Monday, January 7, 2013

Lead From Anywhere

By Mark vonAppen

Sitting in the office entering training hours and occupancy inspections in the computer isn't anywhere near my favorite thing to do during my tour, its not even on my top 10 list.  My stoic posture reflects an absence of enthusiasm for these administrative chores.  My eyelids are heavy, and I slouch in the office chair as the monitor blinks before me.  I take pause from my check-box bacchanalian - I see box- checking as a narrow unit of measure used by administrators to gauge performance - and stare silently at steam as it rises from the cup of coffee I swill to power through the monotony. 

Yawn, stretch, blink, repeat.  

This is lame.

I continue with my reports as a firefighter passes the office door on his way to the apparatus bay, one firefighter follows, then another, and another.  Distant voices muscle through the heavy steel door separating the bay from the living quarters. Music booms over the hand-me-down sound system that adorns the work bench.  Muffled laughter and shouts of encouragement can be heard over a mix of speed-metal and gangster rap.

Leadership isn't defined by how well you tell others what to do, often it is defined by how well you stand back and allow others to lead in their way.

The unmistakable sound of ladder beams sliding from their mounts and the clatter of ladder locks against rungs cause me to sit bolt upright.  I spin in the chair and squint against the afternoon sun as I look out the window to see 4 firefighters surrounding a 24' ladder in full PPE, SCBA, tools secured in axe belts, one by one they shoulder the ladder and raise it with a surgeon's precision.

Click, click, click, click, click, bang!  The ladder clanks to rest against the corner of the station.

I gulp the last of my coffee and finish my report as fast as possible, the rest of the "measurables" will have to wait until after dinner.  Control+Alt+Delete, the screen goes black and I'm out the door.  I scramble to the engine and don my gear as though headed for a fire, overjoyed at my reprieve from paperwork purgatory and anxious to get in on the action.  I join the group as the Rescue Company pulls in from an afternoon of inspections. The crew dons their gear and filters in, the intimate group of 4 has swollen to 8.

Sometimes the best way to build the team is to allow your people to lead from any position, including entry-level firefighters.  Give your people as much responsibility as they can handle.  Teamwork isn't a lot of people doing what the officer says, teamwork is everyone learning, sweating, and laughing together.  From time to time let your people initiate training, it shows humility if you join in - not take over - and participate.  Leadership isn't measured by how well you tell others what to do, often it is defined by how well you stand back and allow others to lead the way.  When the day is done everyone will say, "Look at what we accomplished together."

Fewer things are more inspiring to me than seeing young people getting things started on their own and leading from the backseat.  When they kick things off their energy can reinvigorate an entire battalion.  Hard work, laughter, and learning can sweep through the firehouse like a contagion.  Hold tight to the enthusiasm and watch them lead.



  1. This is another great writing, very true and I hope all supervisor allow this and encourage because it does build a team and it builds leaders

  2. Mark, another great article. I believe there is another great story hidden within your article. Leading from any position is a true "culture". How many fire departments, law enforcement and EMS agencies are creating this culture and environment. There are many out there and the masses are simply not hearing their success stories enough. The ability to create the environment that firemen, police officers and EMT's are allowed to lead their own way, train, create muscle memory that will serve their customers, keep them safe, and take them home to their families. All agencies should strive to create an environment where the "troops" are allowed to be engaged, encouraged, and supervised to be fully involved and fully engaged. To all the senior firemen and company officers who complain about the next generation, remember YOUR raising the next generation PAY IT FORWARD and keep them fully involved.

    Respectfully Submitted,

    Glenn Sutphin
    Bluefield Fire Department

  3. Mark, I just discovered you blog yesterday and I want to thank you for it. It is such an encouragement to discover like minded leaders who share my vision. Keep up the good work, you are a leader among leaders.

    Capt. T King
    Welland Fire & Emergency Services
    Ontario, Canada

  4. Spot on. I shared your thoughts with Firefighter 2 students. They need to feel empowered to lead regardless if they have slugs in the way.