important.

Bring out the best in your team

People are different; people are alike. An open-minded coach knows the individual capabilities of each team member. They see the strengths and weaknesses of the team. This allows them to bring out the best in the team by taking advantage of their strengths and improving their weaknesses. Good coaches know how to make the team the best they can be.

Monitor your team’s performance

Keeping track of the individual abilities of each team member is another characteristic of a good coach. The goals you set through your philosophy and practices will identify an action plan to follow, and a clear path toward achieving it. Talk with them often about the status of the team’s goals, replaying any improvement needed, and complementing all improvement achieved. Be ready to coach the team during difficult times and good times.

Encourage your team

Everyone needs to feel that they’re doing good work and to feel appreciated. A compliment is a great motivator, while public criticism or embarrassment is not. As the coach, your comments, whether made directly to your team or talking to some else about your team, can make all the difference.

Successful firefighting crews (teams) perform best when their company officers (coaches) lead them rather than get involved in the details. Successful company officers build their firefighting crews to perform to their potential, any where, at any time and under any intensity level, by preparing and training them with a personal philosophy that encourages and supports them. Make an effort to build your potential as a coach and pass it on to your team. This is a philosophy that will lead to team success.

How do you influence the inputs, or efforts of your team?

This article was published first at on December 5, 2007.

Read these books for more leadership lessons from Coach Wooden:

Leadership: The Denver Fire Department Way

Denver Fire Department shares lessons learned about their LODDs and their commitment that focuses on personal safety, behavioral health, individual size up, and safety leadership. As Chief Tade says, “Leadership is the key element in firefighter safety.”

Review the 16 Life Safety Initiatives here.

Top Ten Things For The New Officer To Do

Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons

Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons

So, you’ve been promoted to officer. Now what?

After rereading From Buddy to Boss: Effective Fire Service Leadership, here’s my top ten guide of things to think about, and do when you’ve been elevated from the rest of the department  to now lead them:

  1. Face the Facts. The sooner you accept that you are no longer one of them, the sooner you’ll be comfortable in your new role and can lead them.
  2. Make a Deal. Immediately negotiate with your ex-buddies (just yesterday you were one of them) on the ground rules to make it work in your new position. Bring likely problems out in the open and clarify expectations: theirs and yours.
  3. Be impartial. Outside of work is for friends; inside it’s about the team and the job. Treat everyone fairly and consistently.
  4. Keep a lid on it. You WILL face challenging processes, difficult situations, and painful people. It can be hard, but emotional outbursts only erode credibility and respect. Save it for the next sporting event you attend.
  5. Control your ego. Yes, you are good. You just got promoted and it’s difficult to be humble. Get over it. You’re the team leader, not king. Engage your team by listening to their views and welcoming their ideas.
  6. Hold your tongue. Miss the camaraderie, wild stories, vivid commentary, and critical conversations of how it should be done? Before the ‘chatter’ becomes inappropriate, remind everyone of the position you’re in. And if you have a lose tongue, stop talking and get out!
  7. Maintain your confidence. It will be challenged often and occasionally damaged. Begin repairs immediately by listing the positive things in your new role. Review this list every now and then to remind and maintain yourself.
  8. Want the ‘good old days’ again? Don’t look back; look ahead. Make a list of the frustrations from your old role/position and alongside that the benefits of your new role. Remember why you wanted to promote now?
  9. Celebrate your accomplishment. You are now in this position because you worked hard for it and you deserve it.
  10. Leadership training might not be mandatory, but the way to become a better leader is to keep learning. Build your soft skills like decision making, communication, and teamwork. The fire service is all about people; learn how to work with them and for them.

So, want to survive and prosper as a leader? Engage your people and build a team.

Visit Kim Fitzsimmons website here to see and purchase her fire service posters.

How Speaking Up Builds a Better Organization

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Firefighters are very quick to recognize problems in their organization. This daily size up conversation is heard at every fire station and in every office at headquarters. But speaking up, actually bringing the issue to the attention of the organization, doesn’t happen often. At least not in the right way. Why? Because members fear that contradicting the status quo will damage their reputations or position. Or worse, they just like to talk, but have little desire to act.

