Read an Excerpt
"What makes them do it?" is a question I have been asked hundreds of times in the course of my travels through the United States and other parts of the world. It is a natural question. Why do people run into burning buildings that they know just might be the most dangerous locations in the world? It is not by accident that the universally accepted metaphor for hell is an inferno, and no one understands this concept better than our firefighters. Fire is a terrible confrontation, and it is always imminent-it can easily grow to twice its size with every minute an object is aflame. Yet, the firefighters go in. They have a job to do. They are trained and motivated, certainly, but most of all they are led. Who leads them and how do the leaders come to be within the organizational structure of fire departments?
Let me tell you my own story.
There were three goals in my mind that day so many years ago when I first took the oath of office as a New York City fireman (before the term firefighter came into common usage). No one had given me that job. I had studied for the intelligence examination, and I had exercised regularly enough to pass the physical test and then some more so I would distinguish myself. But from the moment I was sworn in to the ranks of New York's bravest, I began to feel an indebtedness that I continue to carry today, for the department placed me among the smartest, most focused, most inspiring leaders that exist in any organization. These men (now men and women) gave me a sense of myself-my capabilities and limitations-that enabled me to succeed at just about anything I have since set my mind to do.
In the beginning of my fire servicecareer I did not think of leadership at all. I did not think about being an officer or a leader. I had no lofty desires. I just took stock in the fact that I was a New York City fireman. I knew that I had the best position in the world, and I was just happy beyond words to be in "the job."
The novice firefighter is called the probie, and when I think back to my days as a probationary fireman, and then through my early years of firefighting, every experience I had and every memory I retain seems to have reinforced the three goals I held as I raised up my hand to be sworn in.
First of all, I wanted to do a good job. I realized I was part of an organization, part of a larger group of firefighters, in which life and death depended on what I did. I knew that mere seconds could often determine if a life was saved or lost-every firefighter internalizes that fact from his first day of training. There is no time to second-guess a decision when fighting a fire. In the emergency services, a course of action has to be right from the moment it is determined, and that takes significant education, training, experience, and a willingness to be certain of and accountable for your decisions. Not many organizations have such an overarching mortal importance in their missions, but that is why the training of leaders in the fire service is so fundamental in its day-to-day operations and so crucial in its consequence. No organization will succeed if it doesn't provide potential leaders with the strong guidelines and mentoring to figure out for him- or herself how to progress positively in a career. In an organization like a fire department, a lack of leadership policy will kill people. I learned all this in the first few days of wearing the uniform, and the structure of the department's management made me feel secure in the nation's most dangerous occupation. I knew my supervisors (the lieutenants, captains, and chief) would do everything possible to keep me focused on my mission and to keep me safe. It was obvious from the beginning that they cared about me, and I wanted to care about them as well. I knew I could do a good job.
My second goal was to be accepted by my peers. It is never easy to be inserted into an established organization, even if you are doing something you have wanted to do for much of your life. You are the new guy on the street, and you want to make friends. But you also want to represent yourself as competent and as an independent thinker. In an organization such as the fire department, though, you have to most of all have a willing mind to be a part of the group. To be of an independent mind while also existing in a group dynamic is a balance that is surprisingly easy to attain in the firehouse, mostly because the organization's shared values-saving lives and property-is so clear. The most fundamental mission for the firefighter is to protect life, a goal that is easily understood when you are taken into a group that has been operating successfully long before you arrived.
True, you do have to prove yourself in the firehouse, and sometimes the firefighters do not make it easy for you. The probationary firefighter is the one who is inevitably asked to go to the store, wash the dishes, sweep the floor, clean the tools, and wash the rig. If he or she dives enthusiastically into the work, the probationary period is painless and relief will come in the support the young firefighter will get from all the senior whips-those who come from "the days of leather hose and wooden fire hydrants." This is the first indication of the leadership mentality that is built into the organization of the fire service. The young, in the firehouse culture, see the value of making themselves willing to learn, as the sage firefighters pass on their secrets in return.
