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Chapter 1: Coachable

The following is an excerpt from Chapter one of Firefighter Success.
My best skill was that I was coachable. I was a sponge and aggressive to learn.

-Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is arguably the most talented basketball player of all time. With six NBA championships, five Most Valuable Player awards, and over 32,000 points scored, his impact on the sport of basketball is undeniable. He definitely had talent, but that isn’t what determined his overwhelming success. Jordan admits that his best skill was being coachable. He was willing and able to receive criticism and guidance—which he used to learn, change, improve, and eventually succeed.

The greats never do it on their own. If we want to become successful firefighters, we must be willing to accept the fact that we don’t know it all, and we will never know it all. No matter how much we train, how many classes we take, or how long we have been in the fire service—we will never know every single aspect of this job.

Successful firefighters are coachable. Whether we have three days or three decades on the job, we are willing to receive criticism, process it, and use it to improve. We look to be taught by someone who has walked before us. We know that it is okay to not have all the answers. We know that it is okay to admit, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” 

We embody what it means to be humble, because we know that humility is the beginning of wisdom.

5 Key Elements of Humility

There is always someone who is better than you … at something.

-Jocko Willink

Before we discuss how to be coachable or anything else contained in this book, we must realize that humility is the foundation. It is the launching point for everything else that is connected to our success. A firefighter without humility will never reach their full potential, nor will they ever really achieve success. Let’s discuss five key elements to growing in humility. 

1. Adopt an “Others First, I Am Last” Mindset.

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

-C.S. Lewis

Whether we hold rank or not, successful firefighters are servant leaders. We embody servant leadership and humility by always putting others first. We see the needs of others and strive to meet them on a daily basis.

Isn’t that why every firefighter signs up for the job? To serve others? That is why we are called “public servants.” We exist to serve. We exist to respond to others in their time of crisis. It is in our DNA. Our careers would be incredibly short-lived if we are dispatched to an alarm, yet say: “No, we’re not going to respond. Have another unit fill in.” That attitude would not go over well.

For our fellow firefighters, a simple way to put them first is by simply showing compassion. On a personal level, if someone on our crew is obviously struggling, let’s ask them if we can help. And if we cannot help them, let’s find them the help that they need. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Let’s show our brothers and sisters that we care. 

On a lighter note, a practical and simple way we can serve our fellow firefighters is by cooking for them. Perhaps the quickest way to a firefighter’s heart is through their stomach. And once everyone sits down to the table to eat, we can be the last to get our food and eat. To paraphrase Simon Sinek: “Successful firefighters eat last.” When we put others and their needs first, it demonstrates humility. 

2. No Task Is Ever Below Us.

No matter our rank, seniority or time on the job — no task is ever below us.

Regardless of our position or power, we must know that we are never too important to complete the smallest task. Whether it is sweeping a staircase, folding towels, or cleaning the fire truck—we will take pride and ownership in every aspect of the job. If it needs to be done, we will do it, and we will do it with a positive attitude.

Entitlement isn’t part of a successful firefighter’s vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are some senior firefighters who believe they have earned the right to “do nothing.” They believe the fire service owes them everything. But their sense of entitlement and puffed-up egos are roadblocks to their success. On the contrary, senior firefighters have an obligation to do more. The successful veteran firefighter will own the great responsibilities they have to lead by example and to mentor younger firefighters.

When I was a new firefighter, I once found my captain washing the fire truck by himself in the middle of the afternoon. He could have very easily delegated the task to our crew (and especially to me, since I was the least senior member). But he chose to take care of it himself, because in his eyes, “it just needed to get done.” He saw a need and he filled it. That’s what all successful firefighters do when they encounter a problem—they solve it! That same captain is now the assistant chief of the fire department, which is no coincidence.

See a need? Fill a need.

Let’s flip the script. Maybe we are the rookie, a private, a driver/engineer, or the like. We will still take ownership of everything that is in our power. Nothing makes a fire officer happier than when one of their firefighters comes to them and says, “I found a problem, and I fixed it myself.” As Chief Frank Viscuso has shared in his book Step Up and Lead: “Never walk past a problem you can solve.” See another crew’s dirty cup that was left on the kitchen counter? Solve it. Find a dirty and rusty hand tool on your fire truck? Solve it. Is a piece of the fire truck’s equipment broken? Solve it.

If you’re bored at the firehouse, you’re doing it wrong.

One of my mentors taught me that there is never a reason to be bored at the fire station. There will always be something for us to learn, train on, fix, clean or do. Consider these routine fire station duties that every firefighter can do:

  • Clean trucks, tools, kitchens, bathrooms, etc.
  • Inspect and maintain equipment on our trucks
  • Brew coffee
  • Start and empty the dishwasher
  • Stock toilet paper and towels
  • Clean the apparatus bay floor
  • And many more …

3. Admit and Own Mistakes.

Making mistakes is better than faking perfection.


Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone falls short. Everyone fails from time to time. 

