Can a leader lead without followers? The obvious answer is no. But it is a fact that being a follower is a good thing. It is my belief that leaders are not born but formed. I believe that to be a good leader you must be a good follower.
What constitutes a good follower? I believe that it is choice we make. A follower is one who can observe and listen. They watch, sometimes from a distance – sometimes from close up, and make judgments on what is happening around them. They have the ability to keep their mouths closed and open their ears. It is a trait that should be acceptable in our profession. I think our anatomy shows us that there is wisdom from on high – the Creator gave us two ears and one mouth.
Recently, the Los Angeles Leadership Academy graduated its largest class of members from around the City. There was one Fire Department civilian member who took her time off to join the heroes, not only from the LAFD, but many firefighters from surrounding communities.
We called it the “Blue Shirters” class. It was made up of members of all ranks that came once a week for four months to learn the principles of leadership. They began in the observation mode of a follower and each one emerged on the other side as accomplished readers, exercise performers, students with traits that will inspire them to move to the highest levels of involvement within their fire service careers.
The reason for this article is to tell you of the great staff that has been assembled to provide a course that all members should be interested in taking. A course that takes you to a place you might have never thought you would ever be. As one graduate said, “It changed my life.” A pretty bold statement coming from one so moved by the experience.
I attended the graduation as I have many times before. This time I was attracted by the rumor that the famous Dodger one man PR star was going to be the keynote speaker – Tommy Lasorda. B/C Gene Bednarchik, a loyal Dodger fan, was able to stop the rumors and introduce the greatest ambassador the Dodgers have ever known.
Tommy (Skipper) Lasorda is no doubt one of baseballs’ greatest legends – a Hall of Famer, a Big League manager, a man who understands leadership from the ground up. As he took to the stage it was obvious that he truly was glad to be in the midst of future leaders within the fire service.
Tommy, I hope I can call him by his first name as I respect him a great deal, greeted the assembled crowd, starting off telling a story about himself. Tommy said, “When I got up this morning my wife said, “Where are you off to now?” Tommy said, “I am going up to LA to speak to some firefighters.” Mrs. Lasorda chimed back, “You love everyone more than me.” Tommy reassured his beloved wife of over 63 years and said, “I love you more than football and basketball.” The assembled audience roared with laughter and they applauded for his marriage commitment of 63 years.
Tommy said that leadership began for him as a Boy Scout. Without hesitation and with great verbal stride Tommy recited the Scout Oath:
“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my County and to obey the Scout Law. To help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” He continued, in rapid fire and with conviction, “A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent.”
If just all of us in the fire service could recommit to these principles, our Department could put PSD out of service. Tommy challenged the new leadership graduates to lead, but not to get so far ahead of your people “that you can’t hear their voices or hear their footsteps.” He told the group that once he was called to the White House to speak before many influential people. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was scheduled to speak just before him. Somehow he managed and gave a tremendous talk. In it he said that that as a team player you must play for the name that is on the front of the shirt not what is on the back. Sometimes that was hard to do when the men he was leading made millions of dollars. Still he was able to lead.
Tommy, in his truest humility, said he had many awards and accolades in his life – awards like the World Series Championship and Hall of Fame induction. But nothing compared to his selection to lead his country’s Olympic baseball team. He led the top baseball players in America and took them to a gold medal. He was so proud and told his players that the medal belonged to the American people, not anyone else – especially not the Cubans. He said, as a manager, he was not entitled to a medal but he was never so proud of his team wearing their gold medals and singing the National Anthem.
Certainly the graduation started off with great motivation. If you would like to hear Tommy Lasorda’s complete speech you can go to YouTube and search for “Tommy Lasorda speech at the Leadership Academy” It is awesome in its entirety.
It is a tradition that the students choose a class spokesperson. There were many to choose from but the class chose Logan Fields. But something magical happened as Logan deferred to Ed Martin. Field produced an unselfish gesture that was recognized by Ed. As Ed was introduced, he came to the podium and humorously remarked how his position that day behind Tommy’s great speech was just what Tommy had experienced when President Reagan asked him to speak after Margaret Thatcher. But Ed went on to give a great keynote speech on behalf of his classmates.
May I share with you Ed Martin’s speech at the Leadership Academy’s Graduation?
“Good morning honored guest, chiefs, family and friends and welcome to the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Leadership Academy Class of 13-1 graduation ceremonies. Today you will hear about the imparted theme of the last four months which is leadership. One of the purposes of this course is to teach a life long commitment to the study of leadership. You may be asking yourselves what the definition of a leader is – traits such as courage, confidence, integrity, loyalty, honor and various other qualities. These are just some of the attributes that define a leader.
