“After you’ve left the fire department – do you want to be venerated or vilified?” — Gary Ludwig
“Taking assessment centers and interviewing for a fire leadership position is just the first step. The real assessment center and how you will be judged takes place the rest of your career on how well you performed.” — Gary Ludwig
How Will You Be Remembered?
If you were to die tomorrow, what kind of leader will you be known for while you were serving in the fire service? If you retired tomorrow, will your firefighters be happy to see you go or miss your leadership? And if you were retired and died years later, would the fire department you served even send representatives to your funeral?
You will not get to write or determine your final testament of how you did when you served as a company or chief fire officer – the firefighters who served with you get that right, and they will stand in judgment. They will have the final say so and will write the final chapter of your career with their own words when they speak of you after you have left.
I’ve been in fire departments where some company and chief officers have made such a positive or negative impact that 15, 20, 30 years or more after they retire, they are still remembered and talked about by those that served with them. Even newer members of the department who never worked with the person hear stories of them and the actions they took while on the job.
Some are remembered in a good way, and others will be known as the worst firefighter, company officer, or chief in the history of the fire department. If you made a positive or negative impact, your legacy might live on well after you are gone. I have worked in fire departments where company and chief fire officers who are long retired and some who have died long ago are still talked about in glowing or toxic terms. Some are admired, and some are despised. Still, with others, I have witnessed firefighters come to their funeral and salute the body in the casket or the closed casket one last time when no order to salute was given at that moment because they admired and respected the person so much.
I have known fire officers that were so loathed that when they held their retirement party on a day where people on their shift could come because they were off duty – no one came. I have seen chief officers who could hold their retirement party in a phone booth because of the number of participants who came to wish them well. If their family had not been there, no one would have been there. Still, with others, I have seen chief officers sneak out the backdoor on their last day to avoid anyone knowing they left because they know anyone saying goodbye to them would be joyous. That is how little they were respected as a fire officer.
What was the difference between those who were venerated and those who were vilified? Those who’s legacy will live on positively were change agents. They led firefighters and did not manage them. They promoted a culture of diversity and inclusiveness where even when a firefighter who was not carrying their weight, they weren’t disciplined, but they were lifted-up, mentored, coached, and encouraged to be better than they were. These change agents did not believe in a rule-driven fire department, they believed in a value-driven fire department where firefighters did the right things for the right reasons, treated everyone fairly, and gave their all on every call, regardless of the nature of the call. They knew if you operated with values, all the rules would be followed.
These fire leaders who have been remembered for years well after their retirement or death did not allow bullying of other firefighters. They did not lead that you were either a part of the Good Ole Boys Club or you weren’t. Everyone was a part of one team.
These fire service leaders mentored and coached their subordinates so that the next generation of firefighters was prepared to step into leadership roles and serve. They lead by example.
Always Do the Right Thing for the Right Reason
Another method for being remembered well beyond your retirement or death after being a fire service leader is to respect others and be honorable. Do the right things for the right reasons and don't try to screw over your fellow firefighters. Don’t abuse your position and use it to harm others like I have seen so many do and they are remembered for just that – being a bully.
Chances are you will not be remembered for curing cancer, wiping out some horrible disease, revolutionizing the world financial system or anything else that will rise to the level that your birth or death date will be announced by some radio announcer 50 years later because of how important you were. Instead, you will be remembered for how you treated others, how well you performed your job, and how much you prepared those coming up behind you to carry on the tradition and service found in your department. This quote is attributed to many – “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
All of us should leave it better than we found it. Your mission as a company or chief fire officer should also be to leave your fire department better than you found it the day you walked in the door for your first shift.
Fully Involved Leadership: Successful Strategies in Leadership from the Firefighter to the Fire Chief
©2019 by Gary Ludwig
About the Author
Gary Ludwig currently serves as the fire chief of the ISO Class 1 Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department and is the 1st vice president for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He has 41 years of fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ludwig started his career with the City of St. Louis at age 18, rising through the ranks and retiring as the chief paramedic of the St. Louis Fire Department after 25 years of service. He has also served 10 years as a deputy fire chief for the Memphis Fire Department after retiring from St. Louis. Ludwig previously served on the EMS Executive Board for the IAFC for 22 years, with six years as chair. He has a master’s degree in business and management and has been a licensed paramedic for over 39 years. Ludwig has won numerous awards, including those for heroism, the prestigious James O. Page EMS Leadership Award (2014) and the IAFC EMS Section’s James O. Page Achievement Award (2018). He is a member of the FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board.