First In, Last Out – Required Reading

“We don’t stand behind our people, or put ourselves above them. We lead out front, where everyone can see us.”

Leadership quite the hot topic in the fire service right now, and rightfully so. In a line of work that literally requires members to put their lives on the line, there is an institutional need for leadership to be a priority. Some people have an innate talent when it comes to being leaders and some have to work hard at cultivating it, but regardless of which you’re camp in, you can always stand to improve your leadership abilities.

“Leadership is what makes organizations effective. It’s the essential spark that makes things happen.”

Retired FDNY Battalion Chief John Salka’s seminal fire service leadership book, First In, Last Out is a great place for the young fire department leader to start in their journey to become an effective leader. Chief Salka wrote this book so that everyone from CEOs to private companies as well as company officers of rural fire departments could benefit from the leadership lessons he learned during his years with FDNY. The book is well written and includes wonderfully useful chapter summaries which make it very easy to use as a reference time and time again.

“As leaders our job is really to take people beyond themselves.”

Chief Salka stresses the key to being a good leader is to know your organization’s values and goals and guide your people to achieving those goals. True leadership comes not from forcing your members to work towards these goals, but to build relationships with them that lead them to adopt these goals as their own. You do this through be exemplary, communicating clearly, and building their trust in you and your trust in them. Expectations must be clear and respectful dissent encouraged.

”A little conflict will actually give your people more confidence and a greater sense of security.”

Observe – Orient – Decide – Act

Leaders are decisive. Period. Chief Salka’s goal is, “not to learn to make one or two good decisions, but to become a leader who consistently makes the right call.” He says part of accomplishing that is to delegate any decision that can be delegated,

”if a decision can be made by someone beneath you, then that person should make it.

Decision fatigue1 is legitimate, anyone in an officer role knows full well how exhausting in can be to make decisions day in and day out. There’s no wonder why President Obama always wore similar suits:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

To be truly effective in making the difficult decisions you must make as an officer, you need to allow your people to make smaller decisions. Not only does this free up your energy stores but it empowers your people, showing your trust in them, and builds up their ability to make the right call.

Chief Salka’s recommended method of making decisions is based around four comments: Observe – Orient – Decide – Act.

  • Observing meaning not only seeing the obvious but “following the smoke” to find the underlying issues/problems.
  • Orient yourself within the situation, “figure out where you are before your decision and where you want to be after your decision … is carried out.”
  • Deciding involves coming up with multiple possible decisions, weighing them out, and deciding which one is most appropriate to the situation, even if that is doing nothing at all.
  • Without action, without execution, the decision-making process is pointless. Make someone accountable for the execution of the decision and clear with your expectations.

Lastly, a true leader is self-reflective and not afraid to take responsibility. Chief Salka states:

”if things aren’t getting done – if your people aren’t executing effectively – then, all other things being equal, the problem lies with the leadership you’re giving them.”

Extreme Ownership authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin echo this no bad teams, only bad leaders concept in their book and in my experiences it’s held true.

If your people aren’t succeeding you must step back (observe), take a good look at yourself to figure out if there is somewhere you’re dropping the ball, ie. not communicating clearly, not setting clear expectations, not trusting them to do their jobs (orient), choose to take responsibility for your team and make a plan to fix the issue (decide), and execute the plan (act). Lead your team to success.

First In, Last Out was recommended to me years ago by a very respected mentor but it took me a long time to get around to reading it. Don’t make that mistake. If you are in any level of leadership (and really, aren’t we all at least informal leaders, regardless of rank?) read this book. As I said, it’s an easy read packed with tons of actionable items and applicable concepts.

Side note, don’t ever pass up the chance to attend a leadership class with Chief Salka and Chief Lasky, you’ll learn more in a few hours than you could in years on your own.

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