Practicing good leadership is difficult enough in everyday situations. Practicing good leadership when you’re literally under fire — whether from bullets or actual flames — truly puts your leadership skills to the test.
My guest today has experienced both kinds of fire, and not only lived to tell about it, but distilled out the lessons every man can learn from those life-or-death experiences. His name is Jason Brezler and he’s both a Marine combat veteran and a current firefighter for the New York City Fire Department. Brezler not only served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and works in the FDNY’s Special Operations Command, but he’s also the owner of a leadership consulting firm — called Leadership Under Fire, Inc. — that teaches organizations how to develop leaders who are able to make critical decisions and lead their teams to success when under pressure.
Today on the show, Jason and I talk about his experience in Fallujah, what it takes to become a firefighter with the NYC Fire Department, and lessons on leadership and decision making from battling both human enemies and hot flames.
- The leadership lessons Jason learned as a combat Marine in Fallujah
- The influence of John Boyd’s OODA Loop on Jason’s leadership philosophy
- How to train mental toughness
- The differences between leadership in the Marines and leadership in the FDNY
- Jason’s work with the Paddy Brown Program in helping military veterans become firefighters
- Why vets need a mission when they return home from combat
- The qualities that you need to have to become a firefighter with the FDNY
- Why humility is the key to leadership
- How a leader conveys his vision to those he leads
- How to get better at decision making when under pressure
- Why managing tempo is the key to success in leadership
- Why leaders who like to micromanage hold up tempo in their organization
- The five fundamentals of becoming harder to kill
- The difference between leaders and managers
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- My podcast with Barry Nalebuff about the Art of Strategy
- My podcast with the founders of Atomic Athlete on becoming harder to kill
- John Boyd’s Roll Call: To Be or To Do
- The Tao of Boyd: The OODA Loop
- My podcast with Robert Coram about John Boyd
- You May Be Strong… But Are You Tough?
- My podcast with Stew Smith about Navy SEAL Training
- Dig Deep: You’re Stronger Than You Think
- The Paddy Brown Program
- Captain Patrick Brown
- Our series on resilience
- My podcast with Jocko Willink about Extreme Ownership
- Thinking, Fast and Slow
- General “Mad Dog” James Mattis
- Our extensive lists of books every man should read
- Tempo: Timing, Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision Making
- Winston Churchill on Developing a Moral Compass
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Practicing good leadership is difficult enough in everyday situations. Practicing good leadership when you’re literally under fire, whether from bullets or actual flames, truly puts your leadership skills to the test. My guest today has experienced both kinds of fire and not only lived to tell about it, but distilled out the lessons every man can learn from those life or death experiences.
His name is Jason Brezler, and he’s both a Marine combat veteran and a current firefighter for the New York City Fire Department. Brezler not only served in Iraq and Afghanistan and works in the New York Fire Department’s Special Operations Command, but he’s also the owner of a leadership consulting firm called Leadership Under Fire, that teaches organizations how to develop leaders that are able to make critical decisions and lead their teams to success when under pressure.
Today on the show Jason and I talk about an experience in Fallujah, what it takes to become a firefighter with the New York City Fire Department, and lessons on leadership and decision making from battling both human enemies and hot flame. After the show is over, check out the show notes at AON.is/leadershipunderfire, where you can find links to resources and you can delve deeper into this topic. Jason Brezler, welcome to the show.
Jason Brezler: Hey, Brett, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You’ve got a really interesting resume. You’re a combat Marine. You are a firefighter for the New York Fire Department in their Special Operations Command. You also are leading up this organization called Leadership Under Fire, where you teach other organizations, civilians, law enforcement organizations, leadership, tactics, skills, mindsets that you’ve learned and acquired through your experience as a firefighter and a Marine.
We’ll get to Leadership Under Fire, but let’s talk about your background first. You served as a US Marine in combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and are still currently a Major in the Marine Reserves. What lessons in leadership have you learned from being a Marine and from that experience?