Are we humble enough to admit to our mistakes? Are we prepared to take full ownership of them? Are we willing to learn from our mistakes so that we never repeat the same one? Are we willing to teach others the lessons that we have learned so that they don’t suffer the same fate? Most importantly: If we fail, do we have the courage to stand back up and try again? 

Successful firefighters know that making mistakes is part of the journey. Consider how many times Albert Einstein failed, yet he is known as one of the most brilliant people of his time. Take it from him: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Thomas Edison is known as one of the greatest inventors in history, yet he gives this advice on failure: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

When we FAIL, sometimes that is just our First Attempt In Learning.
Humility in Leadership

Successful leaders are humble. We aren’t scared to take ownership of our errors because we will use them as learning experiences. When it comes to humility, two of the most powerful tools that a leader can use are honesty and transparency—especially with their mistakes.

Let me share a story about Jake. Jake was my lieutenant when I first got promoted to the position of captain. He may have only had five years as a firefighter before getting promoted, but he was smart, aggressive, and, most importantly, he was humble and coachable. When it was his turn to be on the fire truck with me, I made sure that he was always riding the front seat, responsible for all the calls we responded to.

One night we were dispatched to a first-due working commercial fire at a massage parlor. If you have ever been in one, they are divided up into many rooms so they can host multiple clients. This particular building was 30’ wide and 60’ deep, and chopped up into approximately 15 rooms. 

As we pulled up to the scene, we saw heavy smoke issuing from the right and rear side of the building (“Delta” and “Charlie” sides, for all you firefighters). Jake had been in this building before, and he was very confident about its layout. Since I was riding as the backstep firefighter, he told me to pull an 1.75” attack line to the front door. Second guessing him on his decision, I suggested that we pull a 2.5” attack line to the rear, since that is where most of the smoke was coming from. He respectfully disagreed, and I let him have the autonomy to “make the call.” After all, he was the acting officer in charge of the scene. 

After we forced the front door, we were met with heavy smoke in the front foyer. Visibility was terrible and there was a decent amount of heat, so I made sure our crew stayed close together. As extra insurance, I told Jake to request that the incident commander position an additional crew with an attack line to the rear of the structure. We attempted to make the push and locate the seat of the fire for about 5 minutes, using our thermal imaging camera and hooks to pop ceiling tiles. After going in several rooms and being halfway into the building without locating the fire, I finally asked Jake: “Hey L.T., how about we reposition to the rear of the building since we can’t find the fire?” He agreed, and we exited the building.

As we were repositioning our attack line to the rear, we found two crews that were already extinguishing the main body of the fire. They found it right away by going to the rear of the building and making entry through glass sliding doors. We ended up assisting them by performing overhaul and extinguishing hot spots.

As a first due crew, it’s never a good feeling to know that someone else found and put out “your” fire. As a first due crew, everyone expects you to make all the right decisions, in only a matter of seconds. But guess what—that doesn’t always happen. We are human, and we make mistakes.

What went wrong? 

Jake did a 360 walk-around of the structure like he was supposed to. He didn’t see any obvious fire or smoke from the immediate rear of the building. Judging the conditions he saw when we pulled up, and based on his previous knowledge of the building’s layout, he was almost positive we would be able to go in through the front door, make a right turn, and the fire should be right there, but it wasn’t. Here’s what Jake overlooked during his 360: At the rear of the building, there was a 6-foot tall wooden privacy fence that blocked his view of the rear glass sliding doors on the Charlie/Delta corner. He chose to walk around the privacy fence instead of walking through the gate (immediately adjacent to the building). If he had gone through the fence’s gate, he would have seen the fire’s orange glow through the glass sliding doors, and he would have placed the initial attack lines at the rear of the structure. Our crew would have immediately found the fire and extinguished it without delay. 

Here’s the most important part of this story: At our shift’s official “After Action Review,” Jake had the humility, honesty, and courage to stand up in front of the entire room, admit that he made a mistake, and share what he would do differently next time. That’s no simple task, especially as a new lieutenant in a room with 25 other firefighters with strong personalities. 

Jake’s outward display of humility demonstrated to other firefighters, fire officers, and chiefs that he had made an error in judgement, but he learned from it. Jake wasn’t the only person who learned from the experience. Because of his humility and willingness to admit his mistake, everyone who heard his story gained the knowledge and experience to avoid repeating it in the future.

Moral of the story: Let’s have the humility to not only admit to our mistakes and learn from them but also the courage to share with others the lessons we have learned.

4. Talk Less, Listen More.

A fool speaks, the wise man listens.

-Ancient Proverb

When we are new firefighters or new to a fire department, almost all of us have been offered the same advice: “You have two ears and one mouth, so that you can listen twice as much as you speak” (Epictetus). Some may turn their noses up at this advice and call it old-fashioned, but there is great truth to it. But this advice isn’t only applicable to new firefighters—every firefighter could talk less, and listen more.

If you have been in the fire service for any amount of time, consider how many times someone has stuck their foot in their mouth and made a fool of themselves because they speak without thinking (perhaps we have done it many times).

