Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Between Alarms: January 2016

Arjuna George   

Features Hot Topics Leadership

Leadership is about sharing knowledge and demonstrating a clear vision; it is also about inspiring others around you. Imagine starting each shift with a clear understanding of our purpose – our why. I want to share a simple idea that can bring you and your fire department to greatness.

Firefighters train daily to stretch hoselines, perform CPR and tie knots. Our what is fire fighting, rescue and medical, but have you ever truly reflected on why we do what we do?

The bestselling book Start With Why by leadership expert Simon Sinek has enlightened me about this simple question. I believe the author’s ideas can be incorporated into our fire services to help transform mediocre departments into amazingly engaged workplaces.

Have you ever thought about why some fire departments are so innovative and strong while others barely function, despite having much the same tools and resources and providing the same services? Members of those struggling departments all likely understand their how and their what, but they are missing their why.

Successful fire departments and leaders understand why and inspire great performance from their members.


Figuring out your why can be a department goal, but it should also be a personal target. Determining your own why is just as important as understanding your department’s reasons for being.

Why do we exist as fire services and do what we do? Sinek provides a simple concept for answering these questions, called the golden circle. The golden circle is so basic in that it has only three components: the inner circle – why; the middle circle – how; and the outer circle – what.

Sinek suggests we start all conversations with the inner circle – why. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Sinek writes. We, individually, as firefighters and officers, need to embrace this model, and fire services need to amend it to read, “People don’t support what you do, they support why you do it.”

Sinek’s basic concept should be included in everything we do; when we are challenged by tight budgets or dealing with community concerns, we need to communicate more to politicians and taxpayers about why we do things the way we do them (standards, SOPs, health and safety) and less about what we do (men and women in bunker gear).

Our what is hard for the public to truly comprehend –as with any industry, fire has technical jargon that is difficult for people to understand and support. Communicating our why (who we are) has never been so important.

When we embrace the reason behind ideas, practices and policies, it brings meaning and a human element into the discussion. Why we do what we do
impacts people on a deeper, more emotional level; one to which more people can relate.

The golden circle starts with why, but to clearly communicate your department’s vision it must be followed with how and what. Why must be clear, how must be disciplined, and what must be consistent. The clear meaning of your department’s existence includes all three messages.

Facts and figures don’t instill inspiration, they make only rational sense; real inspiration and greatness come from emotion and a sense of purpose. We need to target the limbic part of our brains, the part that triggers feelings such as trust and loyalty. Success lies in purpose, and cultivating purpose is the key to building a strong culture of leaders.

In order to be one of those departments that we dream about and to become one of those leaders who is so inspiring to others, we must be clear about our why, and incorporate it into our brand, our department culture and our image.

 For far too long we have been hiring firefighters according to what they do. Perhaps it is time to start hiring members based on why they do things. Inspired members will be happier, more productive, more engaged and better public servants.

For our departments, why may be our values, our history and our core beliefs. Our why should be apparent in our reports, business cases, press releases and in our recruitment. When a fire department is clear about its why, support from the community and firefighters will strengthen.

This beginning-of-year column is meant to ignite your inspiration, to clarify your why, and to find ways to build a culture of greatness.

Leadership from the bottom to the top is about inspiring. Let 2016 inspire you to inspire others. It’s time to celebrate your why. 

Arjuna George is the deputy fire chief of operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C., and has served on the department since 1997.   @AJGeorgefire

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