Recently one of my colleagues spent his last day on the job. He is retiring to take on a nursing job as the clinical lead in an emergency room. He got the impetus to do this as a result of his long career as a paramedic. Ironically, years ago he came to be assigned to my command as a firefighter who had been through a few officers, had some not-so-stellar career moves, and was being given this chance to salvage things. At a point somewhere along the line, he came into my office and asked for my blessing for him to attend paramedic school.
Years ago in my department, I got the nickname of “The Hammer”. My natural leadership style isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy. When Kevin wanted to get my signature on his application, I was working diligently in my office with the door slightly ajar. The people who have worked with me for years know I want my door to be open, but it’s really just to give the impression that it’s open. It’s not.
Of course, here comes ol’ Kevin, with a skip in his step and a Training Program Request for me to sign. I glare over the top of my glasses at him and I don’t say anything. The look is generally sufficient, or so I’m told. Kevin slides the paper over for me to sign. He’s persistent, I’ll give him that.
Leaders take chances on people, even when they aren’t ordinarily inclined to do so. While at the time I didn’t really consider him to be that great of an EMT, much less paramedic material, we laugh about it now. As it turns out, he had a real aptitude for medicine and has an unbelievable bedside manner. After medic school came nursing school and now this endeavor. I am very proud of his achievement and so I sent him a note to tell him that I’ll miss him, but I’m always okay with someone moving on to the bigger and better. I got a really meaningful note back from him thanking me for putting a foot up his ass back in those days. Things have definitely changed, as he is now a well-respected veteran of the department and a fixture in the community. We have had a lot of laughs and some not-so-funny moments over the years, but while others were willing to overlook the issues, I was not.
When applying for the Executive Fire Officer program years ago, one of the questions asked, of what contribution to the fire service was I the most proud of? Without even a moment’s thought, I know it is to see the successful people for whom I have served as a leader, mentor, guide, teacher, and coach over the years. Of particular pride are those who are now doing the same thing for others, especially when I hear one of their students/employees say, “Oh, you’re the Mick Mayers they were talking about.” Hopefully that’s good, but I at least know something is sticking someplace.
If we don’t stretch our own expectations of others, they won’t grow. I don’t for a minute believe my daughters could be captains of industry right at this moment, but given the rest of their lives, I can see them being whatever they want to be. Likewise, the people we are charged with bringing up through the organization, they might not be chief material today, but given the right motivation, feedback, and direction, someday they could end up being your boss (I have one of those situations now) or someone else’s boss. And if you truly worked your magic with that individual, that’s okay.
Leaders must constantly consider the potential of others and understand that while they may be very raw right now, this moment is the one where you get to build and form and create. This is the moment in which you truly leave a legacy. Buildings will crumble and fall, apparatus will become obsolete, everything physical you build could one day be dust. But the lasting edifice, the one that stands throughout time, is when you create a learning environment for your people and you help them to grow. When they’re getting pinned with those bugles and grinning at you wildly, you know that you have left your mark on the world.