Lessons Learned From Public Safety Professionals

by | Leadership

We took port in Haynes, Alaska, and were informed we had two hours before we had to return.

I found a dirt road and walked toward a hill. On the side of the road was a young boy who held a sign that read ‘rocks for sale.’ I stopped, gave him the quarter he required for the rock, and left.

As I was leaving, I turned around and said, “Young man, you are not charging enough for your rocks.”

The cruise ship blew its whistle that required us to return. On the way down the hill, I stopped at the rock stand and told him I would like one more rock. As he handed it to me, I gave him a quarter.

He said, “No sir, this is my $5 rock.”

He had learned the lesson in a hurry. One of the quickest ways to learn about professional development is to hear what others have to say. Listed below are comments taken from two of my books Lessons Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders and ‘Lessons Learned from the Nation’s Top Cops. Occasionally, I will share a thought on professional development.

Lessons Learned from the Nation’s Top Cops

“Effective leadership mandates that you listen to others in order to better understand their perspective.”

Brad Slater, Sheriff, Weber County, UT

“Lead by character and competency, not by title.”

Sean Javell, Pinellas County, FL Sheriff’s Office

“Character does not come easy. To show you have character, you have to earn it and then work hard to maintain it.”

Captain Karin E. Bergholm, FL Dept. of Environmental Protection

“Leadership-success can occur at every level of an organization – through actions, demeanor, value systems, and relationships built.”

Commissioner J.A. Farrow, California Highway Patrol

“Quitting before you quit can be just as harmful as quitting.”


“Once you have been in a leadership role, it is easy to see things only from your side. That supports the oft use adage that they ‘forgot where they came from.’ Meet frequently with your line-level people and let them know that you want their honest opinion. You will remain grounded and able to see problems from both perspectives.”

Sheriff Stan Barry, Fairfax County, VA

“History in a universal perspective can be helpful. History from a personal perspective, your ‘where you have been,’ can be life-changing.”


“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Frank Outlaw

“I have learned to develop a habit of self-assessment, several times a week. I am not afraid to look back at how I did things. I ask for constructive input and other modes of feedback.”

Major Edwin C. Roessler, Director, Criminal Justice Inst., Fairfax County, VA Police Dept.

“We must balance our historical experiences of supervision and management with the contemporary paradigm of influencing people. This can help them achieve more than they assume is possible. As leaders, our significant challenge is to provide consistent encouragement and guidance for purpose of organizational success.”

Major Steven L. Fields, Connecticut State Police

“Good leaders exude a self-confidence. In reality, the confidence has come on the back-side because of many traits: self-discipline, continuous initiative, good judgment, intelligent decisions, and culturally aware.”

James Roberts, Federal Marshall, Savannah Georgia

Lessons Learned From Fire-Rescue Leaders

“The time has come to make leadership a true priority in fire service. Our future is at stake each time we enter the fire station. We can no longer live on lip service to leadership.”

Chief Harry R. Carter, Ph.D. (Retired), Adelphia, NJ Fire Company

“Leadership is not what it use to be; leadership will never be what it used to be.”


“Tradition has held back fire service leaders.”

Chief Patrick Kelly, City of DeLand, FL Fire Department

“Your leadership pool is an ocean, not a pond.”


“Many view leadership as a science applied to others. The more I learn about leadership, the more I realize leadership is about self-reflection and challenging my own paradigms.”

Division Chief, Eddie Buchanan, Hanover Fire and EMS

“Leadership can equal the extension of your personality coming through in what you do, especially at the points of your influence. Authentic leadership will never ask you to be who you are not.”


“You cannot be a good leader if you do not know how to follow.”

Chief Forney Howard, Orange Beach, AL Fire & Rescue

“You cannot give what you do not have.”


“My number one strength within Fire and Rescue is my open-mindedness. My number one weakness in Fire and Rescue is self-assertion.”

Chief Ross Elmore, Petersburg, VA Fire Department

“The capacity to receive can equal a grand gift.”


