As a leader, you must frequently turn around to make sure people are following you. To paraphrase an old quote, a leader with no followers is just a person taking a walk. But how do we learn to be leaders and understand the challenges of those we ask to follow us?
I started in the fire service very young. As any good rookie would do, I kept a low profile and made sure I was working harder than the status quo. I never tried to be the loudest one in the room, but I didn’t stand in the corner either. I would always come to work with a smile on my face and kept my attitude of being easy going no matter what might come up. I learned if the crew is not teasing you or including you in the station antics, that the team isn’t bonding. Team bonding is critical and necessary in the fire service. A bonded team can function flawlessly at the most crucial and stressful times. These early lessons provided me with the foundation of my success as a leader.
Early in my career in a leadership role, I noticed one day it seemed like no one was following me. I was experiencing a few bumps in the road with my crew so I went to see my mentor for help. He asked me “Who taught you to be a leader?” I spurted out a few names. He then asked me what they all had in common, causing me to give him a funny look. He pointed out that they were all men, and asked me “how many women have you learned from?” I am sad to say none. At the time I failed to realize I cannot act like my fellow officers, all men, and get the same results. After our conversation, I spent my time researching women in military leadership roles, reading books about successful women CEOs, and then started looking at myself. My research made me realize these women were not much different than myself. I found out I was facing the same hurdles as they once did. One thing that stood out to me is the lack of confidence many women have in leadership roles. I personally have always struggled with confidence and felt more at ease that they also did at one time. I had to face my fears and do what made me feel uncomfortable. I also learned that you must keep pushing for the organization goal and for your own personal goals. If someone is not in your corner, then it might be time to look for a new place or person. This means if you have a mentor that is not willing to help you, then you should look to find someone that is. The information I found brought me to leading as me, not as what I think others want me to be and not how my fellow men lead. I had learned from men and had seen their leadership traits and thought that would work for me. At times being overbearing and too direct was not successful. I had to soften my tone and bring a different approach to get the same outcome. This took some time for me to finesse this approach. Once I had it down, I found out it came more natural to me. I have been called “mom”, which is okay to me. I truly love my fire family and do act like mom from time to time. A mom will make sure her family is safe and this is the most important job of any leader. I show them how I truly care for them. Things finally started to fall into place for me and my crew once I started acting like myself.
My advice for women in the fire service, or those who work with them is to be yourself. I butted my head against the wall for years trying to lead like the men I worked with in an effort to conform. I found out I could not lead my crews and others as they did. I had to take a step back, move forward with my spin on things. I had to be open and at times vulnerable with myself and others around me. I tried to find a female mentor to help me with my journey. I was not successful at this. I spoke very briefly to a few, but no one that I was able to for long term. I since have made it my main goal to be a mentor for other women in and out of the fire service. After all this, finally being in a leadership position came much easier and when I turned around, I had people!
Wylie Fire Department (TX)