Join us as we delve into the captivating world of leadership, self-care, and community. In this episode we are joined by special guest Dena Ali, a seasoned battalion chief in the Raleigh Fire Department. This master class in leadership will challenge your perceptions and empower you to create a positive change. From exploring the connection between mental health and poor leadership to advocating for psychological safety in the workplace, Dena’s vulnerability and expertise shine through as she shares her personal journey and groundbreaking insights. With compelling discussions on resiliency, empathy, and fostering a caring work environment, this episode is a game-changer for anyone seeking to thrive as a leader and make a meaningful impact. Tune in to The Fire Inside Her and ignite the fire within you!
Dena Ali is a Battalion Chief with the Raleigh (NC) Fire Department where she has worked her way up the ranks. She previously served as a police officer for five years.
Dena has a degree from North Carolina State University and an MPA from the University of North Carolina—Pembroke, where her research focused on firefighter suicide. As a graduate student, she was awarded the 2018 MPA student of the year.
Dena has won many awards over the years. One that she is most proud of is the NC Office of State Fire Marshal Honor, Courage, and Valor award that she earned in 2018 for her steadfast effort to bring awareness to firefighter mental health through her vulnerability. Dena is an advocate of awareness, education, and understanding of mental health disorders and suicidality, and speaks nationally on these topics. She is also a QPR Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Instructor.
Dena has written several articles on topics such as suicide prevention, peer support, wellness, and post-traumatic stress. Dena is the founder and director of North Carolina Peer Support where she helped to develop their statewide curriculum.
She is also a founding member of the Carolina Brotherhood, a group of cyclists/firefighters in North Carolina who honor the fallen and their families annually.
How to connect with Dena
Resources Mentioned on Today’s Podcast
It’s Not The Calls: Firefighter Mental Health and Organizational Leadership – Fire Engineering Article
How to connect with Diane
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Diane Schroeder [00:00:00]:
Welcome to The Fire Inside Her Podcast a safe space for leadership, self care and community. I'm your host, Diane Schroeder, and it is my privilege to be your guide on the journey to authenticity. This week is absolutely amazing. And if you are listening to this episode while you're driving or walking or doing the dishes, you may want to plan on listening to it again or be sure that you pause it and listen to it when you have a pen and a piece of paper or notes in your phone ready to go. Because this week is a master class in leadership with a fantastic reading list and I'm just really excited. I read an article in Fire Engineering about the connection between mental health and poor leadership, and every word just resonated with me, which is powerful. And as a writer, I know that I personally love it when my words make people feel and whether they feel positive emotions or challenging emotions they are feeling, and that means the words resonate. So I reached out and asked this week's guest if she would be willing to be on the show. And while we do talk a lot about the fire service, this leadership topic and connecting the dots between the mental health of employees culture and the ownness that needs to belong to the leadership within organizations is applicable to any industry. Dina Ali is a battalion chief with the Raleigh, North Carolina Fire Department, where she has worked her way up the ranks. She previously served as a police officer for five years, and we do talk about that everyone makes mistakes, and she overcame her five year mistake professionally. Dena has a degree from North Carolina State University and an MPA from the University of North Carolina, Pembroke, where her research focused on firefighter suicide. As a graduate student, she was awarded the 2018 MPA Student of the Year. Dina has won many awards over the years. One that she is most proud of is the North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal Honor, Courage and Valor Award that she earned in 2018 for her steadfast effort to bring awareness to firefighter mental health through her vulnerability. Dena is an advocate of awareness, education and understanding of mental health disorders and suicidality, and speaks nationally on these topics. She's also a QPR suicide prevention gatekeeper instructor. Dina has written several articles on topics such as suicide prevention, peer support, wellness, and post traumatic stress. Dena is the founder and Director of North Carolina Peer Support, where she has helped to develop their statewide curriculum. She is also a founding member of the Carolina Brotherhood, a group of cyclists firefighters in North Carolina who honor the fallen and their families annually. Dina is extremely vulnerable in this conversation. We could have talked for hours and hours, and I really struggled to limit it to just an hour. I hope that you enjoy and don't forget to head on over to thefireinsider.com men if you would like to get five free tips when working with men. Hi, Dina. How are you?
Dena Ali [00:03:57]:
I'm super good. I'm really good.
Diane Schroeder [00:03:59]:
Good. I am so excited to have you on the show. I know that my listeners are excited. I told a few people that we were going to be chatting today, and they were like, cannot wait for the episode to come out. So I'm very grateful, and I like to start my episodes with kind of random questions. So my random question for you today is, are you an electric toothbrush or regular old school toothbrush kind of person?
Dena Ali [00:04:20]:
I spent most of my life as a regular toothbrush person until I needed a crown times two. And now I'm on the electric bandwagon, and every time I go to the dentist, she loves me. She's like, you make my life so easy now.
Diane Schroeder [00:04:33]:
Do you floss as well?
Dena Ali [00:04:35]:
Oh, yeah. But however, my twenty s, I did not do all the right things, and now I do.
Diane Schroeder [00:04:41]:
Same here, I do both. I have an electric toothbrush for at night, and I do the full two minutes, but in the morning, for whatever reason, I just quickly brush my teeth with an old school toothbrush.
Dena Ali [00:04:51]:
I struggle to get the full two minutes. I'm not going to lie. And so if I get to a minute and a half, I'm very pleased.