Jason Brezler: Well, the lessons that I learned … The leadership lessons that I learned in combat are many, and I should probably first mention that the lessons I learned are lessons that I learned from my peers, seasoned commanders who I worked for, and most significantly the men under my charge, who were routinely assuming tremendous personal risk in incredibly lethal settings. I also learned a great deal from our Afghan and Iraqi counterparts, who assumed the greatest amount of risk while having the most at stake. Unfortunately, their contributions sometimes in the campaign received much less attention.
As it relates to combat leadership lessons, there’s generally the four themes or four categories that I kind of connect them to that I think are the most … Where I learned the most significant lessons. One would be the art and science of decision making, critical thinking, risk management. Another area would be leadership development and the imperative to continuously develop leaders, regardless of rank.
Another area would be what we call human factors and the overwhelming role that human factors, most notably the mental aspect have, in both performance and outcomes. Another area would probably be the critical importance of generating tempo in highly competitive, complex and resource limited environments.
More specifically, there a few lessons that my Marines and I learned time and time again, and lessons that I think, or firmly believe transcend the battlefield. Those would be that technology is helpful, but it has considerable limitations, and leaders in units that rely too heavily on technology for victory often experience defeat. As a Marine, and I think this is true for many Marine commanders, we look at the purpose of technology as being to enhance human performance, not necessarily replace it.
Another lesson that I learned relates to the mental aspect of performance. I firmly believe that the mental aspect of performance is too often neglected. A combat unit that possesses great technical and tactical skill and superior physical conditioning must still possess mental toughness to achieve success, as well as resilience in the face of loss or even on some occasions catastrophic loss. Mental toughness is really the product of will. I like to say skill is great, but will trumps skill and mindset certainly matters.
Last, another lesson that I learned that I think is invaluable is that training is imperative and it must be three things. It must be responsible in that it must not cause harm or injury to your troops, but at the same time it must be relevant and realistic. It must be three-dimensional. What I mean by that is it must include tactical, physical and mental aspects.
Nearly everything we do in combat is nothing more than a series of basic actions, with those actions done under tremendous pressure. One of the things that my team learned, particularly in Fallujah, and we had reaffirmed for us on several occasions, is that regardless of how much you train and how many scenarios you train for, you inevitably find yourselves in situations that you have no SOP for or even a mental model for. As frustrating as this can be, the bottom line is that a well-trained outfit that possesses unit cohesion will have the skills to mitigate the unanticipated predicaments. They’re just a few lessons that I learned that were certainly true in combat and I think transcend the battlefield.
Brett McKay: It seems like some of the phrases and words you’ve been saying … It seems like you’re highly … You’re heavily influenced by John Boyd in his OODA loop. Would that be … You talk about tempo and complex systems and unit cohesion. That’s stuff that John Boyd talked about 50 years ago.
Jason Brezler: I would certainly consider myself a scholar, a Boyd scholar. In recent years I’ve had the good fortune of being mentored by a Marine Commander, a retired Marine Colonel by the name of Mike Wiley. Colonel Mike Wiley was one of Boyd’s peers in the Marine Corps and they worked to bring reform to the Marine Corps. I certainly am a huge advocate of Boyd and think that his work, the lessons that he learned and sought to share with others-
Brett McKay: That aspect, that mental toughness part really interests me. You said that will trumps skill, but how do you train that? How do you develop that in someone, or is it something that’s innate in somebody and you just have to pull it out of them, or can you actually develop that?
Jason Brezler: No. I think it can be developed. It’s kind of a cliché, but it starts with the why and understanding the motivational factors and those motivational forces. I think any time you’re part of a team and you’re part of something bigger than yourself, you’re going to be more likely to display mental toughness, particularly when you’re experiencing some level of suffering, whether it be from fatigue or hunger or sleep deprivation.
