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Become a Leader People Want to Follow

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

Leaders are Learners Who Teach

The Jeff Bowman Interview

jeff bowmanJeff Bowman is not only one of our cherished friends but also a nationally recognized public servant and leader. In 2002 after retiring as Fire Chief for Orange County, California, Bowman optimistically accepted the Fire Chief position for the broken and bankrupt City of San Diego. He served as San Diego’s Fire Chief from 2002 to 2006 and was in charge of an organization of 1,400 employees—composed mostly of firefighters but which also included medical/rescue personnel and 150 lifeguards—a team that serves a population of more than 1.2 million citizens with an annual budget of about $170 million. When Bowman stepped down from the helm of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department in June 2006, he was publicly praised as a Fire Chief who was respected and beloved by those he led.

Bowman built his career by focusing on what he says is most important: the people he leads and serves. This means putting a constant emphasis on the people side of firefighting—both the customers and the employees that work with him. According to Bowman, “Leadership is the ability to inspire other people to want to go where you plan to take them. In firefighting we refer to the ‘five bugles’—if your collar button has five bugles on it, then you’re the boss, the Fire Chief.” Bowman also says, “In an emergency when you have five bugles on your shirt, everyone is going to go where you tell them to go! While that is always true in an emergency situation, the rest of the time, it may not be the case. Leaders have to earn the respect of their employees, and lead them in the direction they want them to go—just having five bugles, just being the ‘boss’ isn’t always enough.”

It should come as no surprise that in an emergency situation, firefighters are trained to follow the direction of the boss—precisely and without question! Clearly, leadership is a vital necessity when people’s lives are on the line, and a moment’s hesitation can cause disaster. However, according to Bowman, the time firefighters spend in emergency situations is actually a small fraction of their time on the job. “Only one percent of our time is actually spent on emergencies, with the other 99 percent of our time spent dealing with people. But typically we spend upwards of 99 percent of our training budget on technical training and very little, if any, on people training.” Budget allocations like this make it even more important for leaders to remember to take the time to focus on their people, customers and communities! It is critical to develop the interpersonal skills that are needed to work better with one another as individuals and in teams who respect, trust and like each other.

Bowman shared, “I have lived my life by three simple words: leadership, trust, and accountability. I believe that every employee—every member of the team—has a leadership opportunity every day. When I think of trust, I remind everybody that trust is something that’s earned, not given. It’s the old five-bugle thing—just because I’m the chief and I tell you to do something that doesn’t mean I’ve earned your trust, even though I’ve earned my bugles. I have to develop a track record of doing the right things for the right reasons. If you’re accountable for your actions and your behaviors, people not only want to work for you, they gain the freedom to risk and experiment—to make mistakes, because they know they won’t be punished for trying. Successful leaders make mistakes. That’s how we learn. By accepting accountability for our mistakes, hopefully we log it and don’t make the same mistakes again. That’s how you get really good at something.”

For Jeff Bowman, truly great leaders are men and women who teach those they lead how to become leaders themselves. As a long-time admirer (and personal friend) of college basketball coach and leadership guru John Wooden, Jeff knows the importance of mentoring others. “I’ve been lucky to have John Wooden mentor me,” Bowman remarks.

“I’ve really taken his philosophy to heart. One of the things many people—particularly in my field—don’t include in their definition of leadership is the ability to teach. They don’t mentor other people. They worry more about what’s on their agenda for today and they forget how important it is to regularly pass along their leadership skills and knowledge. For me, teaching others to lead is like sharing tribal lore—gifting back to others the things you learn along the way as you become a leader, often by word-of-mouth or personal experience, things that not everyone has had the chance to learn. My definition of leadership is the ability to teach and influence others to enjoy their work, to want to embrace a vision, to be accountable for their part in it and to enjoy the successful outcome.”

Jeff has learned a lot from John Wooden. “When I talk to my staff about leadership, I often use a lot of ‘John Woodenisms:’

Be true to yourself. Help others. Make each day your masterpiece. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day. Pray for guidance. Count and give thanks for your blessings every day. Make fate your friend. Preparation is the prize. Winners make the most mistakes. Be quick, but don’t hurry. Failure is not fatal, but failure to change may be. Leaders listen. Happiness begins where selfishness ends.

These are the things that John Wooden has taught me about life and leadership and I try to practice them daily. I also share them often with others because this message is just what people need to hear.”

Finally, Jeff Bowman believes that true success in life requires putting your priorities in the right order. Says Bowman, “There are four words—I call them the “Four F’s”— faith, family, friends, and fire service. I always let everyone I work with know that I will use the Four F’s when making decisions. For example, a firefighter came to me a few years ago and said, ‘Chief, I know this project is due on Friday, but I’m coaching my kid’s Little League game. We’re in the playoffs and there’s a game this afternoon that I’ve got to go to.’ So I asked him, ‘Where does that fit in the Four F’s?’ And he said, ‘Family.’ So I said, ‘That’s number two on the list, so go home and be with your family.’ The next day he was at work by 6:30 a.m. to make up for the time he lost.” As a public servant and a beloved boss, Bowman’s approach to leading and mentoring is proof that when you consistently coach and guide people to be true to the right priorities, they will, in turn, choose to be true to the calling!