Diane Schroeder [00:04:56]:
Yes, well, I mean, the hold it in the same spot. I'm like, the toothpaste isn't even going to be on it by the time I get to the fourth spot. And anyway, awesome. I have a couple of other questions that I'll sprinkle in through our conversation, but if you don't mind. So a lot of my listeners are in the fire service, and a lot are not. We have a lot of women that are just kind of working in male dominated professions who are just trying to figure out their journey to authenticity. And so a lot of my listeners are not fire service folks. So if you wouldn't mind sharing just a little bit of your story and your journey and why mental health and leadership have become two really strong passion points for you.
Dena Ali [00:05:37]:
I feel like by the time I finish, we'll be done with the episode. Sometimes we podcasts, and it ends up being like, over a three hour conversation, which is great, but it's exhausting. So I appreciate that you keep yours disciplined. So I grew up, like, I think a lot of people who especially a lot of women who work in male dominated professions, just kind of feeling like a tomboy, maybe just a little different. And I grew up watching Cops, and then that showed third watch. So I was a tomboy. I played soccer, I rode bikes. I loved all things outdoors. The thought of having a profession that required me to be indoors, dressing like a professional, just did not appeal to me whatsoever. And then, of course, I don't even remember a lot about the show Third Watch. I just remembered I loved it. So I joined the police department, actually right out of college. I thought I wanted to be a police officer. I always tell people I'm like, we all make mistakes. I made a five year mistake. It slowed down my career. But I'm happy for it because I think, as you know, and probably a lot of your listeners, it takes time as a professional to understand, especially places women fit and don't fit. And I love that your show is all about authenticity. I think when I went and looked up episodes and followed you, I was like, this is like the human version of Brene Brown. Like, somebody that I can connect with. But when you're in your early twenties and you're trying to prove yourself and you're trying to fit in, you're not being authentic. So I am grateful for the five years as a police officer because I kind of got all of that out of my system, realizing that I just didn't like the job. It was very reactive to be somebody who was a busy body and did a lot you had to make a lot of people upset. You had to pull over a lot of cars, serve a lot of warrants. I didn't like it every day. I just didn't go home like, wow, I made a difference and help somebody. I went home like, wow, I ruined so many days today. I knew it was the job, but there's so many pieces to it. Like one of the things that drove me nuts, we'd have a warrant bag every day full of warrants. And if you had time, go serve the warrants. A lot of them were for bad checks. And then as you're going to arrest, you find out that they wrote a bad check to Food Line because they were trying to feed their family. And then Food Line sent them how much they owed plus a $50 fee. They couldn't pay that. So then the court sent them $100 plus the 50, plus the $10, and now they really can't pay that. And then all of a sudden there's a warrant for their rest. So after taking a couple of people to jail who were just trying to feed their family, it hurt. I hated the job at that point. And then especially a lot of the bad calls we went on, the bad happened, and there was nothing I could do to fix that. So fast forward. The show Rescue Me, Season Two they had a female, and I did not know women could be firefighters until Rescue Me. I think I knew, but I didn't think it was right. I briefly thought about being a firefighter, but I was like, oh, that's a man's job. They wouldn't want a woman. So they had the female on rescue, too. She was kind of awesome. She spit in. She did her thing. I was like, wow, women can do this. So fire department got on. Everything was awesome until my first promotion. And that was when I first realized I had haters or developed haters. So up until then, I'm just doing my thing. I have my friends. It's great. There's a piece of me that's trying to fit in and prove myself. There's a piece of me trying to figure out this world, and I think any female, especially in the fire service, who I didn't have a lot of mechanical knowledge and skills, so there was a lot of just working hard to overcome my disadvantages. But come the first promotion, I busted tail, and I felt this need to do really well, because I thought that if I did really well, it proved everybody that I was worth it. Top of the list, promoted right away. And that's when I found out that I had haters. And she promoted too fast. Who does she think she is? All the dumb stuff. So about a year later, I was moved to a new assignment, and I worked with a jerk. He was a pure asshole. He wouldn't speak to me, wouldn't acknowledge my presence. I played the game of not going to let you see me sweat. I'm going to win you over with my hard work and kindness. And this was in my life the first time I experienced somebody that I couldn't win over. No matter how much I ignored and acted like he didn't bother and how hard I worked and how nice I was, he just pushed further. And it was like if I showed him that it didn't bother me, he got him to the point where he wanted to make sure I knew that he was trying to get to me. And so he did get to me. And what really impacted me at that time was we were at a two company firehouse, and there were pretty good people there, very decent people. And this guy was being just really horrible. And I know that they saw it. I know that they saw what was happening. I remember one day, my company officer even told me, he's like, hey, I see what Tim's doing. It's not your fault. There's nothing I can do about it. Just keep doing you. And in my head, I was like, oh, yeah, I was glad my captain noticed, but I didn't want to make him do any extra work on my benefit. So I just went about my day. But on the inside, I received the message loud and clear like, you're not worth it. You're not worth it. And then it hurt for me that the people at that station saw what was happening, and in my head was just not worthwhile enough for them to speak up for me. It was crazy. The days Tim wasn't there, it was such an awesome firehouse environment. We had a good time. We got along. It was a great day. And then the days Tim was there, I felt like I was an alien on an island. It was awful. The days just were miserable. The little subtle comments and whatnot. So every day I'd come to work super positive attitude, wanting to win them over, hoping for this big fire where we to win them over. And every day I went home and it just seemed like things got worse. It seemed like I was more disconnected. So eventually that led me to depression and thoughts of suicide and just isolation and just a big world of mess. A lot of things just in a crazy way came together. I started graduate school. I had an assignment of action research. So finding an area where our current practices are not best practices, research develop. And I reached out to our safety officer who asked me, hey, what's something I could research for the fire service? And he replied and was like, can you research firefighter suicide? This is fall of 2015. As I dove into the research for me was very helpful because at that time I felt so humiliated that I'm having thoughts of suicide. And I feel depressed because Tim doesn't like me. To me, it was the most silly thing because there are people who have real problems, who have faced real tragedy, and I'm just being a woos. As I dove into the research, that was a commonality was feeling like your issues are insignificant compared to the real issues of the world. And that silences people struggling. And we all know now that when you don't address your struggles, they just get worse.
