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3 Lessons Firefighters Taught Me About Humility

Sometimes I need to learn old lessons the hard way - again!

Recently, I was wearing sixty pounds of firefighting gear and questioning my sanity. As I trained with a group of firefighters from the Windsor-Severance Fire Department in Colorado, I got humbled very quickly. I had told myself “I’m not in bad shape for a 56 year old! I was in the Army! I’ll hold my own.” NOPE!

I was in the gear with these firefighters in order to learn more about their training, their culture, and what it was like to live the life of a firefighter. We developed a curriculum called Becoming a Firefighter of Character that we rolled out that week to 55 fire service leaders in Colorado.

I don’t care who you are or what type of work you do, you can learn important lessons in Humility just by understanding what I learned that day - besides the fact that firefighters are in much better shape than I am!

Humility - Believing and acting like “It’s not about me.”

Lesson 1: You Can’t Do It Alone

I was placed at the front of a hose that was already pressurized for it to spray water hundreds of feet to put out a fire. The fire company officer told me we were going to enter the two story training building and move to the second floor. It sounded easy enough - until it wasn’t.

I dragged that hose about 2 steps up the first flight and immediately stopped. I couldn’t go any further. That hose was too heavy and too long for me to move by myself. That is where the other firefighters came in. I needed them to move the sections of hose and coil it behind me before I could move. We moved in about 10 foot increments. Each time I wanted to move, I needed to check with the people behind me to be sure they were ready for me to make the next effort.

By myself, there was no way I was going to climb to the second floor and put out that fire. I realized that without my teammates, it didn’t matter how physically fit I was, I was not going to get the job done.

Wherever you work, the same principle applies. You may climb a few steps on your own, but unless you work with others, you will never reach the next level and accomplish the larger goals.

Lesson 2: Listen to Experienced People

When I got to the second floor and was ready to open the nozzle at the front of the hose, I was already tired. But my pride wouldn’t allow me to take a break, even though my trainers suggested it.

I got down on one knee and braced myself for the pressure that was going to come from that nozzle. The pressure almost knocked me backwards. I was trying to control that hose with my arms, but they were quickly wearing out. That is when one of the firefighters behind me taught me how to brace the back of the hose against my leg. That way I could move the hose to the left and to the right using my core instead of my arms. Doing it my way was going to wear me out in a couple of minutes. Doing it his way would allow me to control that nozzle with less effort and do it more efficiently.

Again, the principle applies wherever you work. There are people around you who can show you how to perform your work with less effort and more efficiency. They’ve done it before and can help you learn faster and become more efficient. Your job can get easier, and you will have the bandwidth and energy to do more with less effort. You just need to have the Humility to listen.

Lesson 3: Ask For Help

After walking around in sixty pounds of gear, wearing an oxygen tank and mask, moving up the stairs and struggling to control that hose - I was wiped out. I felt I was about to lose control of the hose after about 10 minutes. I realized they couldn’t hear me huffing and puffing or see the grimace on my face due to their angle and the helmet and mask I was wearing. That is when I said, “I think I need someone to take over.” Another firefighter stepped up and took over for me. I realized that I needed to put the mission before my pride. If I had never asked for help, I am pretty sure I would have lost control of the situation.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Your pride can keep you in a deteriorating situation if you don’t ask for help. Realizing your limitations and asking for help puts the mission before your own pride.

Learning Old Lessons Again and Again

For a decade I have spoken to people in business, non-profit organizations, and law enforcement. Working with the fire services is a growing part of what we do now. Each time we enter into a new situation, we are setting ourselves up to be humbled. I speak professionally about the Humility to lead with character. But sometimes I have to learn those lessons the hard way, once again. I was definitely humbled that day. But I learned three very important lessons.

Dig Deep Questions

  • Who do you need to rely on, listen to or ask for help?

  • Why do you think we avoid doing those three things?

  • How could it make you better if you did?


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