“A person who has good character has everything. This is one of the qualities that institutions cannot bestow upon you. Compassion is as fundamental as honesty. We see people on their worst days. If we cannot be compassionate, we should not be in the business.”

Chief Luther Fincher, Charlotte, NC Fire Department

“I had to make the commitment to be a true leader and to do what was right for the benefit of my staff, my organization, my mission, and most importantly, the customer.”

Chief David B. Fulmer, Miami, OH Township Fire/EMS

“I rely greatly on a very short list of mentors, one being a former fire chief, one being a pastor, and one being just a good long -time friend. I get inspiration from leadership books.”

Chief Al Yancey, Minooka, IL Fire Protection

“When your world wobbles, when stumbling, not soaring, seems to be your mantra, when your leadership feels shaky, find help.”


“Often, confidence has the capacity to show up at the very point when you feel most awkward.”


“I find that sometimes my greatest inspirations come from authors on subjects outside the fire service. I think the last leadership book I read, cover-to-cover if it can be considered a leadership book was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I have read a number of books on leadership over the years and would be hard-pressed to recommend only three. I would probably list some basic, often cited ones like: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It by Barry Z. Posner and James S. Kouzes, and The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge. “

Chief Mark S. Burdick, M.A., CFO, Glendale, AZ Fire Department

“The book I would recommend to other leaders is: When In Doubt, Lead!: The Leader’s Guide to Enhance Employee Relations in the Fire Service by Dennis Compton. It is a three-part series that, in my opinion, has changed how I lead.”

Chief Michael Van Dyke, Montezuma Rimrock, AZ Fire District

“Strength sculpting is a 1-2 punch: Attitude and behavior. What is asleep within you will bless you – if you choose to awaken it.”


“My number one strength is an open mind.”

Chief Ross Elmore, Petersburg, VA Fire Department

My greatest strength is in identifying future leaders and growing others to be great leaders. I have always tried to coach or guide others into more responsible positions.”

Rob Carnahan, Tualitan Valley, OR Fire and Rescue

“My greatest strength is in the high standard I hold myself.”

Robert Rielage, Moscow, OH Fire Department

“My greatest strength is technical experience and the ability to apply knowledge on the emergency scene.”

Chief Ulysses Seal, Bloomington, MN Fire Department

“Showing enthusiasm is my greatest strength; I believe in helping/giving back. I love what I do. This is truly a gift we have the opportunity to serve.”

Chief Jim Grady, III, Frankfort, IL Fire District

“One weakness I have to chisel is: I learn fast and I assume that everyone around me learns at the same rate. Then I find myself looking down at them because they cannot keep up with me.”

Chief Ross Elmore, Petersburg, VA Fire Department

“Remember, you do not have to stay the way you are. You can leave your postponement-pouch. Be sure you are not standing in your own way.”


“What you say to yourself may be the most important words you speak.”


“Leadership and Management are not the same. On one hand, you have successful methods of accomplishing tasks (management). On the other hand, you have the ability to fundamentally change attitudes and behavior (leadership).”

Chief Rob Carnahan, Tualitan Valley, OR Fire/Rescue

“Leadership is grounded in communication, process, and inspiration/influence. Management is rooted in control, event, and perhaps mere imposition.”


“Leaders take the step to have others manage daily tasks while showing them examples of leadership – compassion, trust, follow-through, walking-the-talk.”

Chief Jim Grady III, Frankfort, IL Fire District.

Since we don’t all have the same starting point, it is helpful to view the perspective of others. Recently I was walking in the neighborhood with a 10-year-old. As we passed a particular corner, I pointed and said, “There used to be a sign there that read ‘caution, children playing.”

The 10-year-old responded, “We need a new sign that says ‘caution, old man walking.”

We held different perspectives.

Our perspective in relationship to professional development is guided by who we are at the core. Learn from others, but do not allow others to dwarf your passion.

Stephen is the best-selling author of 26 books, including What Do They See When They See You Coming? He has also written countless articles for a variety of publications and has produced multiple audio books and video programs. Stephen has appeared on PBS Television and XM Sirius Satellite Radio. He continues to hold one of the highest invite-back ratios in the speaking profession.