Why they're a Crisis Leader:
In his career, Jimmy Kane rose to one of the highest ranks in one of the world’s largest fire departments, FDNY (Fire Department New York). And not by accident.
His insights and instincts for how to lead effectively provide an outstanding road map for anyone interested in improving their leadership acumen.
As a crisis leader, his career included earning a spot as a team leader on a team of other leaders, the FDNY’s Incident Management team.
Like nearly every highly capable leader I spoke with, Jimmy is personable and communicative without losing their effectiveness.
There’s no doubt that the FDNY is a better department because of Jimmy being there just as there’s no doubt we will all be better leaders by embracing Jimmy’s lessons.
#1 "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What is a Crisis Leader?"
You know, you sent these questions and we could all give the book answer, what is a crisis leader?
And it all depends, in my mind, it depends upon what profession you're actually from.
And mine are gonna be centered around being a member of the fire department, being a member of an incident management team for a fairly long time.
Book, I guess, a quick book definition is the ability to lead when the world around you is in disarray.
I'd like to attack this question from a different point of view, and maybe not a different point of view, but just to list what I think is necessary, some necessary qualifications, or some necessary things that a crisis leader needs to be. And I'm gonna start with a couple of, I'll include a couple of categories together.
First, they have to be calm, even-tempered and keep their emotions in check.
Reason being behind this is your subordinates and your superiors will all react to you. If you're not calm, if you're all over the place and you don't look like you have an understanding of what's going on, they will react in the same way. If you are calm and even-tempered, they will feel that, they will have more confidence in you, figuring that you have the knowledge and ability to handle what's going on. So I think those are three things that right from the start you always need in a crisis leader.
The next group I would talk about would be, you need to be courageous, decisive and look at the big picture.
And by that I mean, you are going to be making decisions under duress with incomplete information all the time, you're never gonna have all the answers. The big thing that goes on with this one here is, some of the decisions you make are gonna be unpopular. And I guess a quick little example of that would be at a large scale fire scene where units are inside thinking they're making headway and you're making that decision to go to an outside operation. That's gonna be a very unpopular decision with those people that think they're doing a good job, but you have to have the courage and the foresight, and to make that decision and stand by it.
Next I'm gonna go to listen to others, and especially listen to others that have an opposing view from you.
People have a tendency to think that they have a full understanding of what's going on, and sort of get into almost like a tunnel vision. Even though they may not be in full tunnel vision, but if you listen to people that are looking at it from a different angle or from a different perspective even, it gives you another whole picture of what's going on. You're constantly evaluating and you don't have, you are not afraid to change course if things aren't going well. And you're willing to take ownership of the fact that things weren't going well, so that's why we're taking a different direction here.
One thing that's really important is you never make a promise to somebody that you can't keep, you always give honest answers.
If you're not in complete control yet, or if you don't have a full handle on this, don't let people, don't let your superiors think that you have. Tell 'em we're still trying to get a handle on this, you know we're working on it and tell 'em exactly where you are in your mind and where you are in the operation, and make sure that they understand that we're still working on it. Don't let them think that you're further along than you are.
One thing that's always very big and probably should be up at the top, is always making sure you protect your people.
And probably the biggest part of that is make sure you protect them from themselves, because as emergency responders all we want to do is solve the problem. And the younger you are, the more invincible you think you are, the more chances you'll take, so I guess this question, this part of the question goes right back to risk a little to save a little, risk a lot to save a lot.
It's easier for you as the crisis leader to see those differences, so it's, that's where I'm going with protect your people, especially from their decisions.
Next I would talk about, make sure you're basing all of your decisions on what's best for everyone and the organization, and not what's just best for you. You're not what it's all about, the outcome is what it's all about. And how you get there is important, but it's always important that the outcome is what's best for everybody and not just you.
And the last thing I would have to say about the crisis leader is, always maintain a positive attitude.
Don't take things personally during a crisis because things aren't always gonna go your way, you're gonna get blamed for a lot of things. It wasn't your fault, but if you maintain that positive attitude then people will understand that, that you do know what you're, they do know, that you do know what you are doing.
So, that would be probably my definition of a crisis leader.
#2 "What's an example when you relied on your own Crisis Leadership?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What's an example when you relied on your own Crisis Leadership?"
Okay, so I'm gonna talk about what, in my mind, is probably the first time I ever really had to rely on my own crisis leadership, and that's just gonna go back way back earlier in my career, I think it was, I'm not sure the date, it was either 1991 or 1992, somewhere in that area.
The beginning of the summer, I was a fill-in lieutenant, I think I had maybe just over a year in the rank, I was still what we call a covering lieutenant in New York City, which means you fill in where is necessary.