I hated the housecleaning-the ignominy of washing pots and pans when I had trained to save lives. And, I hated being called the probie by everyone. The captain imagined dirt in every corner and on the surface of every tool and ordered me to mop it or polish it. I resented it. Still, I tried to put gusto into every small and insignificant act, and then finally that first fire came. Suddenly, I was on my hands and knees with all the old salts, in the midst of a whirlwind of blinding smoke and searing heat. The captain brought me up to the nozzle, and the senior men backed me up as we went through several rooms of fire in a multiple dwelling. But most important, I felt hands on my back, urging me gently forward, and people all around me finally began calling me Dennis. There is no greater thrill than to be at your first real fire and to be called by your rightful name. The lesson I brought out of the smoking ruin that day is one that I have applied every day since: You can always tell a true leader by the way he treats and teaches the man in the lowest level: the probie.
The third thought in my mind that swearing-in day was simple: I wanted to be the man my mother loved. She spent a lifetime making me ready for school, supporting me during the bad times as well as the good, and advising me with the right information at the right time on countless occasions. Mostly she would say, "You better shape up, kid," which was her way of saying that I was not meeting her expectations-and her expectations were never unreasonable. Trying to be the man my mother loved also means that I wanted to be, then and now, a person who is open and fair to all and who wants to accept every responsibility that comes to the door.
After a lifetime of retrospection, I can now see how vital to my future those early thoughts were. I did not know then, in formulating a list of silent goals, that I was actively involving myself in the leadership program of the New York Fire Department, or that leadership was fundamental to every decision, either in the firehouse or in the middle of a fire. It came with the territory-a territory that had been nurturing courageous men and successful leaders since the fire department was first organized as a paid force in 1865.
Leadership! To want to do a good job was to intuit the life and death nature of firefighting. A fundamental rule in management is that the leader must see clearly the goal of the organization and how to direct people in attaining that goal. The fire department's goal of preserving life and property is constant and shared by everyone from the commissioner to the probie. We don't have to tell people that they can't lead without a shared goal; the instruction is in their very lifestyle.
Leadership! To be accepted by my peers implied that I understood the history and culture of those with whom I rode the back end of a fire pumper. It is difficult to lead people without understanding their past and how they came to be where they are. The fire department has a long list of heroic individuals who have been lost in the line of duty, and with every action in the job, and particularly in the fires, that history is remembered and honored. That historical memory brings with it the motivation to excel, and it supports a rationale that brings men and women to place themselves in mortal danger in the course of their work-and it inspires them to follow their leader.
Leadership! To be the man my mother loved is to apply the integrity I associate with my mother's view of the world to the day-to-day work of the firefighter. Integrity is one of the most important lessons of leadership, and it must be clearly seen in the leader's actions. The actions must be transparent and presented in an environment of intelligence and fairness, and they must be resolute and seen as a commitment. This is a fundamental rule in good leadership, for no one is going to effectively follow a leader he doesn't trust; and in the fire department, all leadership implies trust. This is why the title of this book suggests a leadership style that has worked so effectively in life-and-death situations- the same kind of leadership profile that can be effective in your own organization. To be the first in and last out will earn the trust of all around you and will even inspire some in your organization to greatness. Most important, being first in and last out will define your integrity.
To me there are just two schools of management. There is the knock-'em-over-the- head school, illustrated by the CEO who might say, "All right, this year we are going to send every line manager to Harvard for sensitivity training...." It doesn't take much to see that this "this could work" approach to problem solving is a risky style of management, and one that can be costly. Then there is the more subtle management method, the one in which problem solving is found in the history, culture, values, and experience of the organization, in which the problem-solvers are nurtured in the organization's every-day-and-every-way school of leadership. In this managerial structure, leaders are developed in much the same way we develop our character-it is not something to be learned in a course but developed over a lifetime of doing things in a certain way, the "first in, last out" way.
In the New York Fire Department, a leader is molded by the structure of the job, and John Salka has brought that idea to life within the pages of this important book for all managers. I first met John seven years ago through the pages of Firehouse magazine. He was a young captain writing on the subject of management during an emergency scene. I saw him then as an insightful up-and-coming thinker in the fire service. And then, during those tragic and challenging days of Ground Zero, I saw John managing several complicated operations. It was dangerous work. There were many people depending on him. I watched John carefully and worked under his supervision. He was inspiring.