Diane Schroeder [00:12:59]:
You can’t outrun them.
Dena Ali [00:13:00]:
Exactly. So I'm grateful for the work on it. I'm grateful that I went through some really dark days and dark times because it made me passionate about it. And the research helped me to understand, especially I was researching while I was experiencing it. So it really connected me to it, gave me purpose. And the wheel started rolling. Tim eventually had to retire because he shouldn't have been there in the first place. He kept getting Rabdo during our fitness tests. And as you learn about bullying and bullies and people like him, they are just looking for somebody to take the heat off of them. And I was an easy target because I cared. If I didn't care so much about what he thought or what others thought, I wouldn't have been such an easy target. So I've grown myself from that experience and that's where we are.
Diane Schroeder [00:13:47]:
Thank you for sharing your story. I hear so much of your story. I'm like, yes. I got hired when I was 23 in the fire service. I was a baby. And prior to that my dad was a volunteer. So there's not a moment in my life that hasn't been involved in the fire service. And right after high school I was like, I really want to go away to college. But I couldn't leave my grandma, so I'll just get hired on the fire department. So just my entire life, I grew up in the fire department and in the fire service, and I wanted to fit in the same way. Like you, I worked extra jobs on my four days to learn more about construction. And really I found when I was new, it was so much about who I worked with that took care of me and made life better, and that crew environment really changed everything. And then I went through a really dark period around 2015 where I joke that I was, like, in the crawl space of rock bottom. It was high conflict, divorce, and a lot of discomfort at work. And what almost led me to suicidal thoughts was people that I knew. And throughout 15 years in my career, I worked really hard, had a good reputation. I thought I was crushing it professionally. My personal life got in everyone's business and the rumors and the gossip, and it just crushed me. And there was no point in saying anything. I couldn't defend myself. I felt like it was a real losing battle. I had a three year old at the time. I was a newly single mom, and then the Nicole Mittendorf out of Fairfax happened, and I didn't need to know the details. I just knew she was a female firefighter that was experiencing a lot of bullying, and it was enough that she took her life, and that kind of shook me out of it. I'm like, I can't leave my son. I've got to start talking about it. And I didn't for several more years until I had a watershed moment at the Colorado State Chiefs in 2018, where I just kind of shared. It was right after me, too. They had asked. I wrote a blog post that really ruffled some people's feathers. And I love like you were saying before we hit record, it's always interesting when people can resonate with what you write, good or bad, as long as it evokes an emotion. For me, I'm like, Cool, let's have this conversation. And then that really kind of set me on a journey for not so much mental health as it was organizational culture and how important that is, which fast forward to the article that you wrote for Fire Engineering last month or two months ago. And I was like, wow, you just summarize everything I believe in and feel in the fire service in a healthy organizational culture or not healthy organizational culture. And the timing of it was very serendipitous because I had just retired. I put in my notice to retire in April, and I don't think I was ready to retire, to be quite honest. I was exhausted from constantly going to work and feeling like it wasn't a healthy environment. I had left my first organization after almost 20 years. I went to a smaller organization. I took the leap to slow down maybe less. I thought it was the calls. I thought it was because it was so busy. And what I realized that even slowing down to a smaller organization, I was able to create this amazing shift. I had that control, our little bubble, but I didn't have the control above me. I didn't have the control with all of my peers. And it just started to grind and grind and grind, and I was like, I can't do this anymore. It's not worth my mental health because I didn't feel psychologically safe at work.
Dena Ali [00:17:35]:
Absolutely. And I think that for me is how the blend between mental health and leadership and writing on leadership, because for the last like, five years, I've been doing so much mental health research. Noticing is all the issues that affect us mentally are more a result of poor leadership and poor organizational culture than the calls, the trauma, any of that stuff. And I mean, it's vast. When you research trauma and you research people's resilience to find that when people don't feel safe in their environments, when they can't be their authentic selves, when they can't bring their whole selves to work, they won't be able to handle very much. However, in psychologically safe environments, like you mentioned, people can withstand a lot of crap, like they truly can. They can run the worst calls, they can face the worst adversity, but if they feel supported and they're not alone, they can deal with it. And it's just so fascinating. So for years, and this was like, I think, one of the first articles where I finally just drew the correlation between mental health and leadership and I was really glad for Chief David Rhodes to just say what he said because in my head, I knew it. I just didn't think that I could get the point across without pissing off a lot of people, because there's so many people that you go online, you read the articles, you read what's on Facebook and social medias and it's always blaming the calls and the trauma we see. And very rarely does it talk about the truth behind the need because people say it all the time. It's only you. You don't have to worry about others. You're obviously mentally weak if you care about what other people think and all this stuff. But no, you've got to feel psychologically safe. You've got to work around people that you can be yourself, that you can say, man, I'm going through a rough time at home, or I think I really screwed up on that call, or, I don't know why that's bothering me. You just have to be able to be who you are at work rather than just constantly on edge and fearing making a mistake.
