Guest Column

Learning Leadership Under Fire

by Greg Vandal

Irushed through the corn stubble, medical bags in hand. A child was down and unresponsive. As one of the first volunteer firefighters to reach the scene, I had little time to spare. A quick check of the boy’s vitals showed no sign of pulse or respiration. I tore open his shirt and hooked him to the portable defibrillator, but the machine showed a flat line and would not provide the life-giving shock. The medical device knew what was hard to accept; the child was already gone.

A closer examination revealed a small bullet wound, which had scarcely bled, lower on his chest. The 12-year-old had succumbed to a freak hunting accident. His own weapon brought about his demise.

The fire siren blew often during my many years of service. For nearly two decades, as a volunteer for a small town fire department, I responded to hundreds of emergencies, large and small. During the same period I was on a professional journey from speech teacher to graduate student to superintendent.

Whether garbed in emergency-response gear or dressed to the neck for a public hearing on school finances, I felt the same adrenaline pulse through my veins. The more veteran I became as a firefighter and the more experience I gained as a school administrator, the better able I was to channel that boost of energy to a positive result. I learned much along the way.

Command Decisions
The chain of command in a fire department is clear. Orders are to be heeded without delay because in the midst of the inferno, there is no time to poll the brigade. Even so, good fire chiefs choose to engage command and control sparingly. Typically it emerges only in the midst of the crisis. Effective officers know they must be linked to the people for whom they are responsible. Those on the ground can offer critical advice. The best chiefs know when to confer and when to control.

Command decisions should not often be needed in a school. Those few situations probably have more in common with a fire emergency than with an ordinary day. The bomb threat, the fight, the tornado sighting — these might require unquestioned (and unapologetic) authority brought quickly to bear.

School leaders, though, must recognize that educators — except in times of true emergency — are not troops to be deployed but rather colleagues in mutual service to children. It is important to talk to those who will feel the impact of decisions that must be made. The strongest vision for action is one that is shared.

First Responders
Firefighting 101 teaches the elements of a fire: heat, fuel and oxygen. Remove any one and the flames will die. Water will both dissipate heat and replace oxygen, but a “smoke eater” knows that the best intervention might be to remove the fuel rather than wet the flames.

A skilled school leader recognizes when a potentially volatile situation must be doused with a deluge or redirected with the more subtle manipulation of another otherwise combustible element. The public passion can alternatively be fueled or quelled. The judicious application of “heat” to a discourse will often determine the extent to which damage might be done or a resolution won.

For first responders, knowledge and training are linked. We tempted the fates by igniting and entering abandoned houses, all under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor. Firefighters preplan catastrophes of all kinds. Admittedly, no fire ever burns according to design, but practice is preparation for the genuine emergency.

Traditional administrative preparation often lacks such training. Steeped in theory, some new leaders are left to learn while on the job. Students and staff prove to be their living laboratories. But effective administrators can build reasoned scenarios with their charges. Together, “what ifs” of all sorts can be played out.

In firefighting, not all emergencies are real as some are clouded in misperception. Victims and observers can be captured by emotion. Some seem determined to transfer their hysteria to those who help. First responders must listen with compassion but act with reason to intervene first where the help is needed most. They cope with the emergency and remain sensitive to the individual but take care not to assume that the loudest, most anguished voice will rise from the most endangered person.

School administrators face other people’s “emergencies” nearly every day. Often the bearer’s greatest hope is to hand off and escape unscathed. Effective leaders discern the difference between a real crisis and a perceived one. They know good people all respond differently in times of great stress, and anger is often the substitute for confusion and uncertainty. Strong administrators resolve to attack the issue and to honor the individual along the way.

Anticipation can guide the appropriate response. Red lights and sirens start hearts racing for the most seasoned of emergency workers. We were taught to imagine the worst possible scenario, to think of destruction and despair. Thankfully, reality rarely matched the dark vision. Usually there was relief in what was actually found and, with reduced anxiety, we could spring confidently into action.

A Learning Quest
Potentially angry administrative encounters can be faced in the same spirit. Absent a dangerous defensiveness, a school leader might imagine vindictiveness at a level that will likely never emerge. An anticipatory administrator can contemplate courses of action that never have to be engaged. The uncomfortable or otherwise anxious moment can be approached with a determination to resolve the conflict, to cut respectfully through the emotion and to the core of the matter.

There is, be warned, a danger that an emotional disconnection can lead to a heartless dispassion. Some emergency workers have seen such tragedy that they close into themselves. Veteran educators can do the same. Successful firefighters, like capable school leaders, discover the important balance between selfless and selfish service. The personal protective shield must be raised only so far that both parties can be spared injury and will otherwise have every chance to thrive.

Firefighters, after a particularly taxing incident, often need time to process complex thoughts and emotions. We debriefed by describing what was seen and perceived. We took ownership for our actions. This happened in a safe environment in which our collective determination was to learn and grow from the experience so that next time — and there always was a next time — our response could be improved.

Educators, too, must be on a constant quest to improve. We must be informed by the past so that we can respond with ever-increasing competence. Leaders must consistently and honestly debrief to get better. Effectiveness requires that knowledge be refreshed and skills retrained.

Naturally, memory has faded, and my recollection of the child lost has somehow been blended with other children I’ve met along the way. I served him as a school administrator and bore witness to his death as a first responder. Gray-haired and no longer in fire service, I must confess that much of who I am and what I know today, I learned through that powerful experience.

Greg Vandal is superintendent of the Sauk Rapids-Rice Public Schools, 1833 Osauka Road N.E., Sauk Rapids, MN 56379. E-mail: