Developing Mindful Leaders – Polly LaBarre – Harvard Business Review

Developing Mindful Leaders – Polly LaBarre – Harvard Business Review.


All the World’s a Stage

When I first ventured into my career (firefighter), I was living the dream. As the years started flying by, It didn’t take long before I became a little confused. As I prepared to promote in the old system, I was told how I needed to change if I ever wanted to lead people. I needed to act like a leader. It seemed I was too close to those around me and therefore unable to discipline them.  I felt my bosses didn’t notice how my shift was the most cohesive, highly productive in the department and how I knew each member of the shift personally and cared for them. How could I be wrong? They guys would do anything I asked of them because they knew I had their best interest in mind. I didn’t know or understand that I was learning/practicing a form of leadership. I was just being me. It still somehow escapes me that people will follow my visions. I am humbled. I tell you this, not to boast, but rather make a point,

“Leadership is how to be, not how to do” (Frances Hesselbein)

One statement new firefighters seem to always make is “I want to be in a department that has potential for advancement”. This is coming from a rookie that hasn’t worked a day yet.  You have to ask yourself, “why do you want to be in charge?” Do you really have an understanding of the responsibility associated with being the leader? Those that follow you are directly impacted by your vision and influence. The allure of leadership is somehow mixed up with the notion that with it comes power.  The reality is that with leadership comes great responsibility, usually not seen or taught in classes. Now, I must define the leadership I’m referring to is that of a fire service officer. Personal leadership influences organizations with associations to the culture, another topic for discussion later…

Servant leadership is the style du jour.  “I feel my time has come.”  I don’t have to change or act to fit into a now recognizable style. I’ve learned a lot from my past leaders, mostly how I was not like them, and that’s OK with me. I really did learn a lot. I watched the impact that the leaders had on those around me. The old style was effective in producing exactly what we outlined and usually nothing more. That was OK as well. We served up a pretty defined product that really did not need much more than that. Today’s communities, economy and mores demands more of the same profession. The leaders in my business are striving to change the traditions of the past with people who grew up learning how they should act.

Authentic leadership must be a reflection of the real you, not an act.

Servant leadership isn’t the only effective style.  I will argue the most effective is the one that is sincere.  Steve Jobs had been followed as an authoritative dictator.  It’s hard to argue that his style of leadership wasn’t effective.  He was passionate about his pursuits, and he didn’t act like most CEO’s in the biz. He is my one of my favorite CEO’s, not for his leadership style but his drive and passion.  I would have followed Steve Jobs (as a boss), because I would have believed what he told me. That’s another topic, trust, the foundation of leadership which would validate the sincerity.

The followers are there, they are all around you looking for the real deal.

I’ve watched several friends work hard in serving up what they had learned in leadership classes only to experience failure in application.  Understanding the tenants of leadership is essential to shaping “how to be.” The best advice I could give today’s upwardly mobile fire service leaders is, “don’t act, just be”.   This understanding will likely take time to set in, just as it has for me. I am continuing to follow education in leadership, because I am trying to hard to make sure I don’t screw this up.  If I have people actually following my vision, I better be right and I can’t be acting.

And one more thing, I’m still living the dream. Maybe that has something to do with it as well.

The Influence of My Dad

Mom, Dad & Me

When asked to list examples of leaders that influenced you in life, who do you put at the top?  Dad, Mom, Grandparents, Coach, Teacher?  When I ask this question these are almost always at the top. If you ask me, it would be my Dad.

My Dad served my family (continues to today) by being the go-to, do-it-all, never complaining kind of leader. I remember as a teen-ager, I asked “don’t you ever get tired of doing everything?” for everyone in the family. You see, he was the only one in our family with a driver’s license because, well, his dad was the only one in his family that drove a car. You  kinda get the picture, I grew up in a very “greatest generation” type household. My Mom had the hard job of raising me and my two brothers (monumental task). Back to the question, My Dad replied, “someday son, you’ll understand. I do what I do, because I love you and our family.” He was right on when he insinuated I didn’t understand.