Diane Schroeder [00:19:46]:
Brutal. When it comes to that, it is brutal. Telegraph, telephone, tele, firefighter. One of my old stations, we called it the Lions Den. I mean, it was a brutal like some crew, some stations have a very dysfunctional place, but it's hard to recognize it when you're in it.
Dena Ali [00:20:06]:
Exactly. So like you mentioned a minute ago, you can be in it and you just can't even articulate what you're feeling. And also when you're in it, it's hard to speak up for yourself. I've been doing so much reading recently on inclusion and belonging, all that stuff. I'm reading this book now, I'm really enjoying it. It's called Subtle Acts of Exclusion. It's fantastic and I appreciate it because it opens up and talks about how damaging microaggressions are. But then it goes further to say that the word microaggressions really pisses off a lot of people and it shuts them down immediately. Like if you were like, hey, that's a microaggression, it bothered me, it shuts the other person down. So they retermed microaggression to subtle acts of exclusion and then they give so many examples of these subtle acts of exclusion and just how damaging they are. But what's really cool in the book and a lot of the research is the value of somebody just noticing and speaking up or the value of the person that makes the mistake saying, oh man, I'm so sorry, I need to learn. At least in the fire service, I don't know all professions, but people just get so defensive and it's really hard for people to say, oh, I screwed up, tell me more. It's much easier just to throw up the defenses, get angry and avoid each other.
Diane Schroeder [00:21:33]:
I agree. And I think a lot of that is the tradition of the fire service. A lot of that is that masculine energy. A lot of that is we are here to solve problems. I'm going to keep my feelings shoved down and so put up like a barrier wall and snap back instead of you feel safe. And I would always tell this to my guys when they came and my new people, I'm like, look, I expect you to screw up. It's okay if you screw up. What's not okay is if you don't learn from it eventually. And I can't imagine while I can because I think the first few years of my career I did, I was so afraid to come to work and screw up. Not just screw up as a new firefighter, screw up as a female in the fire service, screw up as X, Y and Z, that I couldn't focus on doing a good job because I was so afraid of screwing up. And to give that space and that freedom to just be like, look, you're going to screw this up or things are going to get rough. And you know what? You can't keep your personal life separate from your professional life. I love the idea of it, but we're human and we just don't have that ability to flip one switch or the other switch. And it does bleed over, like you said. And I think resiliency is important. Resiliency is another word that we use a lot in the fire service. I'd like to get past being resilient all the time and move on to the growth that is beyond it. So how do you, when you lead and when you talk to people, how do you share that message in a way that resonates so people are not afraid to take action and let their guards down?
Dena Ali [00:23:05]:
Well, I think we struggle with the definition of resiliency. Sometimes people think resiliency is just bouncing back. It's being able to take hits and keep going forward. But when you truly understand resilience, like, at the very core of resilience is the knowledge that there will never be an absence of stress. Stress is ever present. However, when handled appropriately, stress strengthens us. And I love the analogy of the trees. Trees have stress roots and stress spark. And when trees grow in environments where there are lots of wind and storms, those trees grow really strong because they have to they have to adapt to the environment so that they can survive. So they become extremely strong. But if you take a tree and you plant it inside of a shopping mall and it has no stress, no adversity, it's going to be puny. If you try to take it, then from that point and you plant it outside the first storm, it's going to crumble. So I think it's important for all of us to recognize that we're going to screw up. We're going to have setbacks, and that's okay, like you said, because you can learn from them. But one of the biggest messages that I'd love to get out is that the only way that it's going to trickle down. It doesn't trickle up. Unfortunately, in my view, it has to be modeled from the top down. Leaders have to model that they make mistakes and that they own their mistakes and they grow from their mistakes. To me, that's the only way to help change the culture to where people are willing to stick their neck out and make mistakes and not live, like you said. Because I remember my first several years on the job, the same thing. I didn't want to have any faults because I thought all eyes were on me. And if I made a mistake, it would immediately be, she doesn't belong. She's terrible at this. So I was so afraid of making mistakes. And what that did was it prevented me from taking risks. It prevented me from practicing new ways of doing things or from working on more difficult skills. Instead of doing that, I let some of those skills diminish.
Diane Schroeder [00:25:15]:
I agree. It's got to be leaders. And I often think that there's that Taylor Swift song, I'm the Problem, It's me. I think a lot of it is the executive leadership team, the younger people. I feel like this new generation, it's more common for them. They get it. They've been exposed to it their whole lives. They grew up watching catastrophic event after catastrophic event. They're globally connected, not something that was part of our generation growing up. And I wish I could figure out the secret sauce to talk to and make leadership in the fire service understand that they have this amazing opportunity to just be like, hey, look, I'm human. I'm not superhuman. I probably could have done things better. I've got a lot of stress in my life. I call it keeping your cheese on the cracker. If everyone's problem, if we wrote all our responsibilities down and we looked at it like it was a piece of cheese, we would all have a lot of cheese. And all that cheese is probably really important. The problem is we're carrying it on a paper plate and not on a robust cheese board. So we just don't have the capacity in our lives. Like, oh, now I have to be vulnerable. Now I have to be my authentic self when I'm just trying to keep it together and keep all this cheese on this piece of paper.
