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Getting by Giving

November 16, 2010

Today I am starting a new job as a deputy fire chief in a fire district near Seattle. As such, I have been pretty consumed with the details of moving and starting a new job rather than keeping up with my homeland security reading and preparing this week’s post. Nevertheless, it strikes me that the odyssey upon which I am embarking offers a new prism through which to observe what’s happening in our field at the state and local levels.

Over the past several months, I have commented often about the importance of leadership in dealing with the challenges we face. As such, it should come as no surprise that I was attracted to my new position by a charismatic fire chief with a reputation for innovation and integrity. During the interview process, his commitment to these ideals became more than evident.

The commitment of the community and the firefighters to his success was also evident. This is not to say he has enjoyed a smooth tenure since taking up the position a bit less than a year ago. Indeed, the burgeoning fiscal crisis, the annexation of a portion of his district by a neighboring city and a campaign by the union local representing firefighters from his last department to pass a vote of no-confidence in his leadership have presented personal and professional challenges. Fully aware of these issues when I applied, it was was his pleasant (cheerful really) demeanor and ability to see the opportunities in these challenges that convinced me to join his team.

From what I can see so far, the community, the elected fire commission and the firefighters themselves see in their chief the hope of a better future despite the challenges they face as well. His ability to articulate a clear and shared vision, involve others in charting a way forward, give the work back and manage the pace of change so the challenges remain manageable have given people tangible evidence of his commitment to their welfare as well as that of the organization and the community.

One of the things that seems to distinguish the agency I am joining from some of its peers is its commitment to learning. My role comes with an unusual and unexpected title for a fire department: chief learning officer. Besides overseeing training, I am responsible for the fire district’s emergency management, risk management, research and development, and safety and wellness programs. The combination of these portfolios reflects an appreciation of the changing nature of fire and rescue services and a desire to shape the service in ways that reflect the relative shift in emphasis away from fire-related services to other activities that address risks arising from natural and technological hazards.

I have a lot to learn about my new community, the fire district, my new colleagues and my new role. In the process of getting settled, I will undoubtedly learn a great deal about myself and my capacity to endure change. One of the most important things I have learned from past moves is the importance of accepting both my limitations and the assistance of others. In the process I have become much more aware that when I recognize and maximize others’ strengths by asking for their help we both get something valuable in return.

What are the most important lessons you have learned from the experience of taking a new job or assuming a new role in homeland security? How have you shared these lessons with others and how did you benefit from that experience? How can we maximize the strengths of others to benefit the whole of the homeland security enterprise?

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