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From the Regional Manager, October 2011
One of the common denominators during the major flood Response and Recovery Phases was courage; another was initiative.
Despite our recent local experience these are attributes which sometimes might seem, in other circumstances, to be in short supply. How often do we encounter them in everyday life? Do we in the CFA see them in our non-operational moments? A little reflection might suggest that they are in greater evidence than we might think. However, without recognition and encouragement, I suggest they are at risk. Eventually, without support, it's hard for anyone to keep on battling alone.
How do we as leaders go about promoting these essential qualities? I was recently asked to provide the reflection, on the New Testament reading by St Paul to the Romans, at a church service recognising the Emergency Services and Non-government Organisations such as Red Cross and St John's Ambulance. Preparing my thoughts I was first struck by St Paul's courage and energy, criss-crossing the Ancient Mediterranean World, as an early Christian missionary; mostly accompanied by only one or two others. He certainly took the bit between his teeth and, without waiting for approval, went where he felt he needed to go and said what he felt he needed to say. He and his companions often encountered an unwelcoming and even hostile response. St Paul was sustained by his companions and the support he received from various outposts of the early Christian church. Secondly, in his message to the Romans, St Paul exhorted his readers not to conform to the values of their world but to "... seek to discern what is good and acceptable and perfect".
Two observations occurred to me. Firstly, Paul worked within a team environment. Although often with just a few others he was part of a larger, transformational movement. No doubt he received replies to his various epistles and I imagine he would, certainly, have gained energy from those communities and individuals which welcomed him.
Secondly, Paul's message to"...seek to discern what is good and acceptable and perfect" was an inspirational call to a higher set of values; in CFA's case our Fire Star Virtues. He was proposing a common and constant value set which would direct the behaviours of his readers.
In today's context there are many pressures to conform, to avoid risks, to keep a low profile, to abide by transient values which emphasise the individual at the expense of the community. The first step, that of joining, for anyone working in the emergency services, requires either courage or foolhardiness. Courage, though, is definitely required to persevere, to stay the course, often in the face of difficulty and stresses. How do individuals find that courage? I suggest courage comes from within and is sustained with the help of the team. We all need to seek to understand others' circumstances in order to be able to offer that support. Do we take the time or make the enquiries to do so? Our incident debrief and diffusion processes acknowledge this need of every individual to be heard, to be understood and to be supported. Good leaders don't wait until prompted by an incident to make these enquiries and offer this support. They simply ask, with sincerity, "How are things going?" Then they listen carefully to the response. Really good leaders don't wait to ask; they read the body language and act accordingly.
Teams in the CFA also provide support to members by their agreement to live their CFA lives by the Fire Star Virtues and by exhibiting behaviours consistent with those Virtues. Support means having the courage to speak up when someone's behaviour is inconsistent with these Virtues. It takes courage to accept that message too. In this way we help each other to do what is "good and acceptable and perfect" for our communities. Don't we all want that?
Initiative is an essential element of Mission Command. How do good leaders encourage initiative? They do so by building trust between team members. Trust is a two way street and it is largely founded on behaviours. What we do is always more convincing than what we say. Effective leaders know that they can't foresee every circumstance and solve every problem, either in advance or when it occurs. Good leaders in a Mission Command environment have built a trust relationship, based on good training, in which they can be confident that their subordinates will use their initiative to solve problems consistent with the Commander's Intent, expressed in the Mission. Subordinates, at all levels down to the individual firefighter, will understand the big picture objective and comprehend their role in achieving it. They will all feel empowered to act and accept the responsibility to do so.
We build trust and the willingness to use initiative by giving "permission to make mistakes". The one exception to this permission is that none of us has permission not to act, when action is required. Permission to make mistakes is the opposite of the blame approach. It does not mean that we can be negligent or irresponsible. It does mean that action, when required, is expected and that we will learn from our errors. Of course, it is only by making mistakes that we all learn. Let's aim to avoid making the same mistake twice!
Taking the initiative always requires courage. It's easier to stand back and watch. It's always easier to remain silent and wait for someone else to broach the difficult subject. Haven't you noticed how easy it is to find yourself alone, in challenging circumstances, when there is a sudden absence of leadership; where others lack the confidence to step up to the challenge; where no-one else is able to overcome their reluctance to speak up or to act? If we can find courage in small things we'll find ourselves in good shape for the big challenges when they come along. We've had some big challenges in LMR and CFA recently and, no doubt, there will be more to come. Let's continue to show the courage and initiative that were so evident during the major floods. Above all, let's avoid the fate of the uncommitted or the timid; becoming bystanders in life.
Back to the original question: "How do we as leaders go about promoting these essential qualities of courage and initiative?" I suggest that we acknowledge them both privately, to the individual, and publicly to the team, from time to time. In other words, let's give some positive feedback. Let's seek to inspire others. Some of us need to overcome a natural reluctance to offer praise. For the sake of the individual and the team, let's make that effort! We can all do that.
We also need to build trust within the team. Trust grows with the right behaviours and is damaged by those which are inappropriate. Let's agree to live our CFA lives by the Fire Star Virtues! We can all do that too. In an environment of change we can help each other to have the courage to see change as opportunity and to have the initiative to seize that opportunity.