I know that John's influence and reputation at the scene of an emergency will speak to managers in every walk of life who will read this book. You don't have to be operating within a mission where lives are at stake to take value from these pages. You simply have to care about how you manage and want to do better. There are many valuable leadership lessons to be taken away from John Salka's experience and wisdom, but none as great as the one that brings you to be the first one in and the last one out.
New York City
You're the Chief
I've been working on this book for more than twenty years, ever since I stepped down from the cab of 11 Truck's apparatus and came face-to-face with a big fire that was gutting a ConEd plant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. I was a young man then, twenty- two years old, and I was, like all young men, worldly, wise beyond my years, and fearless.
I'd been on the job only a little while, having been appointed back in 1979. After graduating from the academy, I was assigned to 34 Engine, but that was too quiet for me, so I worked the system and got over to 11 Truck, on the Lower East Side. Our firehouse was on East Second Street, between Avenues B and C. Alphabet City. I loved it. I loved everything about being a firefighter. Not only that, but I figured I was getting pretty good at it. I had already made up my mind that there wasn't much a fire could throw at me that I couldn't handle.
The call came in during a day tour. As I said, I was on 11 Truck then, which shared quarters with 28 Engine. Most of the firehouses in New York house two units, both an engine and a truck company. Sometimes you'll hear a truck company referred to as a ladder company. Same thing. In the fire service we refer to the various firehouses by the units they house, so my firehouse at the time was known simply as 28 & 11. Engines carry the hose and pump the water, and the firefighters who man the engine rig are the ones who'll stretch the hose to the location of the fire and literally crawl right into the room that's burning and smother the flames beneath water that exits the nozzle like a pile driver, at three hundred gallons per minute. The ladder company firefighters, or truckies, force open doors, vent windows, cut the roof, and perform search-and-rescue. These two units complement each other perfectly; together, they manage all the key jobs that must be accomplished to fight a fire successfully.
On the day the call came in, I was the junior man on 11 Truck. Most of the other men in the company had worked there for years, and being the new guy, I was usually assigned one of the positions, like the can or irons, that for safety and training reasons would keep me close to the officer. Wherever that officer went, I went. In addition, all around me were some of the best firefighters in the city. I could learn more from them in a day than in an entire week at the Fire Academy.
I had grown up in the quiet suburbs of Long Island, so the neighborhood around 11 Truck seemed almost exotic to me, and as we'd go to and from calls, I was mesmerized by the endless rows of bodegas that flew past as we raced down Avenue B, or the blocks of vacant tenement buildings that stood quietly by as we shot along the streets of the Lower East Side. But it wasn't even the buildings I was interested in, so much as the people. This was 1981, a time when this neighborhood was sort of a freaky place, known mainly for its drug addicts and bohemian types, a combination that provided plenty to look at.
Lately, however, I'd decided to start acting like the hardened fireman I was sure I was becoming, and now, riding to the call, I didn't even bother to look up from my gear. I imagined myself a seasoned smoke eater, just taking care of business. But then we pulled up at the fire, and suddenly I felt like it was my first day on the job again.
The fire was at the ConEdison building on Fourteenth Street, near the East River. We were the second-due truck there, after 3 Ladder (second-due means we arrived after 3 Ladder; our job was to back them up), so several other units were already there when we pulled up. As I hopped down from the apparatus, the first thing I noticed about this building was its size. It was gigantic. It sprawled across an entire block, and its thick walls stretched high above the sidewalk. There were hardly any windows. Looking up from the foot of the building, I saw nothing but the sheer concrete wall, and then the sky; but from across the street I could see the smokestacks rising above the power plant like watchtowers. Here was a fortress at the edge of the East River, and somewhere inside it was a fire. Smoke was in the air.
Although there was obviously a serious problem inside the plant, things were not moving that quickly. Usually, in ordinary fires (if there is such a thing), companies arrive and instantly go to work in their assigned areas. These assignments are predetermined and well known to every firefighter on every rig. The first engine and truck to arrive go to the fire floor. The second truck company reports to the floor above, to search for people trapped by the flames. The second engine assists the first engine, and so forth. These jobs apply to a fire in a multiple-residence dwelling (MD). There are other configurations for different types of MDs, as well as for private homes and commercial buildings, but there was no specific protocol for the ConEd plant.
