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Guest Blog | On Being Human: How Using Vulnerability Made Me a Better Leader

By Jack McGovern

If you search for the definition of vulnerable on the internet, you will find varying degrees of the definition and sources to find the definition. For this discussion, I chose to use the definition from

Vulnerable: 1) Capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; 2) Open to attack or damage: Assailable// vulnerable to criticism.

As Officers in the Fire Service, we often find ourselves in a position where we have to transition from “Buddy to Boss”, and we may receive some guidance from those that came before us that we may need to “distance ourselves” to build that Officer/ Firefighter rapport with our personnel. I disagree with this position and feel that we must do our part as Officers to maintain a balanced relationship with our personnel, so that they may grow as Firefighters and hopefully future leaders in the fire service. One way I have been successful is by making myself vulnerable.

At this point, some of you may be shaking your head, and saying to yourself, “You’re crazy! Making yourself vulnerable can show your weaknesses and flaws.” That is exactly my point. As Officers, personnel often look up to us. In the words of John C. Maxwell, simply put we are “Positional Leaders”, even at the lowest form of Leadership. Many personnel that want to be Officers in the Fire Service do not understand that the road to being a good or great leader is paved with potholes and wrong turns. Here are some examples of how I have made myself vulnerable that resulted in a more positive connection with personnel.

1) Leadership Development: Simply put, you can not come across as the perfect Officer. You must acknowledge the struggles it took for you to get where you are. For me, this was acknowledging times when I faced disciplinary action, verbal counseling, written reprimands, and simply not connecting well with folks. Any time that I have faced any of these situations, I have always made my personnel aware of what I did to put myself in that situation- what role I played in the process. I do this so that they do not put themselves in the same situation. Think of it as a NIOSH LODD Report for Leadership- learn from my mistakes so you don’t do the same thing. It does not matter if I disagree with the discipline levied upon me as this often comes back to a matter of perception. To round this part out, you simply can not state, “That person’s an idiot,” “I screwed up,” or, ‘The Management doesn’t know what they’re doing.” You must acknowledge your role in the process, why it was wrong, and how you re-bounded from it.

2) Acknowledge Your Flaws: I have been fortunate to come up in the Fire Service and rise through the ranks to my position. I am a Firefighter. That said, I have informed my personnel that I may begin to stray from time to time and not exhibit traits that they may come to expect from their Officer. When it happens, it is usually around the kitchen table while having a chat after supper. It doesn’t happen often, but since making myself vulnerable my personnel have been there for me to remind me to get back on track.

3) Mental Health: Taking care of your mental health has become a top priority in today’s Fire Service. We often hear supervisors say, “Mental Health is important, if you need help contact the EAP.” This is a “Check Box Management” Tactic that supervisors can say that they offered help to their employee. I came up in a much different Fire Service than what we are dealing with today. If I sought help in the area of Mental Health in my early years, I would have been ostracized or called some unfavorable word. While I have always championed the use of the EAP (and have even used it myself), I am not afraid to open up to personnel that I see a Psychologist on a monthly basis and that I use a Meditation App on my phone every day before I come to work. I don’t put this out there as a “Badge of Honor” or that I am looking for a pat on the back, but I put it out there for my folks to take care of themselves before it is too late. We see some bad stuff in our line of work, and trying to maintain a work-life balance often causes struggles at home. Opening up to my personnel about this has encouraged others to do the same, and I have had personnel come to me asking how to access help outside of the EAP.

4) Personal Struggles: As Officers we are no different than our firefighters. We have things going on in our lives just as much as they have in their lives. This is often compounded being that our job is no longer about me going home, but also making sure those we supervise go home to their loved ones. Years ago, we might have said, “Leave home at home and leave work at work.” This isn’t the case anymore. When that statement was made, we didn’t have cellphones- our loved ones had to physically call the Station Phone to get in touch with us. Now, everyone has a mini-computer in their pocket that allows them to video-chat with their kids and their spouse to contact them at a moment’s notice. That said, my wife and I have shared a few struggles in our short, seven years of marriage. While not everyone in the Department knows what we have gone through, anyone assigned to me pretty much knows a big struggle she and I have had to deal with. My personnel know that if they hear anyone else talking in the Department about a similar situation that my wife and I have experienced, that they can relay my story to that person and they can come to talk with me. I am happy to say that I have had quite a few people come up to me for a private conversation.

5) Training: “The day you stop learning, is the day you should retire.” Admit it, we have all heard this one more than once in our career. As an Officer, we often lead by way of example to our personnel by attending classroom and practical training sessions. Now you may be asking yourself, “How does this make you vulnerable?” Remember, it is about making yourself open to attacks, physically or emotionally, or making your self open to criticism. I have failed at training sessions, I have failed in not applying what I have learned, I have failed in being over-enthusiastic about the training and not paying attention to the interest level of participants, and (more importantly) I have been the subject of others’ remarks in that I am “undermining” them or that the training I am taking is not applicable. By making yourself vulnerable in this area, you lead your personnel to push their comfort zones and challenge their mind and body. This often means that you have to be a Trailblazer and perhaps take some training that has never been offered before. Find a way that you can apply it to the job and bring it back to the crew. Finally, acknowledge when you have “lost” your personnel in what you are discussing, take a break (even for a couple shifts), and let them come to you, and be sure to acknowledge where you dropped the ball and let your enthusiasm overshadow the message.

Making yourself vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. If anything, making yourself vulnerable to your personnel can make you more “Human” to them and build trust in the Fire Station and on the scene of incident. This is a delicate walk and I would be remised if I didn’t acknowledge that this has come back to bite me in the behind a time or two. This is because I had a skewed perception of trust. I failed to recognize that others that had come to me were using my vulnerability to their advantage. That’s OK, and I don’t let the few that have scarred me to cast a shadow over the many I have helped. My relationships are strong with my personnel, but I also respect their privacy and do not expect them to make themselves vulnerable in return. It is my hope that they will look back on some of our conversations and use it to help others when they are Officers one day.

So, I will leave you with this example to hopefully make sense of vulnerable leadership with your folks. At the end of the Wizard of Oz (the original with Judy Garland), Dorothy and Toto, The Tin Man, The Scarecrow and the Lion bring the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West to the Great Oz. There is an exchange of words, the Great Oz is angered, and fire is shooting out of the columns all around him.

As Dorothy and her friends are pleading with the Great Oz, Toto runs over and pulls back the curtain to reveal a fragile old man, working some controls, and using a microphone to enhance his voice. He is caught off guard and continues his charade until he finally caves in.