How to Lead With Empathy & Resilience

During the 23 years I spent as a full-time firefighter, I had an annual evaluation each and every year. But I was never (and I mean *never*) asked about my Captain and his/her leadership performance. 

As someone who spent the first 10 years of my professional life in field sales for Fortune 1000 hospital supply and pharmaceutical companies, I had become accustomed to the “360-degree feedback” loop, in which both leaders and their team give well-intentioned feedback to make one another better at what they do and to draw attention to leadership styles or actions that may not be working for the team members.  It keeps everyone in check and accountable to one another in a (hopefully) positive way.  

But in the fire service….not so much. The person with the captain’s badge makes the rules, and everyone else…well, we shut up and follow them. That’s the culture.  

So I’ve created a short list of a few “Leadership Suggestions” that we “back seaters” (the lowly firefighters and paramedics in the back seat of the fire engine, aka your direct reports, team members, or employees) have been talking about in whispered bathroom meetings, quiet hallways, and more recently in emoji laden text volleys.  

And I hope that any manager who wants to lead with more empathy, build stronger team relationships, and ultimately be a World Class Leader in their industry or business will learn to hear the quiet unspoken pleas. Please. Sir or Ma’am. 🙂

Building Resilience by Being the “Us” in any Us vs Them Scenario

When people are working with you as teammates and crew members, they need to know you’re always the “Us” in any Us vs Them scenario.   

If your team members have the sense that you are just a present arm of upper management, evaluating their every move and reporting about their mistakes and foibles, you won’t have their loyalty for long. And without loyalty and respect, there is no effective crew, especially in times of adversity and challenge.

Your team doesn’t expect you to cover up for them when they’ve done something wrong, but they do expect that you are always their teammate first and foremost, and a reporting authority/overseer as a distant second. In other words, you will have a much more bonded and effective team unit if you suck DOWN instead of suck up. 

No senior leader I’ve encountered in my second career as a keynote speaker for large companies and organizations has ever mentioned that a key attribute they look for in a manager is to report on the team. They all want managers and leaders who are capable of building healthy relationships within the organization by INSPIRING every person on their team to be the best that they can be in pursuit of their organization’s and customers’ goals.  And that inspiration comes from knowing that they have a leader who is on their side, in their corner, and there to facilitate their success, –not to report on their failures. 

Resilient Leaders Give Respect as a Gift, not as a Grade

In the fire service, and other similarly top-down leadership cultures, the new people on the team are assumed to be, mmmmm not real swift…. until proven otherwise.

I understand culture and initiations. But the extent to which we do this isn’t cool.  And for many Captains/Leaders, this attitude of anyone of a lower rank being an underclassman, unworthy of respect, extends in general to all of us back seaters, at least the first several years we’re on the job.  

But I was lucky enough to have a captain in my first year on the job who lifted me out of this torture and welcomed me as a valued member of his crew. From day 1, he gave me the respect of being a real human being, with pre-fire department life experience, a sport I was passionate about, and valuable input to add to conversations. He even let me (gasp!) watch TV while we ate! And he not only became my hero and someone I was bonded to for years, I learned my trade so much more quickly and deeply because I wasn’t afraid to ask stupid questions I’d be judged for later; he never micromanaged me and he assumed the best of me. That feeling of being an equally worthy member of the crew right from day 1 was truly a gift that I try to pay forward to this day to my team.  

How you treat people in their lowest and most difficult moments diffi MATTERS,  especially when they are new or of a lesser “rank”. And it’s in those moments that you can make a memorable and positive impact as a leader just by giving your kindness and respect as a gift and not as a grade.

You Will Always be the Manager of the Crew, but You Don’t Always Have to be the Leader

You have the badge or the title on your business card, and you, therefore, have all of your team’s respect regarding your status as a manager. But you’re also surrounded by smart, experienced, resilient people who can be an incredible resource to you if you will just ask their opinion, or at the very least accept their input.  

Our crew was one of the first on scene at one of the biggest brush fires in San Diego History in 2007. At 2 am, going code to the location to which we had been dispatched, we rounded a corner and came upon a 20-25 foot wall of wind-driven flames along the edge of the canyon, and it was clear that the flying sparks were already lodging in the eves of the homes all around us.  It was a pretty unsafe and scary place to be.  

Our engineer/driver, who had about 30 years of experience, started to offer his opinion to my less experienced captain about what we should do, and she immediately shot back with a very harsh “Shut up!”. And he did. For the next 8 hours, we were out there fighting fire house to house. Not a word from him. In fact, she wouldn’t take input or suggestions from anyone. Not us, and certainly not the other crews.  

I hate to admit it, but as a crew, we were honestly quite hapless and rudderless out there, with our captain repeatedly changing her mind and wasting tons of time with useless tasks because she was unsure of what to do next. Or how to do it. We were ultimately, but quietly, pulled off the strike team by the Chief. As we watched our strike team leave the staging area that afternoon without us after a quick refueling, I felt sorry for her, for us, and especially for the people whose homes we may have saved if we had utilized all of the Human Resources and experience available to us. 

There’s a big difference between management and leadership. As a manager, you are a facilitator of your teams’ success during the day to day operations and tasks, but you don’t always have to be the leader. In fact, it helps your people build resilience and makes them better as a team when you aren’t always the leader, because input from the whole team in times of challenge and adversity allows us to make the best possible decisions. 

One of your most important jobs as a leader is to create the next leader. And what better way to accomplish this than allowing others to lead based on their strengths and insight at the moment? None of us is as smart as all of us. Leave your ego ) at home and do what’s best for the team and the people/customers/clients you serve. It is and always will be a win-win for everyone, and you’ll have even more respect and admiration from your team!