I’ve got to blow kind of Stu Smith’s take on it. He was somebody who certainly had a lot of influence on me as a member of the Fire Team. Stu breaks it down into something as simple as mental toughness is learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I think that every day if you’re doing things to make yourself uncomfortable in some form or fashion you’re consistently and continuously developing mental toughness that will pay dividends for you in combat.
Brett McKay: Yeah, when you really need it. You’re a firefighter with the New York City Fire Department Special Operations Command. I’m curious, in what ways is the leadership style at the New York Fire Department and the Marines similar or different? Were there a lot of things that you picked up in the Marines that you were able to transfer over to your career as a firefighter?
Jason Brezler: Sure. There’s certainly some differences between leadership in the military and the Fire Department, but there’s probably more similarities than differences. I think the Fire Department is similar to law enforcement. We consider ourselves para-military organizations. I think most significantly leaders who are most respected in the Fire Department are several things. They’re tactically competent, they’re physically fit, they’re calm under fire, and equally significant they’re genuinely concerned with not only the capabilities of their firefighters under their charge, but the welfare of their firefighters under their charge. I think in that regard the Fire Department is very similar to the military as it relates to leadership.
Brett McKay: Got you. Kind of speaking about your career with the military, you’ve actually started another organization called The Paddy Brown Program, which helps military veterans transition to becoming firefighters. What’s the hardest part of that adjustment for veterans going from military to the Fire Department, or is there not a problem with transition?
Jason Brezler: There’s certainly some challenges and I think before we look specifically at or speak specifically to the challenge from going from the military to the Fire Department we should talk just briefly about the challenge from going from the military to the civilian world. I think that it’s the case of many young warriors risk being disconnected from the mission and the camaraderie as they transition out of the military.
The young combat vet who transitions into the civilian world risks losing … He risks losing his sense of purpose. History shows us that in many instances when that connection to something greater is lost the mental and emotional health of the vet suffers. The Fire Service, both in paid and volunteer aspects, offers somewhat of a natural transition, were the combat vet can put his unique skills and experiences to good use.
What we’ve seen and heard is that post 9/11 vets commonly indicate interest in transitioning to the Fire Department or to law enforcement. I don’t think that’s surprising, given that the missions are probably more similar than they are different. The reality is that firefighting … The harsh reality though is that firefighting jobs are hard to come by and getting hired by a Fire Department requires a certain degree of insider knowledge and navigation.
All of this said, we thought it appropriate to create a program, a nonprofit, named after the iconic legacy of Captain Patrick Brown, who was a New York City Fire Department Captain who made the supreme sacrifice on 9/11 at the Trade Center. Prior to joining the New York City Fire Department in the ’70s, Paddy was an infantry Marine in Vietnam. Pat Brown faced an array of obstacles and struggles upon his return to civilian life, and despite the trauma and the challenges Paddy just inevitably found ways to serve, lead and mentor, displaying great courage and strength and resilience, so we thought it really fitting to name this program, or a program that strives to assist veterans navigating through the difficult and stressful process of transitioning after someone as iconic as Paddy Brown.
Brett McKay: Right. What your program does is just help them navigate through all the hoops and the difficulties that it is to acquire a job in firefighting?
Jason Brezler: Yeah. Probably one of the more important aspects of the program, the vet will come to us … Let’s just say he’s in the Army, he’s at Fort Bragg, he’s looking to leave the Army and he’s interested in becoming a professional firefighter somewhere. He’ll contact us and our program manager will work to identify what region he’s potentially interested in. Then we’ll link him up with a mentor, a Paddy Brown mentor. That mentor is someone who was previously in the military, likely served in combat, and they’ve already gone through the transition and they kind of know the ins and outs and they also understand some of the nuances and intricacies of getting hired by Fire Departments, because at times it’s daunting and pretty challenging.
That mentor will help that young vet or the transitioning vet through that process. That’s probably … The mentoring aspect is by far the most significant … The most critical element of the Paddy Brown Program.
