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home | Recommended Reading | First In, Last Out - Developing Your . . .

First In, Last Out - Developing Your Captains to be Your Best Firefighters

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How does a fire chief get his/her firefighters to willingly run into a burning building when everyone else is running out?

New York City Fire Chief John Salka shares his answer to this burning question and many more in a new book called First In, Last Out: Leadership Lessons from the New York City Fire Department.

Chief Salka writes, 'First in, last out.' That sums up the leadership code of the FDNY, like most other leadership principles, it's a simple concept, but one that's difficult to live up to. Company officers are expected to be the first into every fire and the last to leave. It's our duty to expose ourselves to the same risks we ask our people to take. It's part of the sacred trust that exists between officers and firefighters.] (page 4)

Chief Salka reminds us that they only way leaders can gain their people's trust and respect is by being the first person into the fire and the last one out. I recently adopted this theme with the North Carolina captains and veteran leaders as part of the Carolina Leadership Academy.

To be effective and respected team leaders, your captains frequently need to be the first ones to practices and the last to leave. They need to be the first ones to step up in stressful situations and manage the momentum and psyches of their teammates. They need to be the first ones to speak up and hold people accountable when they are not abiding by the rules. And they need to be the last ones off the bus/van to make sure that they are clean before turning them back in. They also need to be the first people to find solutions to the conflicts, challenges, and distractions that could disrupt, divide, and destroy your team.

In essence, your captains must be the best firefighters on your team. They need to be effective smoke detectors to sense the smoke that signifies the common problems that flare up on teams. Then they need to manage and extinguish the fires (grumblings, discontent, role conflicts, etc.) before they rage into damaging infernos that could gut your team. They also need the proper judgment to know when to call you in for assistance/backup if the blaze is too big or complicated for them to handle. Finally, your captains must develop the same camaraderie and chemistry of a firehouse where firefighters take care of one another and watch each others' backs in the heat of competition.

Chief Salka writes, [We really impress upon everyone the value of brotherhood, of the bond between men and women risking their lives, and how we're all responsible for one another and have to be able to depend on one another to come through a fire alive.] (page 49)

To anchor this theme, we took all the University of North Carolina team captains and veteran leaders to the Chapel Hill Fire Department. There Deputy Chief Robert Bosworth shared his insights on what it takes to be a leader in the fire department. We gave each of the leaders a shirt with the theme [First In, Last Out] printed on it as a way to continually remind them of their important responsibility. The real highlight of the evening occurred at the end. For those who were brave enough, the team captains/leaders strapped on fire helmets and harnesses and were raised 110 feet (11 stories) in the fire department's aerial platform ladder. The hair-raising experience taught them how critical leadership and teamwork are in fighting fires - just as they are on athletic teams.

Here are some more of the great leadership lessons from Chief Salka's book First In, Last Out that you too could discuss with your captains in an effort to help them become your best firefighters:

Chief Salka on the Importance of Leadership

Whether you know it or not, you have an incredibly powerful effect on your people. They look to you for cues on how to feel about different situations, objectives, and even people. Rather than ignore or dismiss this power, embrace it and leverage it to its fullest. (page 97)

Remember that everything rises and falls on leadership. Your leadership and that of your captains will have a tremendous impact on the success, satisfaction, sanity, chemistry, commitment, confidence, mental toughness, and reputation or your team - it's that important. Use the awesome power of leadership and leverage it to build a top-notch program.

Chief Salka on Trust

Trust is the only thing that makes leadership possible. In the FDNY, trust is what enables us to run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out of them. Trust in one another, and trust in our leaders. Our people believe that no matter what, their lieutenant, captain or chief will do whatever it takes to beat back the enemy and bring them home alive. (page 60)

Trust comes from consistency. You have to work beforehand to develop it, but even then, what I've discovered is that you don't create trust. Trust comes from your people, not you. When your people, see you at the head of the column, being the first one in, facing each danger alongside them, you simply create the conditions that make trust possible. (page 62)

Do your captains and athletes trust you as a coach? Do you trust your captains? Do your players trust your captains? Trust is the currency of leadership. Without trust, you must resort to coercion and fear to get people to do anything. With trust, you can truly connect with people and take them and your team to levels you never thought possible.

What are you doing on a constant basis to earn and maintain your team's trust?

Chief Salka on the Importance of Team Leaders

Unofficial leaders are the backbone of the FDNY. There's even a saying that the senior men run the firehouse but are kind enough to let the officers work there. And to a large degree, this is true. The senior men uphold the traditions and codes, not just of their own house but of the entire department. They make firehouses work. They ensure that maintenance gets done, and that everyone pulls his weight. It's the rare personnel problem that actually makes its way to my office, the whips are so effective at managing our people and resolving problems before they can become my problems. (197)

Unofficial leaders are the ones who make life difficult for all those who settle for good enough. They raise difficult questions and challenge outdated assumptions. Protect these people and help them grow, or they'll get squashed by the guardians of the status quo. (208)

The unofficial leaders of the fire department are analogous to the captains of your team. They are the ones who set and maintain the standards of your program. They are the ones who dictate the chemistry and the work ethic. Your captains must be the people who continually prepare and push your athletes to practice with quality and do the right thing off the court/field. As Chief Salka reminds us, support your captains and invest the time to develop them. Or they will succumb to the negative leaders.

Chief Salka on Doing the Little Things

Our leaders actually do their best and most important work during the quiet moments: meeting one-on-one with firefighters, teaching and mentoring probies, supporting a new officer in his first command, and upholding the traditions and values of the FDNY. (195)

Do your team leaders effectively teach, support, and mentor the freshmen (probies) on your team? Leadership is often not a heroic, one time act. Instead leadership is more a series of seemingly insignificant daily actions of integrity, support, and challenge that when put together create an environment based on trust and respect.

Chief Salka on Developing a Leadership Pipeline

A leadership pipeline, however, doesn't come about through good intentions. Instead, it's the result of a disciplined approach that includes processes for evaluating your people and identifying potential leaders; developing those leaders; and assessing their eligibility for higher positions in the organization. (page 205)

Rather than hoping that your team will have effective leaders, you must take a proactive and disciplined approach to selecting and developing them. Invest the time to develop and mentor your younger athletes to become the future leaders of your team. In this way, your team will not suffer a leadership void when your veteran leaders must graduate from your program. Developing a leadership pipeline will instill a positive sense of tradition and ownership in your program. And as former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler always says, [Tradition never graduates.]

All quotes from First In, Last Out: Leadership Lessons from the New York City Fire Department by John Salka with Barret Neville (2004).

To order a copy of the book, visit

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