Dena Ali [00:26:34]:
That's definitely something I realize because I read a lot and I learn a lot and I learn the right ways to do things. And of course, my instinct sometimes is, how do I get this to all of my bosses? They need to read this. And I think it's easy to say they're all out of touch. But the two most recent books I've read were by people from generations right before our boss, general Hal Moore's book on leadership. And then Admiral McRaven just wrote a new book, leadership Lessons from the Bullfrog. And these guys have got it figured out. They understand the value of caring, empathy, leaders eat last. All of those fancy terms that Simon, Sinek, Adam Grant are using, they get it. So I think for our leadership, they should get it as well. But what I've seen and what bothers me sometimes is people have gotten into the roles of leadership, either by luck, through relationships, the good old boy systems, and they never truly did the work to get there. They just had those relationships. And because of that, I don't think they have the capacity to empathize with the need for caring, for understanding. Differences. One of the challenges, not challenges, but my battalion is awesome, and I have very different personalities, extremely different personalities. And I am such a different personality that I made lots of mistakes through my caring or through my desire to be perfect at time. And I have people that do that. And it's funny because I've talked to peers and then my supervisor about some of the people in my battalion, and they're like, yeah, that one seems like he's this or that. And I'm like, no, actually, he's fantastic. He really cares. Like, he is awesome. And we have these great conversations, and I think I can look past some of their flaws or perceive flaws, not even flaws. Just perception of their flaws I can look past because I remember what it was like. I had that struggle and that frustration. I think when you get into a leadership role and you haven't had those struggles and you haven't had those setbacks, it's hard to empathize, so hard to be understanding. So then you just rule with an iron fist. And I know I throw out so many books, and I just read this book, and one of my instructors at the National Fire Academy gave me a copy of it. He bought a copy for everybody he works with, and I think he has extra copies. And so he mailed me a copy. It's called Trust and Inspire by Stephen Kobe. What I love about it is basically it says that if we continue to lead with the old school command and control because I said so, that the workforce is going to continue to walk away. They're not going to let us lead them. And if you've listened to some of the work that Dr. Merrill Moore, if you've listened to some of her work, especially with Generation Z, that's something she says is this generation is going to be incredible. They're thinkers, but they're going to hold their leaders accountable. And so the book says if you lead them that old school way, they're going to walk away. However, if you adapt and you trust them and you inspire them and you show them you care, you can still hold them accountable, but you trust and inspire, they're going to give you so much more. And the whole book, the whole thing is just about how to just change the way we lead. And one thing I appreciated in it was it talked about how people need purpose. You hear it all the time. People want more money, and they complain about money all day long. But deep down inside, it's not the money that makes them walk away. It's how you make them feel and how they feel at work that makes them walk away.
Diane Schroeder [00:30:23]:
100% preach. That is very important. And I think four leaders and four in the fire service, really, in any organization, need to remember that you can pay well, you can pay great. It is a temporary fix to a long term problem, and it negates the root of the issue. And I think everything that you've said is spot on. I do agree. What you said about the leaders, it's people need to know that they care. And people don't know how much you care until they know how much you care. I always like to say I collected the misfits. I was the land of misfit toys. Because it's people's humanness that I care more about and their character, not whether or not they're a little quirky or that neurodiversity that we all have. And I think probably when I started, those were the people that got picked on the most because they were a little bit off. They had to have everything lined up a certain way. The OCD and learning to accept everyone. And as leaders, when you talked about people just getting promoted without doing the work, I think a lot of that work is also the internal work. Got to work on yourself. And that's an inside job that no promotion or amount of bugles or amount of money will fix.
Dena Ali [00:31:36]:
No, absolutely. I don't know if you have read General Mattis's quote about if you haven't read at least 100 books, you are like, intellectually illiterate. I think in our generation, too, if you start to excel and people see you're studying, you'll quickly get labeled as book smart and get labeled as book smart. It's almost a bad thing. Like, oh, that person has no common sense. They just can read books and retain information. But I don't think that's true. And the more I read and the more I study, the more it makes me look inward and try to understand myself and try to recognize patterns that I have fallen into and change my behavior, connect with others and recognize that some of my problems aren't unique or some of the relationship difficulties are small things you can do to change. So internal work is huge. And I think doing that internal work is the piece that helps you to connect with other people so that you can recognize when somebody is maybe falling down a poor path, but that just requires a simple fix. I remember hearing the analogy like, you have a compass and you're out trying to find your way from point A to point B. If that compass gets off just a touch over the long haul, you're way off. But the same thing, like if you're on a path and your path isn't going in the correct direction, if you make just a small change in your compass, it can move you into the right direction. And that's what I love about that article and just improving culture and improving our leadership. It's not the big things. It's not learning big words and being smart. It is truly these small things. It is just caring about others. It is being a better listener. It's saying, thank you. That's what I absolutely love is just learning how these simple things are so meaningful.
Diane Schroeder [00:33:29]:
Have you been able to see that in your leadership experience on both a micro and macro level? That by being present and giving that safe space, creating it? And I think it's really fun to do at the battalion chief level, it's fun to do at a company officer level. But to see it grow and scale and make that your battalion, this thriving safe space, have you seen those improvements? Have you seen the change?