Brett McKay: I know a lot of guys dream of becoming a firefighter, particularly for the New York Fire Department, but it’s a tough gig to land. What qualities do successful candidates for the job possess?
Jason Brezler: I think there’s probably a lot of ways to answer this question, because the reality is that there’s a lot of qualities that will lead the candidate to success in the Fire Department. A lot of these traits, not surprisingly, are probably consistent with what leads somewhat to be successful in the military.
A person who wants to join the FDNY and be successful absolutely must be a team player. He or she must also be physically fit and possess an aptitude to learn a wide variety of tactical skills and hone them so that they can be executed under pressure in a team setting. A successful person will be dedicated to lifelong learning, learning and teaching every day, ultimately to continue to strengthen themself and team.
There are a number of attributes that we could discuss, but I really think that a resilient, positive attitude is the biggest key. If you want to be a firefighter and have … You just have to have a correct view of service and sacrifice and kind of like what your role is in that organization as it relates to the organization, somewhat of an altruistic approach. You have to have a foundation and I think coming into the organization and understanding your why. If you understand your why and you have that foundation, then you’re much more likely to be committed to physical fitness, the types of learning and practicing skills over the course of your career that’s going to make you successful.
Our job … Firefighting, New York City and beyond, has an operational tempo and the career has demands that can be really tough sometimes. Some of the emergencies that we respond to and the types of fires and emergency events are only increasing in complexity, but I think having a positive mental attitude and understanding your why really helps an individual to be effective and a dependable part of the team, but ultimately I would probably conclude by saying that the traits and skills that make a successful firefighter are generally predicated on having the right attitude.
Brett McKay: Right. Even among those that get selected for the Department, are there things that younger guys new to the job struggle with?
Jason Brezler: Yeah, there’s certainly things that guys struggle with. Like I said earlier, similar as it is to the military, there are certainly differences. One of the great things about the Fire Service is … For starters, it’s steeped in tremendous tradition. One of the best things about the Fire Service is that junior guys, particularly in places like the New York City Fire Department, are extremely deferential to senior guys.
This generally is a good thing. Of course there’s some times where this dynamic is somewhat parochial and is not ideal because Departments resist change sometimes, even though it’s in their best interests, but generally the tradition is what makes the Fire Service special and unique. Guys and gals who are entering our ranks kind of need to know this up front because ultimately it takes time to earn the respect of senior members.
Some of the things that we communicate to guys in the Paddy Brown Program or vets that we mentor is we don’t really … It doesn’t really matter what you did prior to joining the Fire Department … You could have been the Silver Star recipient or Division One All American. It doesn’t really matter to most guys when you walk in to the Fire Service your first day. What matters is your willingness and effort to establish yourself as a capable firefighter. Firefighters and fire officers are confident, but they are also equally humble. Even guys with 35 years in the business, some of the guys I work with, possess a tremendous amount of humility because they know that firefighting quickly has a way of humbling you.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so don’t have a chip on your shoulder, too much of a one?
Jason Brezler: Grudges are not welcome here. Right.
Brett McKay: Right. In addition to being a firefighter, you also … As you said earlier, you have this leader development course called Leadership Under Fire, where you take the lessons you learned in combat and teach them to organizations like in the areas of business or sports. What does the leader development course look like at Leadership Under Fire?
Jason Brezler: Much of it is based on things that I and members of my team and the Marines I served with learned in combat, specifically in Fallujah at the height of the insurgency. We came back and we spent a few weeks and months and probably even years reflecting on our experiences there and our lessons learned, many of which were quite frankly counterintuitive. We sat down and we said you know what? A lot of these have relevance. They transcend just the battlefield and they have a lot of value in all walks of life, business, finance, certainly firefighting, law enforcement, sports. That’s why we named the concept Leadership Under Fire.