I didn’t for quite some time. It’s funny how he went from looking like a slave to the family, to being the biggest leader influence in my life over the next 15 years. It all came clear to me when I had promoted to Captain. I was reflecting back on my young career, of how I got to where I was. One thing that stood out, were my evaluations leading up to that day which had indicated I would have great difficulty in leading crews. The slam (to my ego) was that I couldn’t be a good leader if I was too close to my direct reports. No detail on accountability or past successes, just the belief that you surely can’t lead someone your friends with. (Light bulb moment)

The Boys (Thanks Mom)

Then I remembered my Dad. His leadership style was very loving and personal but yielded great influence. My brothers and I were best disciplined by dad’s disappointment, (other times with a stiff paddle). We knew when we had gone beyond dad’s expectations, all it took was to see the disappointment on his face. His sincere love for us was so enduring, we never wanted to taint it. I also saw his convictions to do whatever someone needed, not asked for. I remember him saying, “I like doing for others.”

Leadership is how to be, not how to do. (Frances Hesselbein)

I wonder now if his fulfillment was that he saw his influence as leadership (not)? (another lesson there) or that his satisfaction in life was derived from knowing he was able to make situations better for others? Wow, what a great concept for a public safety delivery model, one that I am slowly realizing to be my true purpose. Like my dad, I have trouble seeing myself as a leader. What I do is what I feel to be right and enjoy doing. Today, I’m trying to align my actions with “leadership” philosophy. Mainly because I don’t want to screw things up!

A leader that influences with love and care will have a great following. Isn’t that what it’s all about?  (me, and probably some chinese prophet.)

In asking students in my leadership classes, “who most influenced your leadership style?” they always recount their influence to be those that cared about them personally.  “Personal Histories: Leaders Remember the Moments and People That Shaped Them (Harvard Business Review, December 2001),” Think about yours.

Although servant leadership wasn’t the “greatest generation’s” prominent style, many were born with a servant’s heart. I’m very blessed to still have my Mom and Dad in my life. When anyone talks of my Dad, it’s with that “awe, we just love him” sentiment. He still, and probably always will, influence people in his life, my life, my brother’s and hopefully yours. Thanks Dad, for the greatest leadership lesson in my life.

Future blog, My Mom’s creative, confidence building influence!!

Don’t Promote Past Happiness, or Preparation

There is something I’ve come to realize along my career ladder climb. It seemed I was really good at what I did just before promoting, but not so much after the promotion. This is the same story I hear from a lot of officers that promote and then find themselves disillusioned and not as happy with their new-found responsibility.

Most department’s promotional process is based on what someone can prove up on the day of a test. Even with posted study materials, job description, out-of-class duty and recognized credentials, most candidates that promote don’t have the full picture of needed skill proficiency to walk in the rank without looking like that newborn deer trying to find its legs.

A good succession plan should be more than something in writing that tells someone what they should know.

Succession Planning means actually giving responsibility as well as training to those who are “upwardly mobile.” It also means to train them with real world exposure to what the job expects them to handle. Today’s officers cannot prepare to be the next generation without departmental leadership giving up all the secrets. When the newly promoted officer is not only trained for the job but also familiar with expectations, their “happiness” will most likely continue up the ladder as well.

A formal plan is essential, but really needs to be backed up with an ongoing hands on mentoring program. The mentors in the department should be very adept at passing on the lessons learned and current trends. Encourage members to become embedded in our profession. Support participation in local, regional, State and national associations. This fosters leadership diversity and improves the chances of breaking “the way we’ve always done it” syndrome.

When you have a good understanding of the expectations of a promotion and the challenges associated with the new responsibilities, you might just find your happy place and lock-in on the career ladder to be the best at what you do.  I know a lot of chief officers that have said, “if they knew then what they know now”, they would have settled in where they felt most productive and happy. On the other hand, you might be one of the few up for the challenge, to be a leader in the greatest profession in the world.