Dena Ali [00:33:56]:
Oh, completely. And that's what I love is I was so nervous getting promoted. And actually the battalion I came to when I first got promoted had a lot of experienced officers who were pretty good. So the intimidation factor was way high. But I came in with extreme humility and a desire just to learn the people I work with and to show them respect and I've just been blown away by the responsiveness to that by just asking their opinions, trusting them, letting them make their decisions, how they respond. And then so we had a transfer portal and in that transfer portal I got four new captains who are very young and newly promoted and it's the same with them, it's different because I actually have to correct just some of the behaviors and help them. Like the biggest thing I've noticed with the younger captains is trying to teach them to see big picture. This decision that you think is looking out for your crew and is so important isn't the best decision, but it's the same thing. Just by telling them thank you, by saying, hey, I see that. Great job, I appreciate that for very little things, that they appreciate it, and then when you hold them accountable, they're okay with that. That's what I have just truly appreciated the most. Like just yesterday I had to hold one of my captains accountable. He was on a hazardous exposure call and he had a ladder company coming to monitor. They had two patients with symptoms. He had the Hazmat program manager on the channel listening in and so I'm curious as to what he has. So I just added myself to it and showed up and I get there no PPE and one of the firefighters is missing. I'm like, hey, where's oh, he went in to get the guy out and I'm like and he comes out just uniform later. I just told him I was like, we're the professionals. You had an idea that there was a hazardous condition, you had a ladder company coming to monitor, yet you didn't wear your proper PPE. It's our responsibility to first and foremost take care of the people that we work with but to be the professionals and not the victims. And I truly thought that the conversation might go sour, but his response was, you're right, I screw that up and that was it. I think his ability to not get defensive and not get upset was a direct result of the relationship we built where I let him know how much I appreciate the work he does, but I think he appreciated being held accountable as well.
Diane Schroeder [00:36:28]:
I support that and agree with that and it's funny because that's what I always tell my people we are the professionals. People call us because they've exceeded their ability to handle a problem. We need to go solve that problem calmly with a purpose and professionally. And as far as accountability, it's so true. You can have both. You can love your people and genuinely care for them and want them to succeed, want them to go home safely, mentally, physically, spiritually, and know that they're human and that you're going to have to have hard conversations and hold them accountable, and they aren't mutually exclusive. You can have both. And I think it's scary sometimes because it's another tricky part. It's hard. Leadership is hard. Challenges are part of the gig when you're the designated adult. I learned a lot about parenting when I was a new officer, and it's mutual now. I feel like I've learned a lot about leadership through raising my now tween. It's hard. It's hard to say, I love you and you did this. So there's consequences to that. And it doesn't mean that you're a bad person. It just means that you made a mistake. That whole people can't be failures, but we're going to fail and it'll be okay. We'll get past it. And letting them trust you or me to know that we're not going to hold it over their head forever, that it's not like, oh, well, you did this thing five years ago, and so now I'll never trust you again. That's not how it works. It's got to go both ways.
Dena Ali [00:38:00]:
Right. And I think what makes you more successful when you hold people accountable is when you're authentic, when you value the good that they do. If you just throw out, like, good job and thank yous for stuff that really wasn't a good job, then they don't see your authenticity. When you do hold them accountable, they still freak out, at least from my experience, is when you're really authentic and you recognize the good things, even the little things, but you recognize the effort in those little things. They absolutely appreciate it. And I know that when my boss holds me accountable, I respect them more. I like having a boss who's going to call me out, right, if they call me out for everything, and it's indiscriminate and sometimes it's stupid. I don't like it. But when I truly do something or when I didn't see the big picture and I get held accountable, I have a lot more respect for my boss for doing that.
Diane Schroeder [00:38:53]:
Right. Because it doesn't do you any favors. It does you no good. It's that happy medium. If you're told, like, every time you did this wrong, you did this wrong, this wrong, you start to be like, well, all right, I'm just going to do everything wrong. But if it's, yeah, you screwed this up. I still respect you. I still know you're a good human. That's just a simple like, oh, man, I do. I appreciate that. I always say I dance on the line so I know where it is. So I like to push the boundaries and disrupt just enough and ask the questions. And I know that leads to, here we go again. There she is asking the questions. And I think it takes a good leader to be like, all right, I hear you. I see what you're doing. Can we dial it back to maybe a two or three just for a little bit, or just keep that balance so you don't lose your effectiveness.
Dena Ali [00:39:45]:
Yeah, it's that simple. People want to be held accountable. But more than that, people want to know that somebody cares about them, and it's okay to care. I think that's just gotten erased from so many fire service administrations, and I'm sure in other businesses is we're here to do a job. Like you said earlier, you can't leave your emotions at the door, but I think no matter where you are, people want to be cared about. And it's okay as a leader to love your people. That's been like, my new favorite me. And one of my bosses actually talked about it, and he thought that I was full of it when I was like, no, leaders should say that they love their people. They should say, I love you. And he's like, no way. And I was like, I'm going to get you the evidence, and it's going to be out of military books. So I got all the evidence and I presented it. We had conversation recently. At the end of the conversation, he's like, I love you. For a second, I forgot about where that came from. I was like, that was weird. You heard me. That's so cool.
Diane Schroeder [00:40:36]:
You don't have to really like your people all the time. You don't have to agree with them, you don't have to be friends, but you have to love them because that is the foundation of everything, right? Love. Acceptance is love. So I believe that. We're struggling with recruitment. We're struggling with retention, we're struggling with moving the needle on women in the fire service, all the things that haven't really changed. And I think that's a big piece of it.