Effectively communicating through the confusing maze of hierarchies in fire departments is difficult. This obstacle course wears down everyone. That wariness is costly, because feedback from the front lines is vital for improving operational practices and safety measures. With that in mind, speaking up and teaming up builds a better, more healthy organization.

Researchers have studied communication within a variety of organizations that operate in dangerous and complex environments. They interviewed and assessed teams across several measures, including professional status (the hierarchy of each team), psychological safety (the extent to which team members felt comfortable speaking up about work-related issues), and leader inclusiveness (the extend to which leaders welcomed and incorporated feedback from their members).

This research has shown that while hierarchy structures were similar across all teams, the level of psychological safety varied dramatically from one team to another – and was directly proportional to the level of leader inclusiveness. How status is handled within those hierarchies is what makes the difference.

Inclusive leaders exhibit three characteristics that lower the fear of speaking up among their members:
  1. they are accessible
  2. they proactively invite input
  3. and, they acknowledge their own fallibility
Small enabling messages from leaders, what they say and what they do, make all the difference in complex organizations like the fire service. Sometimes, for the better of the organization, you just have to have a difficult conversation.

Is your organization open to members speaking up? Are you comfortable with speaking up within your team or organization?

In The Right Environment, We Can Do Remarkable Things

A deep sense of trust and cooperation builds relationships. Strong relationships make us feel safe inside our organizations. Great leaders want to build opportunity and confidence in their organizations. They want their members to feel safe. And when the  members feel safe, they will innovate and move forward. And the organization, and the people in it will grow.

I just finished listening to Simon Sinek’s latest book, Leaders Eat Last at More on that later.

If You Want To Change The World…

United States Naval Admiral, William H. McRaven, delivers sound advice in his commencement speech to the University of Texas Class of 2014. Below are the quick notes on what to do. Listen to the speech to find out why and how to do it.

  • If you want to change the world, start by doing the little things right: make your bed.
  • If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.
  • If you want to change the world, measure people by the size of their heart.
  • If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and move forward.
  • If you want change the world, don’t be afraid of the circus.
  • If you want to change the world, sometimes you have to slide down the obstacles head first.
  • If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.
  • If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest of moments.
  • If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.
  • If you want to change the world, don’t ever ring the bell.

Also, read the workingfirechief’s blog for his thoughts on “Changing the fire service for the positive and keep good traditions alive.”

How will you help change the world?

It’s A People Game: More “From Buddy To Boss”

More snippets From Buddy to Boss: Effective Fire Service Leadership, by Chase Sargent.

The Organizational Foundation for Leadership

The fire service is a people game: Win people – win the game; lose people – lose the game. I am not talking about not holding members accountable for their actions or kissing anyone’s rear end. Instead I am suggesting that everything we do in the organization is with and about people. We live, eat, train, respond, and even die with people in our organization. In addition, we don’t make widgets; we serve people. Every action we take is intended to prepare for or actually deliver service to people who may be facing the worst days of their lives.

Why Senior Leaders Must Lead

Everything we do, from our first day on the job, to how we help maintain our station and equipment, to the day we become an officer is viewed and recorded by the people we work with. And they never forget. So leadership, really, should begin on day one!

Senior leadership must surround itself with educated, competent, and committed members who have the expertise necessary to fulfill the jobs at hand, so that delegation becomes a matter of trust and respect. There can be no more damming action than to ignore what others say on a continual basis and implement only one’s own ideas. If you surround yourself with knuckleheads, you are going to get knucklehead solutions, and you are going to wonder why, four or five years (or sooner) down the road, no one believes in you or will follow you.

The reality is, leaders must practice and show leadership, everywhere and all the time, and not just speak about it. People are always watching and they will judge your leadership activity (or inactivity), and they will remember it. They judge you on your success, not your words.

How do people (the customers you serve and the members you work with) see you every day?

Powell’s Rule #1: It will look better

It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning. ~Colin Powell

This first rule is all about attitude. Things will get better when you make them better.