It’s team based, but in some instances what we find is that folks in business, sports, or even the Fire Service are uncomfortable with the leadership philosophy that was developed in combat, but here’s what we communicate to them. Here’s the bottom line. Whether you’re a leader in business or finance, sports or the Fire Department, you’re managing resources in a time competitive environment where there’s a tremendous amount of … Pervasive amounts of uncertainty, risk, fluidity, friction, competition, and most significantly the human factor.
At Leadership Under Fire we firmly believe that successful leaders are those leaders who are capable of thriving in uncertain and dynamic competitive environments. One of the things that combat reaffirmed for me time and time again was that the best leaders were those who were not just tactically competent, but those who were physically fit, mentally tough, and most significantly morally fit. I think Leadership Under Fire, we really work to continue to prepare leaders and organizations for the moral, physical and mental rigors critical to peek performance and mission oriented leadership in highly competitive settings, and you can make the argument that there’s value in this in any trade or industry.
Brett McKay: Right. Let’s talk about this mission oriented leadership. What does that look like? Is that just like having the why of why you’re doing what you’re doing?
Jason Brezler: I certainly think that’s a key component. I think any leader needs to understand the why, and what we’re starting to see now is something that the Marine Corps probably recognized a few years ago, complements of folks like Colonel Wiley and John Boyd, is that folks ultimately need to understand the why and the what and how, and naturally follow, particularly in instances where there’s a breakdown in communication.
As it relates to mission oriented leadership, what I view mission oriented leadership as, ultimately the willingness and desire of leaders, on the part of leaders to prioritize mission accomplishment and the welfare of their subordinates over their own self-interest. Most military units, specially the good ones, even in combat prioritize accomplishing the mission over self-preservation. I think that mission focused leadership is a commitment to insuring that your priorities as a leader are consistent with the explicit mission of your organization.
Being a member of the Leadership Under Fire team, I’ve had the good fortune of speaking to firefighters and fire officers around the country, and one of the first questions that I ask fire officers is, “What is your primary responsibility as a fire officer, as a fire Lieutenant, as a fire Captain?” Surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of them tell me that they think … What they think they’re supposed to say, “Insuring the welfare of my men or my troops or my subordinates.” It’s certainly a noble response, but the bottom line is it’s not really consistent with the mission statement of the Fire Service, which explicitly states that we serve to protect the lives and property of our citizenry.
Mission oriented leadership has … I firmly believe that it has more influence on performance and outcomes than any other factor. Even in … Whether it be combat for firefighting or law enforcement, that safe and favorable outcomes are not the product of risk aversion or rigid command and control, these types of things, but rather the product of doing mission oriented type things; the right things, at the right time, for the right reasons with mutual trust between the commander and his subordinates. That to me is what mission oriented leadership is Brett.
Brett McKay: Yeah. How do you convey that mission to your subordinates? I think a lot of people who are in leadership positions, they’ll come with some fantastic vision, but the hard part is getting others to catch that vision as well. What do you do to help people get the why, get the mission of what you’re trying to do?
Jason Brezler: I mean honestly it’s not … You just need to talk about it. You need to talk about it consistently. In everything that you do, you need to be able to connect back. Everything you do organizationally and everything that your folks are doing individually or in smaller teams, you need to be able to tie it back to the mission.
Something as simple as … I was talking to a mentor performance coach recently and he was talking about bringing some cultural change or seeking to enhance the quality of performance of a particular organization. He said he had surveyed his folks and sat down with all of them individually and said, “What does it mean for you to be in this organization? What does this organization mean to you? When you think of this organization, what does it convey?” He said he asked like 50 different folks and he got 50 different responses.
That’s certainly problematic, where I think if you were to come to my fire house in Brooklyn and you would ask the guys individually, “Hey, what does it mean to be a member of this Rescue Company? What does it mean to be a member of the New York City Fire Department?” By and large they may use different language and maybe semantics, but I think ultimately they’re really going to convey the same things to you. I think that that display or that communication reaffirms that there’s a strong commitment to mission oriented goals and mission oriented teamwork and mission oriented leadership.