I was actually working in 28 truck, in what they call UFO, which is until further orders. I was filling in long-term for another lieutenant who was out on medical leave.
So, on this night, and I know it was early summer, 'cause it was extremely hot, I remember that, Night order began at six o'clock, somewhere around 6:30. We get a phone alarm for a building fire that's well past our first due area, it's probably a box where we would be fourth-due. Meaning it would be a second alarm assignment for us, and we were going as the first-due truck.
What we didn't realize was there was already an all-hands fire that we were gonna be responding past, 'cause it hadn't been announced on our dispatch system yet, because they were just getting there as we were being notified of this box.
What was going on in the city at this point was, the day before, a drug dealer was shot by a undercover cop, and the community was saying that the usual, that the cop was at fault, and everything. My memory is very clear on this, is that the cop was cleared of everything, and he was in danger of losing his life when he shot this guy, but Washington Heights at that time, in the early '90s, was a very tough neighborhood, we'll say.
So, they lost it behind the drug dealer, and actually Mayor Dinkins at the time stood behind the drug dealer, which complicated issues also.
But here we are, we're responding up, and we're coming into the area where we're passing the initial fire, and we go and light some sirens, and the chief on that scene says, "Turn the sirens off, turn the sirens off!" I'm on my radio saying, "But we're responding past here." He goes, "Turn your sirens off, you don't want people knowing you're coming!"
So, I had no idea what he was talking about. So, we responded five blocks past this fire, turned into a block to get to the address we were going to, and we still had two blocks to go.
The address we were going to was actually on a dead end street.
As we got a block away, before we got into the dead end street, I all of a sudden realize what he was talking about. We were being attacked from people in the neighborhood, throwing stuff at the rig as we were going down the block, and actually the guys in the back of the rig at the time were like, "Oh, what's going on here," you know, it was just a little bit of like a blasé attitude with them, you know, figuring it was just some kids drumming stuff at the firetruck.
Well, when a five-gallon pail of whatever came off the roof and landed right in front of the rig, I realized immediately we were in trouble. I turned to the chauffeur and said, "Get us out of here, get us back to 'quarters."
Now, we were a good probably two miles from 'quarters, which, in this response area, is a long way, 'cause it's tight streets and everything. But the guys in the back of the rig are going, "Where you going, we didn't get to the box yet." And I'm going, "I don't care, we're going home."
And they were giving me a little bit of a hard time, and all of a sudden they saw another bucket come off the roof, and they're going, "Oh my god!" And they realized where I was going.
So, they understood then that the decision I made, you know, instantly on that spot was we have to get out of here, was the right decision.
Now, when we get back to 'quarters, my immediate boss was working at another fire, so I had nobody to notify at that point. And his boss was the deputy at that fire, so I would report to a battalion chief who was at the fire, who would report to the deputy chief, who was also at the fire. So, I have no one to contact as an immediate supervisor, so my decision at that time was, I made two notifications. First, I told the dispatcher to put it over the air that there's a riot condition going on up in Washington Heights. And the dispatcher goes, "What are you talking about?" So I said, "I'm sure you're gonna be getting multiple calls shortly," and they did. So they were unaware of the situation.
And my second phone call was to Fire Department Operations Center, which is in our headquarters, and told them, "We have a severe situation going on up in Washington Heights." So, coming from a lieutenant, you know, the staff chief on duty, took it upon himself to try and get ahold of the chiefs on the scene. So, we had the dispatchers contact them, and ask one of them to call him. So, one of the chiefs, I don't know which one, got on the radio, somehow got on a phone, you know, in the area, 'cause there were no cellphones back at the time. Or, if there were, I wasn't aware of them. [laughs]
But they got ahold of headquarters and said, "Yes, he is 100 percent correct, we have a problem going on up here, we haven't been able to get out of here to notify anybody, but yes, the notification process should start, we are in an all-out riot situation."
So, we had a procedure, you know, the fire department had a procedure, AUX 138 it was called, and it was in case we had riots and stuff in the city. It was a, we had certain quarters which were big enough where we could handle extra rigs and stuff like that, but this one became so large, we had eight task forces respond to our firehouse. Well, we were actually included in one of them. Now, each task force included two police cars, one at the front, one at the back. A battalion chief, two engines, and one Ladder Company that would respond to alarms together. So everybody was in a line, going together. Which, you know, I think about that now and go, it just made us an easier target than coming from different directions. But it worked that night. I mean, so there was eight task forces set up. And that was, you know, the original box was 6:30, by the time I got back to 'quarters, it was probably ten to seven.
