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Leadership Concepts, Part One

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series on developing strong leadership in fire and EMS departments.

It’s the leader’s job to mold the department to best serve the community, but there’s much more to leadership than exercising authority. Leadership is neither complex nor easy; it’s a talent learned by educating oneself, receiving coaching, making mistakes and learning from life experience. To be an effective leader, you must understand leadership concepts and practices, as well as adopt the characteristics followers admire most in a leader.

Concept: High-performing team
The job of a leader is to develop and maintain a “high-performance team.” Much has been written about this concept. Ken Blanchard, of “The One Minute Manager” fame, describes the elements of such teams using the acronym PERFORM, which stands for Purpose, Empowerment, Relationships and Communications, Flexibility, Optimal Productivity, Recognition and Appreciation, and Morale. Let’s consider how these elements can be applied to fire and EMS departments.

Purpose: This relates to whether all department members understand the goals and strategies of the organization. These goals must be clear, challenging, and relevant to the member. Work output in a department is directly tied to how much value each member believes he or she is providing the organization. If the member does not understand how his or her efforts fit into the organization, work output will naturally drop.„

On the surface, this appears to be the simplest of the elements to accomplish. Although it’s pretty straightforward, the development of the department’s mission statement, goals and strategies should be done thoughtfully and, once prepared, communicated clearly throughout the organization. Some organizations post the mission statement and goals of the department for everyone to see, which is one way to reinforce them to members.

Getting all members to “buy into” these beliefs can be challenging, for the same reasons that gaining consensus in a department on anything can be difficult. Firefighters and EMTs first must realize that is not “about them” but about serving the community.„

Empowerment: Once the members buy into the goals of the department, they want to feel empowered ƒ both personally and collectively ƒ in supporting the goals. Do members have access to the necessary skills and resources to be effective? This element of an effective team is not found often enough in a fire department and is a primary cause of the planning process breaking down. Plans are just that if members do not have the tools to execute them.

Sometimes the decisions that directly affect department members are made by a handful of civil or operations officers. Such hierarchical exclusion is particularly damaging to a department member who has valuable, demonstrable expertise in a subject area. Leaders need to make sure that they get to know each member well enough so that they are aware of skills and abilities that can be tapped. This is especially true of a leader coming from outside the department.„

Relationships & communication: Building good relationships and communication is yet another key to building high-performing teams. This element emphasizes openness and understanding between members. Unfortunately, experience has shown that these attitudes do not flow through some departments. These gaps are sometimes apparent between volunteers and career personnel in combination departments or between fire suppression and EMS members, or even between volunteer companies within a volunteer department. Groups sometimes build walls within their departments. Diversity of thought is healthy; walls are not.

“Team building” is a common term used to describe a process in which a leader will attempt to bring “walled off” groups together. A word of caution is in order, however: A “team-building” process done poorly, conducted by an unproven team building person, can cause more harm than good.„

Flexibility: High-performance departments also embrace flexibility. The fire service continues to evolve, and the departments that understand this fact are the ones that effectively gather and maintain community support.„

This is seen clearly in fire/EMS departments. Flexible departments openly and honestly evaluate and fill the EMS needs of their communities. They enhance and reshape their EMS response ƒ not just to “create numbers” or add staff, but to fill a verifiable need.

Successful departments also are willing to challenge themselves to react appropriately to community needs. Flexibility is key to a department evolving within its industry.„

Optimal productivity: Optimal productivity is integral to the performance of a high-performing fire department. It is dependent upon having well trained, dedicated, and experienced members working as a team. Some departments or stations with low call volumes have a difficult time responding to enough calls to develop and maintain skills. Communities with low call volumes face difficulties building and maintaining good skills.„

Consequently, members who have high personal expectations can become discouraged. Members who believe they are not performing well may leave because they question their value to the team. To combat this situation, departments need to provide:

  • meaningful feedback to members on their performance,
  • good educational opportunities,
  • good leadership, and, if possible,
  • a chance to transfer to a busier station or, at the very least, a chance to “ride along” with busier services to gain experience.„„„„

Recognition & appreciation: A leader who relies on the commitment of dedicated members understands the value of recognition and appreciation. Because there are no salaries in the volunteer sector and career personnel often have their salaries limited by contract, it’s critical that deserving personnel receive their due recognition and respect from peers, the community, and management.

When giving service recognition awards, a good leader will provide an opportunity for members to choose a reward from a selection of possibilities. Giving a member the opportunity to select a reward from a “cafeteria list” of rewards usually works better than having management or historical precedent determine which reward is received.„

For example, in the volunteer service, a real estate tax break for a 40-year-old member who is a homeowner may be valued much more than a tuition benefit at the local community college. Conversely, that same tuition benefit maybe be much more valued by the 19-year-old firefighter or EMT looking to go to college. In the career service, service awards and opportunities for career improvements are key.„

Morale: Building and maintaining morale is impossible in a fire department with poor leadership. Members must feel good about their membership in the department, as well as its leaders. Leaders must create an environment where members are confident with their skills and are proud of their work. Members who believe they are making a significant contribution to the team usually continue to perform well.

It is easy to see how Blanchard’s elements of high-performing teams relate to fire departments. Each element is easily connectable to these services. Service leaders who explore these elements and learn how to implement them will reap the benefits within their departments.

Click here to read Part Two.

Ted Halpin is an independent fire/EMS consultant and educator. He is a former volunteer and career Fire Chief as well as Executive Director of an award-winning paramedic program. He holds undergraduate degrees in fire protection and engineering, and a graduate degree in Public Administration. Ted is Co-Founder of FARMEDIC and he lives in the Finger Lakes area of New York State. He can reached at„[email protected].