Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Perils of Leadership...Part I

Hey everyone. I will be posting one of my favorite leadership articles by Chief John Buckman.

I will present his article in 8 parts for the next 8 days. Each day I will post a different chapter. Below is the listing of each chapter. So hopefully, those interested can follow along.

Well, on with the show as they say.....

The Perils of Leadership: Making Chief is the Easy Part
By Chief John Buckman


1.An Allegory for Those Who Would be Leaders
2.Sustaining Leadership
3.Leadership Drivers
4.What Happens to Underdeveloped Leaders
5.Check Your Attitude
6.Sacrifice: Voluntary Or Involuntary?
7.Change: Proactive Is Better Than Reactive
8.Set The Example: Look Up! 


A young fire officer in a small rural department observed that the fire chiefs in many departments sometimes had a short life span. After many years of pursuing the top position in the department, some of those who attained this coveted position left it after only a year or two. Others would remain at the helm for a while longer, but seemed to accomplish little in the position but maintain the status quo. They were not respected. Their departments stagnated; membership dwindled. Eventually, these chiefs, too, were replaced.

But there was one particular chief who stood out in his region. This chief had sustained his leadership of this volunteer department for many years--as long as anyone could remember. During his tenure, his department had evolved into one of the finest fire departments in the nation. Membership in this department was a sought-after badge of honor.

Not wanting to suffer the fate of the other chiefs, the young officer went to this wise old chief to learn what had enabled him to prosper in the down-and-dirty world of leadership. He wondered if the chief had always been a leader or if his years of experience had molded him. If it had molded him into a leader, why had experience not helped the others? If leadership was something he could learn, he wanted to know how.

The young officer was interested in learning from the senior fire chief how the experiences of leadership could make him a better leader. Let's listen:

"Is experience the best teacher?" the young captain asked of the fire chief. "Can I develop as a leader from experience?"

"Some people have said that experience is the best teacher," replied the fire chief. "But I believe that some experiences don't teach us much and in some cases experience may teach us wrong."

"So experience is not always the best teacher?"

"Not exactly," said the fire chief. "It is just that not every experience offers important leadership lessons."

"So where do I learn? What experiences will be helpful to me?"

"It is the experiences that challenge you that are developmental," explained the

chief. "The experiences that stretch you, that force you to develop new abilities if you are going to survive and succeed."

"When I am really pushed to my limits by my experiences, I will learn. Is that it?"

"Not exactly. Challenge is important. Our limits need to be tested. But even when we are challenged we don't necessarily learn."

"You mean that I can have the right experiences--challenging experiences--and still not learn?"

"That's right," said the chief. "You only grow from challenging experiences when you have the ability to learn from them. Not everyone does. Some people have the experience and miss the meaning. There are some people who learn hand-over-fist from a challenging experience. Others learn little, if anything from experience. Growth, learning and education are not automatic."

"I think I'm getting it," said the young officer, who suddenly understood that we don't learn or grow in a vacuum. Most of us are part of a larger group or organization where we have the good fortune of receiving feedback and support for our personal growth; sometimes we don't. We need to get feedback from someone who will take the time to reflect in our own experiences. Feedback and reflections won't allow us to assess how we are doing, what's working and how we need to change. We also need acceptance, advice, and encouragement from others and support from our organizations if we expect to grow. We simply cannot do it all alone.

"When I avail myself of challenging experiences, when I take seriously learning from those experiences and when I get support and feedback from key people in my department, I can then learn the important lessons of leadership that I need in order to survive and prosper. Right?" asked the young captain.

"Right! As far as it goes," answered the chief. "But there is still the question of what develops in leadership development."

"What does that mean?" he asked, feeling that there are some things that are developable and other things that appear to be hardwired or innate. Intelligence (for example) and certain personality traits appear to be set by the time we are adults, remain consistent over time, and provide some limits to our development. But there are those skills and capabilities that can be developed.

"It is a bit complicated," admitted the chief.

Being stretched and challenged is not easy. Diversity and adversity are the keys to growth, and both challenge us. None of us like to operate out of our comfort zone. And it takes time...years, in fact. And a lot of pieces have to fit together just like a puzzle--challenging experiences, organizational support and individual readiness. We used to think it was easier, that single events were developmental--a single event of training, for example. But that understanding was inadequate.

Development happens over time as part of a process or a system. There is

still a lot we don't know about how leaders develop. But we have learned a lot and we are learning more all the time. And the good news is that we can learn and grow and change.

The young officer thanked the old chief for his time and insight. "Given all that you've said, it's becoming clear that I must understand development in a longer time frame, requiring several elements to support it and having different outcomes in different contexts.

"Exactly," said the senior fire chief. "Good luck on your journey."

Article and photo courtesy of Fire

Until next time....

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