What I Learned About Leadership From The Fire Department

I was fortunate enough to be a Firefighter/Paramedic with the Prince George’s County Fire Department for over 11 years. In that time, I learned a lot about my “self,” my strengths and my weaknesses. Hard work was never difficult for me. I started working when I was eight years old, growing up as a poor and briefly homeless first generation immigrant in the 1980’s in NYC. New York in the 1980’s was definitely NOT the Disney like atmosphere it is today. I learned by example from my father (a single dad with one child). He was gone before I arose and home after I went to bed. This is and was the norm for immigrants- working multiple jobs for many hours, only to sleep for a few in order to support their children. You don’t hear THOSE stories in the news. But I digress.

Now let me be clear, my job wasn’t backbreaking work. It was simply sweeping, mopping, and folding clothes at a friend’s laundry. I was paid in food and genuinely enjoyed being around their family. I also had another job selling toys at a family friend’s small toy shop in Jackson Heights, Queens. I was lucky enough to start work at an early age because it taught me what many call “work ethic.”

Fast forward to now and let me tell you what I learned from all my experiences, especially the fire department. You may be surprised at the circumstances that were the most valuable. The valuable lessons I learned weren’t from the fire ground. They weren’t in the situations where life and death mattered. It wasn’t in the back of the medic unit trying to resuscitate a lifeless infant. The most valuable lessons learned were actually in the firehouse itself.

The absolute best leaders were the ones that grabbed a mop, broom or toilet brush FIRST, then swept, mopped, or cleaned toilets before asking anyone else to do so. You know what seeing THAT made me do? Grab the broom, mop, and brush from their hands and do it myself. Of course, it wasn’t a tactic for them. So most of the time, they wouldn’t allow it. We worked together. THAT is integrity and not being FANCY.

The best leaders were the ones that actually tried to get to know those “underneath,” with REAL, authentic conversations (when we had time). They didn’t judge, but had real deep concern. They could see past the outer shell and delve just a little deeper. The best leaders were the ones that talked to individuals, not at them. The best leaders were the ones that covered my food in the middle of dinner, while I was whisked away by the alarm bells. I recognize and appreciate each and every one of them. Their small “actions” made me want to work HARDER for them. Read that last sentence AGAIN. The crews always loved and respected those types of leaders.

We also had the opposite type of leader. There were those that shut themselves in the office during housework. There were “leaders” that propped up their feet on the ottoman, watched TV, or played on their phones, as the rest of the crew swept and mopped “around” them.

Too many of you “leaders” out there are fancy. You think that the rise to the top inversely relates to the amount and/or type of work you do. Let me tell you something you probably already know deep down. You’re going to fail. Your people dislike you. Your ego is large without an equal amount of humility. You’re main drive is monetary. You think of yourself more than you think of others. And you’re probably unhappy. I feel sorry for you.

If this sounds like you, I’m rooting for you to turn it around. There are too many employees that hate coming into work because of your actions, or lack thereof. These people have families and bills to pay and you’re pushing them out the door. Your actions have serious repercussions. I’m not sure how to teach empathy, but I hope that you have a come to Jesus moment. You need them as much as they need you. They are not your property. They are people. Please remember that.

Some of you are thinking, “Yes, but my company is too large! I can’t scale that!” Seriously? Have you even tried? Figure it out! What are those fancy degrees for if you can’t take 8 hours out of your week to scale and SAVE AND THRIVE YOUR BUSINESS? Remember what Gary V. says- karma is just practical.

I know many higher ups in the fire department with massive responsibilities and they figured it out too. THAT is real life and death decision-making. If you actually care, you can do the same. Is there really a choice? Your business and its culture depend on YOU. So take the time and really talk to your people. Ask questions. LISTEN. Troll their social media accounts and see what’s important to them. The Golden Rule is practical and the ROI is massive. So treat your team right and actually give a shit. It’s your responsibility as a leader, but more importantly as a human being. If your business fails, it was supposed to. The market ALWAYS dictates that.

Thanks to all the wonderful leaders at PGFD. You taught me so much.