Since we were second-due, we "stood fast," or waited with our apparatus as our officers got a handle on the incident and worked out a strategy. The chief was talking to the ConEd people, trying to gather as much information as possible before putting companies into the building. At the same time, engines were connecting to hydrants, truck chauffeurs were positioning their apparatus for access to the building, and both officers and firefighters were assembling with tools, Scott Air Packs, radios, and other equipment, ready to go to work.
Now, this particular fire turned out to be a hydrogen fire, an oddball kind of fire, and there's nothing that puts a guy on edge like a fire he's never seen before. We really couldn't see the beast yet, and the ConEd people had been a little sketchy about what exactly was wrong, but we could clearly identify the sharp cracks and deep roaring sound so common to large conflagrations. Everyone was a little nervous; you could see it in the looks we exchanged with one another, the way some of us fumbled around with our equipment, the sudden silence that fell over us.
Approaching the fire, its heat lunging at us, we could dimly see a huge cylindrical tank at the inferno's core. Superheated by the frenzy all around it, its contents were making a tremendous noise-a shrill, piercing whistle that made you, the instant you heard it, just want to get the hell out of there.
While I can't say exactly what the other guys were thinking or feeling, I know what hit me as I stared at that snarling orange whirlwind. It was fear, but not like any I'd experienced before. It was a cold, coiling fear that took my breath away. By some unspoken consensus, we had slowed almost to a halt when our lieutenant turned around, looked each of us in the eye, and said, "Follow me." Turning around, without looking to see if we were behind him, he plunged toward the flames. And we followed.
"First in, last out." That sums up the leadership code of the FDNY. Like most other leadership principles, it's a simple concept, but one that's difficult to live up to. Company officers are expected to be the first into every fire and the last to leave. It's our duty to expose ourselves to the same risks we ask our guys to take. It's part of the sacred trust that exists between officers and firefighters. "First in, last out" encompasses key leadership qualities like integrity, commitment, focus, and intensity. Even Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, one of New York City's greatest mayors (and greatest fire buffs), knew that this was the key to leadership. In response to critics who complained that he spent more time at fires than at City Hall, La Guardia asked, "[What] would the men think if I didn't have the guts to go where they went, especially if there was danger?"
Since that day as the junior man on 11 Truck, I've observed many different styles of leadership. I've also had many chances to develop my own, first as a lieutenant, then as a captain, and finally as the chief of Battalion 18, in the Bronx. At the moment, I'm responsible for the lives of 150 firefighters and countless more citizens. On the apparatus floor of my Bronx firehouse is 58 Truck, a brand-new Seagrave tower ladder apparatus. Weighing several tons, it's a squat, pug-nosed beast wrapped in the gleaming red-and- white colors of the FDNY. Even when fully extended, its ninety-five-foot boom (or ladder) can withstand the strain of the thousand gallons per minute being directed by the firefighter perched in its bucket-a tremendous force that can actually overturn a truck that's not properly stabilized. In the bay next door is 45 Engine. Like its neighbor, this Seagrave pumper is low, heavy, and specially modified for the FDNY's unique needs. It can deliver a thousand gallons of water per minute from its pumps, while the rear hose bed offers room for nearly a half ton of hose. Together, the apparatuses represent a $1 million investment by New York City. And there are two more firehouses within my battalion, each housing a similar engine-and-truck one-two punch.
In addition to serving in traditional, hierarchical leadership roles (such as lieutenant and captain), it's my privilege to have had many different leadership opportunities. I've taught probies at the academy. I've created special training programs that help firefighters adapt to the changing realities of our work. I was one of original covering officers selected to work in the newly created Special Operations Command. I helped manage the recovery effort at Ground Zero. But mainly what I've done is watch how officers in the FDNY-the Fire Department of the City of New York-lead their people. Over the past twenty years I've learned about leadership from people whose bravery, honor, and dedication are a constant inspiration to me.
Not all my leadership role models have come from within the department, however. It's not like we hold the secret formula or something. But that's the great thing about leadership: you find worthwhile examples of it in all industries and organizations. Great leaders everywhere draw on the same principles and strategies to accomplish their goals. There are things I can learn from a business leader about motivation, just as there are things I can teach that leader about execution.