Contrary to popular belief, it is okay to “engage our filters” and to not say every thought that comes to mind. I have witnessed rookies, senior firefighters, company officers, and even chiefs make complete fools of themselves by blurting out obscene and offensive comments—all because they did not think before they spoke. We all have done it, myself included, and when it happens we immediately regret what we said. We wish we could take it back and that no one would have ever heard it.

Imagine how many arguments could be avoided if we simply thought and engaged our filters before we spoke. We can practice the THINK principle by asking: “Is what we are about to say: 

  • True?
  • Helpful?
  • Inspiring?
  • Necessary?
  • Kind?
A firefighter with humility will be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

-Book of James (paraphrased)

5. View Discipline as Guidance, Not Punishment.

For those of us who have children, we understand the importance of boundaries, enforcing them, and administering discipline. Without them, a child will grow up to face a hard life in the real world. The same goes for firefighters: We must have the humility to respect the boundaries and expectations placed in front of us (i.e. “Rules and Regulations,” “Standard Operating Procedures,” etc.). 

When we don’t live up to expectations, or we don’t follow the rules, corrective action needs to take place. A humble and coachable firefighter will view discipline as guidance and a means to correct the undesired behavior, not as punishment.  

As a firefighter, I have been on both sides of discipline: receiving it and administering it (as a company officer). When I was on the receiving end, I accepted it and admitted to my mistakes. With humility, I apologized and pledged to not make the same mistake again. 

As a company officer who also administers discipline, I utilize the following process:

  1. Allow the accused to give their side of the story first.
  2. Inform them of how they broke the rules or didn’t meet expectations.
  3. Reinforce expectations, being very clear.
  4. Communicate what will happen the next time they break the rules.

Be Coachable, Be Teachable.

With humility as our foundation, we are ready to discuss what it means to be coachable, why it is important, and how to live it out.

A coachable, successful firefighter is teachable. When others give us advice or criticism, we don’t roll our eyes and merely shrug it off. We check our ego at the door and we receive it. Not only do we receive it well but we also actively seek out others’ guidance on the path to continuous self-improvement. 

Successful firefighters know training is essential to every aspect of the job. Training teaches skills, imparts knowledge, and instills confidence in successful firefighters. As coachable firefighters, we are always willing to train and we have an unquenchable thirst for learning everything we can about our profession. We invest in our own knowledge, skills, and abilities by seeking out training opportunities in every avenue:

  • Reading articles and books
  • Hands-on training
  • Building and area familiarization
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Attending conferences
  • Analyzing previous calls and learning from them

Coachable firefighters are also honest about their strengths and weaknesses. We do not shy away from personal introspection. Knowing who we truly are, we work hard to change bad habits and improve our weaknesses. 

Mentorship is Essential

We cannot achieve success on our own. We must seek the guidance of someone who is wiser and more experienced. A mentor is integral to our success, because they will:

  1. Have the ability to see and point out weaknesses we couldn’t see in ourselves.
  2. Teach us from their wisdom, experience, and failures.
  3. Increase our confidence.
  4. Provide encouragement when we fail.
  5. Hold us accountable to our goals.
  6. Fast-track our success.
A mentor is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

-John C . Maxwell (paraphrased)

Finding a mentor isn’t complicated. Ask yourself: “Who is a leader I know who I aspire to be like?” Undoubtedly we can identify one to three individuals who would be willing to meet and talk with us on a regular basis. There is no need to have a formal relationship or a written contract. We can simply ask our prospective mentor if they would like to meet for a coffee or a meal. At our meetings, let’s be honest about our goals so that they can help us. Also, let the mentor know why we admire them, and ask them if they would be willing to meet on a regular basis to discuss how we could learn from their experience. At no point do we need to use the words “mentor” or “mentorship.” Just keep it informal and easygoing. 

What Happens When a Firefighter Is Not Coachable?

Ego, vanity, selfishness, negativity … These are all symptoms of a firefighter who refuses to be coached. Their “know-it-all” attitude is a roadblock to reaching their full potential, and consequently a barrier to the team’s success. An uncoachable firefighter refuses to be humble, refuses to be teachable, and views discipline as punishment. 

Every fire department has uncoachable, ego-driven firefighters. Stay away from them at all costs, because their poor attitudes will be a cancer to everyone around them. They will infect others with their negativity in no time.

Make the Choice to Be Coachable

Being coachable is a daily attitude. Day in and day out, it is a mindset that must be developed. It is a choice that we as firefighters must make if we truly want to unlock our potential and achieve success. Coachable firefighters are humble, teachable, and are constantly seeking to improve themselves. 

Stay hungry, stay humble, and stay hopeful.

-Onyi Anyado


  1. Time for some honest introspection. Ask yourself: Do I need to be more humble? Are there specific areas in my life that I need to put my ego aside?
  2. Write down your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t hold back.
  3. Don’t pretend to have all of the answers. Receive criticism and use it to get better.
  4. Find a mentor.
  5. Commit to change, improve daily, and most importantly: take action. 
Continue Reading Firefighter Success
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