By 8:30, we were in this full emergency situation, where the chief of department and the chief of operations were actually at our 'quarters running the whole operation. And they were actually using me, I don't know what the best terminology would be, but I guess almost as a subject matter expert for the area, because I was the only one that had been out there, and seeing what was going on. And they were actually taking my advice, as to response patterns, and stuff. You know, areas we should avoid and things of that nature, until they could get more and better reconnaissance out there.
So, from 8:30 to 6:30 in the morning, we had eight long teams, eight task forces, whatever you wanna call them, responding on a rotating base, because as you responded, and you finished, you would come back and get back in line. My particular task force, we went on nine runs between 8:30 and 6:30 in the morning, following just in turns. So every one of those eight task forces went on, you know, eight or nine responses throughout the night. Which, if you stop and think about it, it's a very large number of responses.
And it wasn't an ordinary response, because we were in a war zone, there's no other way of saying it.
There were main blocks, Broadway, which is a main block, it's four lanes, two lanes in each direction, and a center island. We were serpentining in and out of garbage cans on fire, car fires pushed into the middle of the street, building fire, you know, we were going to building fires. We were under orders, the only thing you stopped and put out was a building fire. Or, if it was impinging on a building, you put that fire out. Otherwise, you let it burn and get outta there. Just go, make sure people weren't in danger, the building wasn't on fire, and otherwise you came back.
Things were so bad in the streets that we had the tire mechanic there, and he replaced nine different flat tires that night, with all the stuff we were driving over just to get back to 'quarters. I remember getting a flat on one of our runs, and the first thing the chief said was, "Can you still drive the rig?" I said, "Yeah." He goes, "Get it back to 'quarters, we're not stopping here." You know, so it wasn't an outside tire, it was one of our inside tires, so it wasn't that bad, but the tire was changed before it was out next time to respond, and so things were working like clockwork.
But it's a night I'll never forget, I mean, there were responses we were going on, where the gunfire, you know, there was gunshots everywhere. They weren't necessarily aimed at us, but when you're in that situation, you don't really realize that, you know, you hear the gunfire, you see everything that's going on.
We've always been known, even during the bad times, when the cops were having issues, the fire department's here to help ya. So, we never had those issues before. But now we're not stopping to put out the fires. We're just running by it, so nobody knows what's gonna happen.
So, it was so bad that they even had police helicopters flying over, because they had so many people on the rooftops with the guns and stuff, trying to get them off the roofs and stuff.
And like I said, this was a long, long time ago, but it has stuck with me throughout my whole career, parts of it seems like it was yesterday, I'm sure I'm leaving out a lot of details, but like I said, I believe that was probably the first time I had to make decisions that I would consider as decisions made by a crisis leader.
#3 "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
Now here we are. I guess it's 30 years later.
Seems like yesterday, but it's 30 years later, and having done this for all those 30 years in different roles and much more, being much more responsible for everything, I can talk about three different things I'd like to, there are three different things I'd like to talk about there.
First thing is, you know, I thought I saw the whole picture back then, but I didn't, okay? I saw what was affecting our little world.
So I think one of the things I've learned is that you need to learn to see that whole big picture, take that 50,000-foot view.
Don't get sucked into the tactical end of the operation.
It's okay to take a quick foray into, you know, into the tactical part just to get good at, say, as to what's going on. But you gotta quickly get back, step back, and make sure you're always, you're lookin' at that big picture at all times.
Second is, you need to understand, the understanding that I don't need to know all the answers right away.
You know, the sooner I can visualize what the end stage should look like, the easier it's gonna be for us to get there, but I shouldn't, I don't necessarily need to know that answer right away. I need to first, you know, get my hands around the problem before we can solve the problem.
So, and then the last thing about what I would wish I'd known then is, the biggest thing I've learned is understanding that we didn't create this problem, but it's our duty to do our best to solve it.
Sometimes that means takin' that step back to get the big picture. Excuse me. And this will aid in gettin' us to that end-stage quicker.
Sometimes taking time saves time, you know. It's very hard, and in my opinion, this was probably the hardest thing for me to learn as a crisis manager, is takin' that time to step back and let things slow down, and get a better handle of what's goin' on before I jump in with both feet and take control.
So, those are the probably the three biggest things that I wish I had known back then.
#4 "What advice would you give someone who wants to improve their own Crisis Leadership?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What advice would you give someone who wants to improve their own Crisis Leadership?"
Okay, so I love this question because I do this before I retired, I would have this conversation with every brand new lieutenant that would work for me. And sometimes even with new captains who came from other areas. If I saw a need to have it.