Diane Schroeder [00:41:05]:
Why? Because if you knew that, you would go to a profession, we say, we're family. We're going to actually love each other like a family. That would be a total game changer. Instead of like, we're going to recruit for the superhero job. We're not going to tell you about all the things that really happens when you're sleep deprived or you're going to see and smell bad things, which, like you said, that's not really the problem. It's after you see and smell those really bad things, what happens? What happens back at the station? Do you get to be like, man, that was really weird, or, I've never seen that before. It may not have bothered everyone else, but my dad just passed away. So when I saw that gentleman who was really ill, it struck a chord with me and having that environment. And I think your message is clear, and I'm so happy that you're out there spreading the word. And the more people that can do that and really change at a big level is powerful, and you have the leverage to do that. So I just like, much respect. I think it's incredible, and I don't want you to stop. I do want to know though, what do you do to take care of yourself? Because you're busy, you're busy. I may or may not stalk you on social media, but it feels like you're always busy. So how do you find time for you and to fill your cup?
Dena Ali [00:42:19]:
No, I actually am very aggressive about building in time for naps. I should promote that more, like, hey, I took a nap today. And I will be honest, the last three months have been a crazy whirlwind. I literally every four day have been somewhere and to a point where this last four days, I'm so ready to not go somewhere. And this next four days, my first four day at home, and I'm so happy for that. But I do truly build in time because if I burn out, I'm done. So I aggressively build in time. I have a lot of quiet time, which I don't know, it might be bad because I like to have a day to myself at home, not go anywhere and do anything.
Diane Schroeder [00:43:02]:
Those are the best days in the world. I've found that now that I'm six weeks and I'm like, I feel better because I'm sleeping every night. And that's been probably the biggest game changer of my life. And just like getting comfortable in my house because I don't feel like I'm ever here.
Dena Ali [00:43:23]:
That is when I read, I used to be just like so many people that 5 hours of sleep is all you need and if you wake up early, you can accomplish more, and if you stay up late, you accomplish more. Until I read Dr. Stephen Walker's book, Why We Sleep, that completely changed my understanding of the value of sleep and that it's an active process and without it, you are going to be sick and you're going to die and your brain is not going to work. So his book just did such an excellent job explaining the value through evidence that I make it a point to try to be in bed every night. At the same time, I try as hard as I can to get at least 7 hours. If I can get eight, I'm even happier. To the point where I would say, like maybe the last two years I've been doing really good to get 7 hours on average. That now if I get under seven, I feel terrible. But I'm okay with that because I know how valuable it is to get that sleep. So I do make sure to get my sleep.
Diane Schroeder [00:44:24]:
Yeah, I mean, it literally has been life changing. And I think I wasn't sleeping before I went to work because I was anxious about interactions with certain people and all that. So that diminished my sleep. And then so we had the Marshall Fire at the end of 2021 in my city where we lost 1100 homes in about 6 hours. It was a grass fire that got into homes and became an wind-driven ember fire. And I didn't sleep for about four or five months after that. Just all the things, processing it. And I was like, I'm too old for this. I'm going to put myself in an early grave, and I just can't. So focusing on sleep has been huge. It's definitely part of my self care routine. Another random question that I have is because we've been chatting for quite a while, and I think we could chat for three or 4 hours. Two questions. One, what is your favorite firehouse meal?
Dena Ali [00:45:15]:
I just had this recently, and I love it. One of the guys that just got transferred to my firehouse, he made is it pronounced gnocci?
Diane Schroeder [00:45:21]:
With the potato dumplings?
Dena Ali [00:45:24]:
Yeah, like a rich soup. And he cut the fresh vegetables, and I just couldn't believe we ate that at the firehouse. So that was amazing. Spinach, carrots. It was so delicious. Chicken. It simmered all day long. I brought it up last night. I was like, Man, I would love to have that. He's like, well, you know, it's not really a summer meal. I don't understand because I cooked last night and I cooked pasta in the oven at 400 degrees. The soup is hotter than the temperature of the pasta. So I never could understand that one. We started doing chicken salad with grapes and apples, and it's so good. That was actually my request that I made for you tomorrow. Like, hey, can we have that chicken salad you made?
Diane Schroeder [00:46:05]:
That sounds good. All right. I like it. I love a good hamburger at the fire station. I'm not sure why. They always taste better there. The grill is seasoned better or what, but that's lasagna and a good hamburger. And I think the last question I'm going to ask, and this is a big one, what advice would you give to someone who is probably five, seven years in their career, they're thinking, you know what? It's time to start my leadership journey, which, in my opinion, you probably should start your leadership journey as soon as you get hired, for all the reasons we've talked about. But five to seven years, you're like, I got promotional tests coming up. What advice would you give them starting at the five to seven year mark for the rest of their leadership journey?
Dena Ali [00:46:46]:
Well, definitely that needs to start way sooner. Day one, see how you respond to leaders and see which leaders inspire you, which leaders make you work harder, study harder, care more, and what is it about them? Study that so that you can remember it and you could do the same. So definitely don't wait till five to seven years, because your first five years, there's a lot that happens, and you have a lot of influential leadership. But if you've been just having a good old time like I think all of us did, and all of a sudden it's time to crack down. So first and foremost make sure you are willing to sacrifice. Getting promoted isn't a gift to do less, right? Getting promoted is a responsibility to do more and to care more. You get a raise, you make more money and with that is truly more responsibility. So please live that. Please give the book Leaders Eat Last and eat last. Sacrifice yourself for them because they'll see that and they'll appreciate that. And from the day that I first started wanting to advance and promote, that's when I started reading. And that hasn't ended last night. I was reading Building Construction on my days off. I try to read like the leadership books. I think you and I both are really fascinated by books about leadership and about building a better culture and taking care of people. So I definitely love that quote by General Mattis. You have to stay on top of reading and develop those habits. Continue to read, you continue to learn, you continue to gain experience that you may not have in your circle, but through reading you'll gain that experience that you can pull that experience and use it.