To say that this class has been impacting would underscore the very trademark of this program. I am here to tell you that this is a life changer. I wish that this training had been available ten years ago. I would have been a better husband, father and overall person today. I thought to tell you all the ways I have been personally affected but then I would be betraying the very essence that exemplifies a good leader. The very meaning of what distinguishes a leader – the simple act of unselfishness, putting others before yourself. Looking out for the needs of subordinates is the essence of leadership.
Ed continued with an unbelievable sign of humility. “There was never a more classic example of unselfishness displayed when collectively we went to select a group spokesperson. Eight candidates were purposed and the top two were Logan Fields and me. Logan was selected, not me. To everyone’s surprise, he chose to defer his opportunity to me as a tribute to my seniority and wisdom. That just means I’m old. (Ed Martin is a senior veteran firefighter in Battalion 10). This was by far the greatest compliment that has ever been conveyed to me. I applaud you for your character.”
Ed then had Logan rise and a standing ovation was given from his classmates. Ed continued, “Logan, you deserve it, in so much as in that one single act . . . you defined leadership.”
“There have been many guest speakers that have addressed this class, many of them leaders in their own right. All of them spoke of various qualities of leadership but almost all of them centered on one element or core, and that is unselfishness. Put your people first and you will be an effective leader.
“So begs the question, what is leadership? Can it be acquired knowledge that you learn through instruction? Leadership is both a science and an art. Leadership is both rational and emotional. Therefore, as a science it can be studied, charted, compared, and as an art it can be appreciated. And then we rationalize leadership by saying people are different in their approach to leadership in their thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, needs and fears, goals and ambitions, strengths and weaknesses, indicating that leadership is often complex and can not be a mere checklist.
“Good leadership involves reaching out and touching other’s feelings. Emotions play a big part of leadership, like the ability to inspire. Dr. Martin Luther King is a great example of this. He touched people’s hearts as well as their minds. But a good leader needs to look at both the rational and emotional outcome of their actions.
“As you might have already figured out there is a strong correlation between leaders and followers. A famous quote states, “No man is an island unto himself,” everyone is part of the continent, a part of the main. There is no simple line dividing them, they merge. Many people believe that you are born a leader or not, and others believe that life experiences shape you into a leader. Quite frankly it is both and neither. To think that leadership is an innate or acquired quality is to ignore the fact that each one of us in some past, present or future moment has faced or will face a leadership opportunity and will be defined on how we choose to deal with that moment.”
Ed continued, “Like the moment we came together as a class to come up with the motto. Our motto is “Navigating the future for those inspired to follow.” We speak of the future with a new found compass to get us there – put others before you. The future leaders of the class will be guided with behavioral techniques that will allow us to make sound decisions, impartial judgments and will enable us to engage those we lead in an exemplary manner.
In closing, on a personal level, I lost my best friend on February 17, the Sunday before the captain’s exam. I’ve asked myself quite often since then, “Was I the best friend I could’ve been?” And now using the leadership problem solving model to identify what was happening in the relationship, I could have used the Emotional Intelligence theory and the leader theory of Self Awareness, some of the techniques taught over the last four months, it would have helped me to be something else for my friend. I wish I had had them earlier. But I learned it is never too late to be a better father, a better friend and to be better at treating others with respect and dignity. Looking inside yourself is very humbling but a necessary component in leadership and I challenge all of you to ask yourselves, “Am I putting others before me.” If not, how is that working for you? And to all the officers, supervisors, managers, and future leaders in attendance, I ask that you be a leader that people want to follow and not a leader you have to follow.”
As many prepare for the captain’s exam, consider the words of Dodger great Tommy Lasorda and Firefighter Ed Martin, the importance of what is needed in the leadership roles that lay ahead in promotions and even in your personal life.
Please consider the Leadership Academy and honor the support that it receives from the LA Firemen’s Credit Union, Sertoma, and the Fire Foundation. This course has been prepared for you by the likes of Captains Chuck Ruddell, Paul Nelson, John Paxton, and Battalion Chief Randy Beaty, and a squadron of keynote speakers and facilitors like Captains Matt Ott, Kristin Crowley and Administrative Staff, Kimberly Lopez.
The “Blue Shirters” have dominated the classroom spaces but there is always room for more, especially captains and chiefs. As a new B/C I thought, ‘what can learn from this course?’ After taking the Academy, I was ashamed that I had that arrogant attitude. So I encourage those of rank amongst the LAFD to realize that you are not done – in knowing yourself and seeking self-improvement. You too can consider the future knowledge that awaits you in the upper classrooms at FHMTC. And know that you can teach old dogs new tricks.
Frank Hotchkins would be proud of you; those under your command will admire your efforts. And as Ed Martin so humbly admitted, “It was an experience that changed my life.”
By S.J. Ruda