Brett McKay: You talk a lot about thinking critically and making decisions. That’s an important aspect of leadership, but doing so in a competitive, pressure filled environment where things are constantly changing is hard. How do you get better at making decisions when the pressure is on, when you’re under fire so to speak?
Jason Brezler: Sure. That’s a great question Brett, and certainly a timely question, because the fact is even the military units that have seen combat the most probably spend much more time training than they actually find themselves in combat. One of the first things that we try to do or try to impart to leaders is a better understanding of how they actually make decisions. What we find is that many folks think they make decisions in a very rational, methodical fashion in a high pressure situation. This, however, isn’t necessarily the case.
Science, namely psychology and to some extent neuroscience, suggests that our brain has two modes of decision making, which any of your … But these system one and system two models are what some refer to as hot and cold. System one of course being the primary mode when we’re in a high pressure situation, and the science suggests that decisions are based more on intuition, experience and training and deliberate analytical process.
Ideally we build a large file cabinet experientially, but the fact is at the end of the day even the most motivated firefighter or Marine can’t really control the quality of real world activity, but he can control how much time he spends physically training and thinking about performing under fire. I think like yourself and so much of your audience, I consider myself to be an avid reader, and what scholars are telling us is consistent with what great leaders have always intuitively known, that reading and thinking about scenarios, particularly scenarios that we haven’t experienced first-hand but possibly are likely to experience, creates a mental model that will be then useful when we’re making decisions under stress.
I probably would be amiss if I didn’t reference a quote from perhaps one of the greatest war fighters in the Marine Corps in certainly modern history, and that’s James Maddis. It kind of reaffirms even just the value of reading and the influence that it has on our decision making capabilities, is that thanks to my reading … General Maddis said, “Thanks to my reading, I’ve have never been caught flatfooted by any situation. It certainly doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.” I think that that mindset certainly serves to prepare leaders to make decisions in stressful environments.
Brett McKay: All, right so fill that file cabinet with mental models, as many as you can, by reading, by doing, et cetera?
Jason Brezler: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You also talk a lot about tempo and generating tempo in highly competitive, complex, resource limited environments. What do you mean by tempo? Is it how fast something is going or is it … I mean Boyd talked about tempo and he was sort of … I don’t know, he wasn’t very clear about what he meant by it. What do you mean by tempo and why is it so important for winning the day?
Jason Brezler: Right. The challenge sometimes is to take something that Boyd understood and first try to understand it, and then the second challenge is to try to build … To integrate it into what we do and make it practical. Then probably the final challenge is then to communicate it to others.
This certainly isn’t going to be a view of tempo from the 30,000 or probably 40,000 Boyd level. As it relates to kind of Leadership Under Fire’s take on tempo and how we view it relative to combat and firefighting, we view tempo really as being speed, speed relative to a problem set. Not necessarily speed for the safest speed, but speed relative to the problem set.
Probably more accurately, it’s the ability to react faster than your opponent. Whether it’s sports, combat, law enforcement, fire fighting or business, if your team possesses the ability to develop a plan and execute it faster than your adversary or your competition, you’re much more likely to defeat your opponent.
One of the best examples of this in sports is the no huddle offense, right, or in baseball a catcher calling his own game. Creating that pace that your opponent cannot necessarily keep pace with both physically and mentally has tremendous effects. On the battlefield the most effective units frequently employ what we call an implicit command, which is really to some extent very similar to a no huddle offense, where tactical actions are executed without a great deal of instruction, because small unit leaders are trained to understand their commander’s intent, right, and the mission regardless of the circumstances.
What’s significant here is the commanders are willing to sacrifice control for initiative in the same way that a football coach that’s using a no huddle offense is willing to sacrifice some control, but for that greater initiative on the field. The biggest requirement for generating tempo really is mutual trust, trust between a commander or a coach and his subordinates or players that favors rapid action over deliberate action.