And I tell 'em three things, three things that I expect from them. And if they do these three things, first of all I'll stay off their back. But I think it'll help them become a better leader.
The first one is do not be afraid to make a decision.
Trust your training and your instincts. You're in this position because you earned it. And I'm gonna support you whatever decision you make. I will not be there when you're making some of these decisions and I may ask you later on why did you make it? And it may become a learning moment and I will tell you to look at other things. But I will always support whatever decision you make. As long as you're gonna make it. A bad decision is probably better than inaction. At least you're trying to do something. So I tell them do not be afraid. I'm never gonna come down on ya, so.
Second thing I tell 'em is make sure you communicate clearly in all directions.
And this is a little more complicated than it sounds. Because the first thing I tell 'em is make sure you're subordinates fully understand the directions you're giving them. We take for granted sometimes that guys understand what we're saying and they really don't. Especially as a new boss coming in. So make sure they understand what you're telling 'em. Make sure you understand the directions that you've received from your superior. If you don't understand ask questions. We think we all talk the same language, but sometimes, sometimes we don't, it's that simple. Sometimes I'm saying something and I know what I mean, but you have no idea. So if you don't know ask for clarification. And the third part that part of the communication is make sure the information you're reporting back. Okay and the third part of that communication issue is make sure the information you're reporting back is clear and fully understood, by me or whoever you're reporting to. And you'll find out very quickly if I don't understand what you're saying because I'll ask the questions. And you'll find out once the younger lieutenants and captains find out that you're gonna ask questions they're not afraid to ask questions of you either.
And the third thing I tell 'em is don't be afraid to be the boss.
Do it well and you're people will respect you for it. And they, in turn, will have confidence in you and your abilities when you are in a time of crisis. The time of crisis is not the time to establish your leadership. And the fact that you are the boss. The sooner you do that the better off your gonna be, and sooner off the men will be willing to listen to you and respect you, and do exactly what you ask of 'em.
Especially in a time of crisis.
#5 "Who is a Crisis Leader that influenced your career?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "Who is a crisis leader that influenced your career?"
Okay, so I'm gonna answer this a little differently, also.
And I will get to one person who I think, but first I have to state, I've worked for many great crisis leaders and it would be hard for me to pick just one. And I really thought long and hard about this last night and I did come up with one.
But from early on in my career, I had one of my lieutenants who said, "Look at all your bosses. "Emulate the best qualities of every one of them. "You don't have to do everything they do, "but pick out a quality from each one of them "that you think works and try and use that for yourself."
He says, "The first one you should try and learn is, "the first thing you should realize is, "all people are motivated differently. "And some bosses don't know how to motivate everybody, "and other bosses do."
He goes, "So the first thing you gotta do "is figure out how they're motivating their people "and what they're doing differently from other people "that can't get the people motivated."
So, I've used that throughout my whole career.
And, like I've said, I've worked for, I'm gonna say probably hundreds of good crisis leaders. And I've been friends, good friends with about four of five of our chief of departments, so and our staff chiefs and everything, so I've been good friends with a lot of good leaders.
And I'm gonna say some of my best leaders were probably early on in my career, the battalion chiefs and stuff that I worked with as a fireman and as a lieutenant and captain.
But if I had to pick one, and 'cause the question asked me to pick one, I'm gonna go all the way back to my captain when I was a firefighter in a ladder company.
He had all the qualities that I spoke about in question number one, about what is a crisis leader. He also showed me how important a captain's job was in the fire department.
As a captain, and I didn't realize it at the time, but I realized it when I was a captain, you have the opportunity to get all the new firefighters coming on the job headed in the right direction. You are their boss. You are, to them, you are it. They report to you, anything you say, they're gonna do. They feel that their career hinges on your direction. And it does. I mean, if you sent them off in the right direction, they're good. If you don't set that good example as the captain and we have a lot of guys, in my opinion, who don't do this.
But, like I said, you have the most influence on the young people in the job, as the captain. I was fortunate to work with this great captain who I tried to emulate throughout my career.
He was probably the calmest individual under any type of duress that you would ever see. He treated everybody equally. He had respect for everybody. Even the bosses that he didn't like, you would never know it. And there were some. And I think part of that factor was that he was so calm and cool that some of the bosses almost thought he didn't care. But he, honestly, truly cared for everybody that worked for him. Probably, and the biggest thing I picked up from him was he was a gentleman for everyone.
So, I'm gonna have to say that he probably had the most influence and the fact that I still look back to the way that he acted and his influence on me. I hope that some of the guys that work for me will do that later on in their career. So.