But I can't tell you my leadership story, or even the story of leadership in the FDNY, without talking for a second about organizations themselves-those environments within which leadership is exercized. Organizations have always been society's best way of achieving its various goals. If you don't believe me, just stop and take a closer look at the world around you: organizations define, measure, and direct the flow of our everyday lives. Profit, nonprofit, or government agency, every organization exists in order to accomplish some objective that can't be achieved through individual effort. The father of modern management, Peter Drucker, called organizations "the organs of society." Which, of course, is very true. Organizations are not created to serve themselves but to serve the communities within which they exist.
The FDNY is no different. All told, it's an organization comprising 8,599 firefighters, 2,629 officers, 203 engine companies, 143 truck companies, 7 squads, 5 rescue companies, 3 marine companies, and a haz-mat company. I think those are pretty impressive statistics, and I know the department loves them dearly. And why not? They describe a strong organization, staffed by able, intelligent, and resourceful men and women with vast material resources at their disposal.
But I always find myself more interested in another set of numbers. The "New York" part of FDNY is a constant reminder of our responsibility to the people of this great city. And New York doesn't mean just that stuff in the "I Love NY" commercials, but all of New York City, every square mile of that great, teeming metropolis composed of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, with its 8 million people and three hundred square miles of skyscrapers, apartment buildings, waterfront, warehouses, industrial complexes, and homes.
Whenever I contemplate that other set of numbers-the New York City set-I feel great pride in the FDNY's accomplishments. But the inequality of the two sets of statistics-I mean, you've got this one relatively miniscule organization responsible for the safety of one of the world's biggest cities-points to the importance of the one thing that makes organizations work: leadership.
Leadership is what makes organizations effective. It's the essential spark that makes things happen. The same kind of leadership that creates successful corporations also makes nonprofits more productive, nations more vigorous, and armies more powerful. It also makes hospitals more effective and teachers more inspiring. Without leadership, an organization is just a loosely connected group of people operating without a unifying focus or coordinating mission, pursuing different goals, flailing in a hundred sometimes contradictory directions. In fact, one of the most useful things that came out of the so- called New Economy was proof of the necessity of leadership. The notions that new technologies had made leadership and management obsolete, that self-directed work teams would replace the traditional organizational structures, and that everyone could be "self-managing" were exposed as a load of bull.
In short, organizations need leaders because leaders unify groups of people through mutually held values and goals and help them to achieve common objectives. That's my personal definition-there are others out there, but they all boil down to the same thing: leadership makes organizations work. Leadership guides and directs, it prioritizes and orients, it teaches and develops. It processes information and makes it useful. It strategizes and plans, envisions and dreams. Let me break it down even more: since organizations need leaders in order to function, and since we've already discussed how organizations make our society work, you don't have to go very far to see that leadership itself is an important force in our world.
I think it's this idea of leadership as a creative force that makes what passes for leadership today even more depressing. I'm thinking, of course, of the leaders of Enron, Tyco, Arthur Anderson, and HealthSouth, and the scores of others who have embroiled their companies in scandal or fraud.
But how well does my definition of leadership hold up in the real world? Let's take another look at it: Leaders unify groups of people through mutually held values and goals and help them to achieve common objectives. Hmm. According to my definition, even someone like Ken Lay is a leader. Didn't he rally his Enronites around the goal of making lots of money any way they could? And didn't he establish a value system (that is, "Anything goes") that permitted them to do whatever it took to achieve that goal? If someone succeeds in working through his people to achieve commonly held objectives (no matter what they are), then he's a leader, right? But something in your gut disagrees with this. I know something in mine does. It just seems wrong.
So if my gut's at all accurate, leadership means something more than just achieving goals through others. To really talk about leadership in a meaningful way, we need to come up with a way to talk about it that passes our gut test. For instance, I like Drucker's idea that all organizations exist to serve society, and therefore leaders have to concern themselves with the social impacts and social responsibilities of their organizations.