Tempo is … You know, it’s graduate level stuff in terms of actually not only understanding it and it’s components, but being able to actually generate it in a highly competitive environment. One of the obstacles to generating tempo lies in the fact that I think that humans are really uncomfortable with uncertainty and many leaders would often prefer to generally collect more information, develop a more ideal plan, wait for more resources and kind of enable the situation to develop, reducing their level of uncertainty.
There certainly are instances where having the patience to allow the situation to develop is prudent, but in many cases the best approach is to execute a plan, and execute that plan rapidly, in such fashion that your opponent cannot keep pace with you.
Brett McKay: Right. It seems like also mission … Mission focused leadership comes back into play here, because you want everyone … In order to make those moves on their own, they have to know the why of the mission.
Jason Brezler: Right. If they understand the why and if they understand the mission, then you’re ultimately able to use mission tactics, where the commander or the coach isn’t communicating the what and how to his folks. They’re doing that without that communication transaction. That saves tremendous time. If you’re doing that and your opponent isn’t, you have a tremendous advantage.
That’s why it’s not speed for the sake of speed, but it’s speed relative to the problem set or speed relative to your opponent. You don’t need to be fast, you just need to be faster than your opponent.
Brett McKay: One of the maxims you live by and you talk about on the site is becoming harder to kill. Why should a leader who’s not in the military, not a firefighter, why should they focus on being harder to kill and what kinds of things make a man harder to kill?
Jason Brezler: A great question Brett. I should probably start by mentioning kind of the origins of this hard to kill cliché or mantra and why we use it at Leadership Under Fire, why we apply it to the Fire Department, and why I think it has value beyond the Fire Department.
A few years ago, I returned to the New York City Fire Department following combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and I began to think differently about some of the clichés that are very common in the Fire Service, one being be safe. Firefighters often tell their fellow firefighters at the end of the tour when they’re going home and guys are reporting in for work, “Hey, have a safe tour. Be safe,” or some chiefs like the mantra, “Everyone goes home,” meaning every firefighter goes home at the end of the tour.
Certainly these things come from the heart and with noble intentions, but what’s happened is in recent decades the American Fire Service has embraced a culture of safety that at times … That seeks to reduce the risk of injury and death to firefighters. This obviously is certainly noble, but the framework subsequently promotes several myths and fallacies at times and it leaves subordinates and line officers sometimes confused as to what the mission is. Is the mission the one I’m supposed to accomplish explicitly or is it a mission, me putting my folks and their welfare and my own interests first?
There’s sometimes a little bit of a conflict, a moral conflict that is taking place in the Fire Service, and the same is probably certainly true for law enforcement. The leadership on the Fire Team then believe that making yourself hard to kill, which is the mantra we had used frequently in combat, was much more appropriate and scientifically valid, because in combat the hard to kill paradigm promotes mission accomplishment while also seeking to enhance survivability, or rather reducing risk to injury and death.
Ultimately there are five fundamentals of making yourself hard to kill and your troops hard to kill or your teammates hard to kill. They are one, instill tactical discipline. Tactical discipline is understanding the consequences of your actions and inactions in an operational environment. Two would be develop with the basics. Like I mentioned earlier, those guys are … The best firefighters and the best combat operators generally are just very, very good at the basics, but being able to execute them under tremendous pressure.
The third fundamental would be understanding the operational environment and seeing the bigger picture. Even at the individual level when you’re executing an action you understand what the ramifications are as it relates to everyone else in your team or everyone else on the battlefield or everyone on the fire ground or everyone else in your business. Another fundamental is conduct realistic and relevant training. I think I mentioned earlier, but it’s … This type of training needs to be three-dimensional. It needs to be a tactical and technical element, a physical element, and equally significant a mental element.
