Mentoring With Humility In The Fire Service

Mentoring is one of the greatest investments anyone can ever make into another human being’s life. Even more rewarding is when you invest time in a firefighter or fire officer because you will change the life of that person and those whom they serve. There are some key ingredients to being a successful mentor, HUMiLITY being one of them.

Tragic Changes In The Fire Service

The Twin Towers

Before 911, if you were a rookie in the New York City fire department, they often put you with one of the most senior firefighters in the station. It was the responsibility of that senior firefighter to raise up the next generation of the bravest by leading the way and mentoring those new recruits.

After 9/11 they had lost so many key firefighters that they had to start going to the Fire Academy more than ever before. Not only did these new recruits have less fire experience, but they also had less life experience.

These changes in the fire service required more mentoring than ever before for a lot of different fire agencies.

Less Than Tragic Changes In The Fire Service

Fire prevention awareness and fire prevention systems advancement has decreased the incidence of fires in communities.  This has also, by default, reduced the experience of firefighters in the most recent generations.  This is an important reason why mentoring is so important now more than ever.

Advancement and Awareness in Fire Prevention

One Of My Mentors

I started off just like many before me, with not much wisdom but great energy.  Energy to set the world on fire. I can look back on my career and see the number of people who invested in me with great humility, patience, wisdom, and encouragement.

Along with performing the job, I was placed in a position of responsibility early.  I was able to help start the paramedic program in the department I was in.  I was fortunate enough to be mentored by Dr. Larry Carly, who’s now gone to be with the Lord.

What My Mentor Expected Of Me

At one of our first Paramedic in-services, Dr. Carly established what he expected from all of us as professionals. First and foremost, we had to be open and honest  about everything. This included when we made a mistake. Dr. Carly taught us that when we make a mistake, and we will make a mistake, it’s important to be honest immediately.

I was so impressed with his courage and humility to speak the truth to us and then expect us to follow in kind.

Dr. Carly’s Story Of Humiliation

Dr. Carly shared how he blew it one day when a frequent flyer came into the emergency room was drunk as usual complaining of a headache. He did a basic assessment of the patient but did not do a CT scan, he signed the patient out and went on about his business. Several days later the patient came back with a subdural hematoma and succumbed to his injuries.

Dr. Carly said it was on him and he was going to make sure that the mistake he made was not going to be in vain. He explained to us,  if we make a mistake and we’re honest and upfront immediately, we can turn that into a teaching experience for everyone else. By considering what went wrong and what our thought processes were, we can hopefully prevent it from ever happening again.

Who Are We Really Lying Too?

Dr. Carly’s example helped me learn early in life that one of the easiest people in the world to lie to is yourself.  We will come up with all kinds of excuses on why we behave the way we do. We often blame our decisions on good intentions. However, the fact is the one and only thing we truly have is our integrity.

Don't Lie To Yourself

What Does It Take To Tell The Truth With Humility?

To do such a brave thing you must have courage and self-awareness. As a leader our best lessons to share with others often come from some of our greatest mistakes and failures.

Raising four boys to become men was a great testing ground for that and while I made many mistakes raising my children I would strive to make sure that I was completely honest with them about successes and failures.

A Second Mentor

One of my other great mentors was my city manager in Cape Coral – Terry Stewart. Terry was a former Fire Chief with incredible experience from the East Coast of Florida.  He then became the city manager. From day one he held me to the highest standard. He never accepted anything but my best because he knew that by giving my best, my staff and the public would all benefit.

Terry was an incredible mentor.  He always shared from a place of humility and never yielded from the fact that he was my boss.  As my boss, he expected for me to always work on myself. He showed me if you’re going to be a great leader and mentor, you’re always working on yourself.

One More Mentor

Another mentor of mine was a man by the name of Dale. Dale was an associate pastor who specialized in counseling.  As one might guess, I was one of his prized projects. I would go to Dale for a checkup from the neck up as he called it.  It was a measurement to see how I was doing.

Often when I came into his office I was not doing well.  I would share my struggles with my self-esteem or some other thing, I’d tell him what happened and how I reacted.  He had a great saying, “So how’s that working for you?” He knew it wasn’t working for me.  He knew how to get to the heart of my thinking and why I reacted or acted the way I did.  He helped me get back on a path of growing into the person I was supposed to be.

To this day I remember almost every lesson he taught me and now strive to pass that on to others I care about.

What I Shared As A Mentor

Just before I retired, as I was bringing in new employees to share from my experiences, I told each new employee the things I learned from each organization I served in. What I shared were not successes, but failures and tremendous lessons learned from when I wasn’t at my best. I hope to create a culture of honesty and humility to where when that employee does make a mistake they would be honest and timely and sharing that mistake with others.

If we are going to mentor others we have to establish a relationship of transparency with those we mentor. Now I’ll grant you there are certain things of a very personal nature that I only share with a handful of people, but on the professional side I was an open book by the end of my career.

Relationship of Transparency and Trust

In the book Good to Great there’s a simple principle whereby when things go well look out the window to give away credit and when things go bad the first place to look is in the mirror. Doctor Carly created a great culture at that time of paramedics who are willing to go to each other and hold each other accountable.  It was truly amazing what he did.

Now I’ll completely admit when I make mistakes, and I make many, I have learned to get over the initial feeling of embarrassment and feeling like a failure. Once I get over myself, I  go to one of my peers and share what happened.  By sharing we both learn from it.

Critical Takeaway for Mentors

The bottom line is if you want to mentor others, you don’t just come from a position of great success and all the things you did right. You start by creating a culture of honesty and truth that comes from when you do things wrong or maybe not so right.  This approach supports the hope of making it better and teaching others honesty and accountability.

I believe that if the fire service is going to continue to be successful, then all those who hold a position of influence and authority need to ‘seek’ to mentor with humility those people in their lives.

Stay tuned for the forthcoming articles in the Mentorship Series.


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