Using that idea as a jumping-off point, here's what I think makes a great leader: not only do you have to work with your people to enable them to make good things happen for your organization, but you've got to take into account the goals and values of all the people your organization touches, from your shareholders to your employees to your customers to the larger community that may be affected by your actions. I don't put this out there lightly; it's a big responsibility. But the important thing is that, as a leader, you recognize this responsibility and strive to meet it.
At the moment, our country faces enormous crises, and I don't think it's an overstatement to say that the character of our response will shape the world for generations to come. And as if the shocks of the new century weren't enough-the threat of terrorists and rogue nations, of companies that have misled the very society they were meant to serve, of an uncertain global environment-we're still struggling with those old standbys of racism, poverty, disease, and war. We hear about solutions to these conundrums (usually around election time), solutions that are always touted as the "answer." Sometimes these answers appear as a new patent, or a new piece of legislation, or a new treaty, or a military victory. But in reality, there is only one answer to these problems, and that's leadership.
I've been pondering and studying leadership-both firsthand and on the printed page-ever since that day as the junior man on 11 Truck. Subsequent promotions only sharpened my desire (and quite frankly, my need) to know everything there was to know about leading people effectively. Of course, I don't have all the answers, but my experiences as a leader in this very successful, world-famous organization have certainly given me access to insights, wisdom, and practical strategies that I hope will prove valuable to other leaders, across all organizations and at all levels of development.
Because I feel that as a leader, you're never done, I've always tried to read as many leadership books as I can. I prowl the business section of the bookstores, and when a new one comes out, I snatch it up. And I'm rarely disappointed. I almost always learn something new, or rediscover something I'd forgotten, or gain a new perspective on an old challenge.
But here's the thing that bugs me. A lot of these books seem to assume that you're either a CEO or on the verge of becoming one, and that there are only a handful of leaders in the world-a small group (all men, by the way) who answer to the names Jack Welch, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, or if you're into history, maybe Gandhi, George Patton, and Abraham Lincoln. Now, I truly believe that each of these men is or was a great leader, and that there is a tremendous amount to be learned from examining how they led their people through some extremely challenging situations. That said, I've always felt that it's a shame we never get to hear from the department supervisor in Houston who's discovered ways to double the productivity of her people, or the manager in Sacramento whose team leads the company in money-saving innovations, or even, yes, the FDNY captain who knows how to get the job done no matter how big and ugly it is. Even if I don't know all of these people's names, I can guarantee that they do exist, and that there are many more like them.
Unlike CEOs or other top executives, these leaders don't have the power to set strategy, reorganize the corporation, or implement a brand-new vision that will lead the company into the next century. But just like CEOs, they perform all the basic functions of a leader:
They guide people's efforts toward a common goal.
They leverage their organization's traditions, culture, and values to unify people in a common cause.
They help people grow and develop through teaching and mentoring.
They forge effective relationships with people that allow for clear communication of goals, priorities, and expectations.
So I set out to write the kind of straight-talking book I've always wanted to read, one that offered practical leadership insights to leaders at all levels, from the frontline supervisor to the CEO.
The most essential of these insights, "first in, last out," is the foundation of FDNY leadership and encompasses such vital areas as building trust, opening communications, emphasizing transparency, and working alongside your people. But before we begin to explore how you can put "first in, last out" leadership to work for you, the first few chapters will focus on some issues that might seem somewhat theoretical at first. They stress the need to take a look at yourself and your organization before jumping in and trying to lead from the front-after all, you have to know where you're headed before you try to lead others.
In the next couple of hundred pages you'll discover some new insights into leadership and also gain a fresh perspective on some established principles. In addition, you'll find straightforward strategies and techniques that you can apply to the big leadership questions: How can I get my people to do what I want them to? How can I make sure the right thing gets done? How can I make sure we're doing the right things in the first place? And finally, how can I get the most out of my people?
The story of the FDNY is, at heart, the story of an organization whose tradition of phenomenal leadership has always enabled it to meet and overcome any challenge, no matter how daunting. Whether you're a small business owner or a CEO, a frontline supervisor or a top executive, I hope that the example of the FDNY and its corps of leaders will inspire and guide you as you continue on your leadership journey. You may not know it, or perhaps you may not want to admit it to yourself, but you have the power to create a positive change, even if it's just in your particular "firehouse."
Remember, you're the chief.