Number five … The fifth fundamental would be to develop that sense of mental toughness. Develop mental toughness, learning to be uncomfortable. I think you put those five things together and you’re going to enhance your level of survivability, whether it be on the battlefield, on the fire ground at fires and emergencies, or in business. You’re going to be, as we like to say, hard to kill.
Brett McKay: What’s the connection between a leader’s mental, moral and physical abilities? What role does mental toughness play in physical performing well under pressure and vice versa?
Jason Brezler: Well, as far as the connection between a leader’s mental and moral and physical abilities, the Leadership Under Fire team, we as a team view the performance of a leader as a hierarchy comprised of four tiers. If you look at those four tiers, the bottom tier is your fundamental skills. Those are your tactics, your techniques, your procedures. Your second tier then is physical conditioning, the stamina, the mobility, the agility, the endurance.
The third tier then represents mental toughness. Mental toughness ranges from everything from being mentally tough to having developmental skills, to being a critical thinker. Then most significantly, the top tier of that hierarchy is moral obligation. What we think is that the best leaders, those who really create a legacy and are to be emulated, are those leaders who foster an appreciation for every tier of that performance hierarchy, ranging from the fundamentals to the moral imperative, the moral obligation.
Our team believes that using this performance hierarchy to sequence personal and professional development helps create better people, and ultimately better people are better leaders. When we talk about better people at Leadership Under Fire we’re not talking in general terms, but specific ones. We want to help build the leader who embodies and can articulate the values of moral ethics in leadership, a leader who is mentally strong, resilient, and a reflective critical thinker.
The exciting thing about this today is what started in Fallujah 10 years ago has evolved, and has evolved beyond the Fire Department. We’re doing this today with leaders in public safety, sports and business.
Brett McKay: Come back to this moral aspect, because I think people would see how you can develop physical fitness, you can put them on a physical regimen program. You can teach better mental models on how to think and make decisions better, but how do you develop a moral compass within a leader? What’s the process look like there?
Jason Brezler: Let me first start by saying I believe that leaders who are not morally fit, or rather unable to analyze the ramifications of their decisions and actions from the moral perspective, aren’t leaders, but are merely managers. My father, who is a retired Fire Chief, someone I look up to immensely, likes to say, “Managers do things right, but leaders do the right thing.” I believe that moral fitness is demonstrated by doing the right things at the right times for the right reasons. That’s certainly not an easy task.
Similar to the fashion in which leaders develop mental toughness and leaders develop technical skill and leaders develop physical fitness, they must also actively develop moral fitness. Like earlier, as it relates to how do you become a better decision maker under stress, you spend a lot of time thinking about it. The more time you spend thinking about moral and ethical dilemmas in gray scenarios, in gray situations, whether you’re a business leader, whether you’re a Fire Chief, or whether you’re a combat battle field commander, I think you’re much better prepared to make the kind of decisions that are consistent with the type of leader that you want to be and are consistent with what your expectation or your clients or your citizenry or your constituency expects from you.
Brett McKay: Jason, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about Leadership Under Fire?
Jason Brezler: Well Brett, for starters we have a website, www.leadershipunderfire.com. We also host a national conference each year that features accomplished leaders with wide-ranging operational experiences from the battlefield, competitive sports, law enforcement, business, to Fire Service. Our fifth annual conference is upcoming. It’ll be held in Columbus, Ohio in March 2017, and that’s a great place to come and familiarize yourself with Leadership Under Fire and find yourself surrounded by like-minded folks.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jason Brezler, thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jason Brezler: Hey Brett, the pleasure is mine. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My interview was with Jason Brezler. He’s the owner of Leadership Under Fire. You can find out more information about what they do there at Leadershipunderfire.com. Also check out or show notes at AON.is/leadershipunderfire, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Or more manly tips and advice, make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at Artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have an audio editing needs check them out at Creativeaudiolab.com.
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Last updated: December 4, 2017