How are we doing?

passes analysis chart

It’s that time of year when we all look back and recount how we did over the past 365 days. I hope every department is reviewing the benchmarks they set for themselves last year and measuring their successes. More importantly what can be improved over the next year.
There is nothing worse than having an incredibly successful year of progress and thinking that you have found the secret recipe of operating. We can never sit idle in the belief that we’re there. Our profession is one that will never reach a pinnacle or state of dominance in the market. We must strive for a balance of safe communities and the flexibility to grow with community’s ability to fund the operation.
The fire service is steeped in a traditional service model that is struggling in today’s economy. How can we continue to safely deliver our service with less ? If your reading this post, today is your lucky day. I will give you the secret to sustaining your service with less….

Think outside of the box.

How we’ve always done it, will not survive in a shrinking budget. The traditional model is based on growth to maintain whatever level your service is at.  I would venture a guess that whatever your service delivery is today, it can use some improving.

Step 1; Analyze your service delivery.

  • Does your delivery times match acceptable levels to be effective? (NFPA 1710/20)
  • Are you able to muster the needed resources to be effective? (NFPA 1710/20)
  • Are your prevention measures adequate to address target potentials and new growth?
  • How successful were your responses over the last year?
  • How many education contacts did you make last year? (Schools, Apartments, Elderly, other targets)
  • Can you show a direct correlation between your efforts and a reduction of incidents?

Step 2; Adjust operations to meet an improvement goal for next year.

  • Targeted training to better an area of needed improvement.
  • Strategically position resources to better serve actual service demands.
  • Enlist outside resources to assist with goal attainment.
  • Explore models of success in other agencies.
  • Re-direct budget funding towards effect programs.
Step 3; Repeat.

These steps are familiar or should be. It is what every fire service leader has been taught for years. The difference that I’m writing about, is to do these steps with the dynamics of changing and moving resources that you have. If you keep good records, you should have some predictability in service demands and what causes them. (In other word, where are the calls, what are they and what is causing them). Address these points, make them go away, or at least decrease.

An example of my ranting; a neighboring department had a high demand for EMS in their service area. Unable to garner more staff, they created “squads” that were large EMS units (4-door) that carried firefighting gear as well. These squads were put into service in the areas of need without drawing more manning into the budget. The data showed that the EMS service demands did not necessarily coincide with fire demands. No brainer, use EMS units when needed and then shift those units to fire units when needed. I know the arguments, and I’ll debate their thin. We have to address the needs, not the “what ifs.”  Remember, outside the box, (Tradition vs. Progress)

This is not the only method to address service efficiency. Every area of our business needs to be evaluated and then brainstormed for better ways of doing it. Start with looking back over the past year and discussing how to do it better next year. And then be open to do things differently.

Is it our Traditions or our Culture?

Why is it we laugh about the phrase “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress”?  Maybe because it’s hard to rationalize that we are part of that tradition that is holding back progress.  It’s easier to laugh it off than it is to take action and stand up against the old ways.We know there are better ways to do business, but we can’t be run like a business,right? Or can we?

Our proud culture builds strong dragon slayers from day one. These warriors of the flame are fairly polarized about their mission in life.  “Fight Fire and Save Lives” that’s what they do.  We created them and when we try to get them outside the box they resist.  How can we get any better at our craft than those that came before us if we embrace our traditions so tightly that we can’t imagine a world without them?

Our role cannot define our purpose

If you ask one hundred firefighters what it is they do, and you’ll get many different responses.  I would guess few would actually come close to an accurate purpose of their job. This confusion starts early in our career. The solution would be to start re-imaging what it is firefighters really do. Teach cadets that our role may be to slay fire and rappel from tall buildings but our purpose is to take care of each 911 call like they’re our family. The other side of our role, is the acknowledgement that we serve many levels of emergencies that are defined by the caller, not us. Understanding our role and how it allows us to accomplish our purpose will create a culture that will most likely differ from today’s.

I am very proud of my profession and it’s traditions. My department embraces the ceremonial traditions with pomp and circumstance. My department is entrenched in some of the old ways, but we are slowly realizing that the world we live in is passing our profession up with technology, business acumen, creativity and leadership that cares.  I urge you to not only learn the ways of the business world that is flying by at a dizzying pace, but to employ some of the practices.  Even if they don’t fit into our traditions.

Robert I.

Photo Credit; East Austin # 4 Firefighter Ed Petersen