Diane Schroeder [00:48:21]:
Those are great words of wisdom. I appreciate that. I have one more question for my non fire listeners. Can you tell them the value of community? And I always talked about having that, but really, what does the value of community mean to you and not necessarily specifically to the fire service?
Dena Ali [00:48:41]:
I mean, community is why we're here. Humans are not designed to go it alone. We can't go it alone. We have to have that community. And one of the greatest things that recently that has really just developed my understanding is our ability to co regulate babies and their mother more so than babies and the father, but still with the father, they get on the same electrical wavelength through that attunement. And that's why if you look at a baby, the baby smiles, you can't help but smile. If you are upset and you look at the baby upset, the baby will automatically feel upset. That carries you all through life. And I know this is for the non fire service listeners, but I did want to mention this because I think it's so important. I do a lot with peer support. I teach peer support teams, I train teams. But I say time and time again a sign of an unhealthy organization is having to utilize peer support. A sign of a healthy organization is not having to call external resource to help like that community. When you have that strong leader, you won't need those external resources. Unless maybe you just need one person might need this or that or it was something so bad. But generally that community, people coming together, just looking out for each other, being authentic, so valuable, it's that co regulation. Like if you have that strong leader who after a bad call can just open up and say wow, that was really tough. How's everybody feeling and to be able to be mature about it, then everybody else can kind of open up and have those conversations and move past that. But I like that you asked that because community is just so valuable. And if you don't have a strong community, get one, join team, go bike riding, play, kickball something. But what I love, like, I do a lot of bike riding, I do a lot of cycling. And the people who ride are not all first responders, it's people from all over. But our conversations and our abilities to express our frustrations, we're able to connect and kind of just understand that we're not alone in our struggles and the difficulties. And I appreciate what you just said a minute ago about going through a hard time sleeping because of anxiety over a poor relationship. I went through that exact same thing. I had somebody assigned to my crew that was really difficult and I really struggled to get them to do right. And it was almost like they felt attacked a lot. And so I lost so much sleep, like, just thinking about our conversations and how to improve them and it was so frustrating. Sometimes I'd wake up at three in the morning and not be able to fall back asleep. Yeah. Hearing you say that made me feel less crazy.
Diane Schroeder [00:51:17]:
Okay, well, thank you for sharing that too. And it goes to love and caring, right? If I didn't care, then maybe it wouldn't bother me. I don't know if I agree with that, though, because of also what you said with the energy, right. You can walk into a room and feel where everyone's at before you have to say a word. You can feel like oh, boy, or oh, so and so is in a mood today. Well, I'm sure you felt that when early in your career with your experience, when the person, when Tim was there, when he wasn't there, was very different to how you could feel comfortable. And that vibe is so important. And I love that co regulation because it's true. And you see that with the tighter crews. I think the specialty teams, crews that train together more frequently, work together more frequently, they have the power to use it for good or bad. That's up to them. I appreciate that. Because community is everything and who you spend your time with. Right. Not just a community, but intentionally selecting people that surround you, love you, hold you accountable, that don't drain you.
Dena Ali [00:52:25]:
Yeah. And to that point, if you are a leader, you have to know that what you bring to work is just as contagious as if you bring like a cold or a flu. If you come to work with anxiety, you're going to give that to people if you come to work. Sad, that's the co regulation. So as a leader, you have got to work so hard to bring that positive energy and to try to uplift others. And if you are struggling, maybe mention it and then try to not push that on others. So that's huge. I'm glad you kind of drove it in that direction, because that's, for me, one of the biggest lessons I've learned is when I walk in, I try to bring in a positive attitude. I try to bring in a smile, because I know that scaling back on anxiety, scaling back on frustration ali it does. Is scale it back on the people I interact with.
Diane Schroeder [00:53:16]:
Yes. Well, and it doesn't mean that you don't have those feelings. And this could be a totally different episode is making people feel safe. A battalion chief level, which is a really lonely level to be at. Right? It's storm clouds above you, alligators below you. You're in operations, yet you're still part of them. It's us versus them. You're in the middle of this funnel of like, man, I worked with a team my entire career. I've been two in, two out. I'm always on a crew, and now I'm alone delivering mail or holding people accountable or like, oh, what's the gossip chief trying to navigate that? I love you and I care about you, and I can't bitch down, which is really hard sometimes because we're human and we feel it, too. It's really challenging to do that as a battalion chief, and those are such wise words that you got to find your crew, find your community to get it all out so you can bring your best self. That's part of the gig. That's part of being a leader. That's part of what we sign up for. Well, thank you so much again. This has been such an awesome conversation. So excited. I absolutely like I said, respect you, follow you. I will put all your links in the show notes. And thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today.
Dena Ali [00:54:32]:
Ditto. It was really like, to me, like, when you asked, it was a huge honor because you've had some pretty cool people on. I love following your work, so thank you.
Diane Schroeder [00:54:41]:
Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to listen to this episode. Curious on what to do next? Go ahead and follow wherever you're listening to this podcast so you can get updates each week when new episodes are released. And head on over to thefireinsider.com com audio for a free audio to help you get started on your self care journey. Until next time, remember, you are a badass, and you are not alone.