Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on developing strong leadership in fire and EMS departments.
Our examination of the keys to developing strong leadership in fire departments takes us to the work of Kouzes and Posner. In their work, the two described five leadership practices successful leaders have in common.„
The first of these practices is known as challenging the process. Those who lead others to greatness seek challenge, are pioneers, and are willing to take risks. They are “brave enough to fail” and are willing to learn from their mistakes. This concept relates very well to the fire service, as it is a dynamic discipline.„
Leaders need to not only be receptive to new concepts; they must also seek them out. Then they must be brave enough and smart enough to implement these concepts. New ideas may come from members, other fire departments and even other industries. All too often service leaders are so narrowly focused that the answers to their problems often lie undiscovered within arm’s reach.
Good leaders choose to lead because they have a vision of how thingsshouldbe and seek to inspire others with that shared vision. Reaching high goals requires the work of the total organization, and this vision needs to be effectively and enthusiastically communicated to employees.„
Without effective communication, employees won’t know why you are asking them to work so hard. “”You can’t light a fire with a wet match”” is an old Texas expression that is as relevant in describing the importance of inspiring a shared vision as it is on the prairie. The flames will not be lit in the hearts of the members unless they’re reflected in those of their leaders. Many members serve not for the money, but for the satisfaction and reward of helping others in their time of need.
‘You can’t light a fire with a wet match’
Successful leaders realize that obtaining high performance requires the total team to be productive. Encouraging collaboration and developing a sense of ownership in all members helps the team take its performance to new heights.„
Blanchard’s “walk your talk” or Kouzes and Posner’s “model the way” both carry the same meaning for excellent service leaders. Just because someone holds a leadership position does not automatically mean his employees will respect him. And without respect, the leader’s vision„ƒ no matter how laudable„ƒ is not likely to be implemented by the workers. Respect comes when workers see their leaders living up to their commitment and dedication to the high ideals of service.„
Blanchard, Kouzes and Posner share another common leadership belief: celebration. Blanchard and his fellow company workers celebrate “every chance they get.” Kouzes and Posner call this “encouraging the heart.” The point is good leaders deliver genuine acts of caring for their members when they accomplish something. Celebration in some services is limited to an annual recognition banquet. Surveys indicate that these annual banquets are not very useful in stimulating teamwork.„
Great leaders discover and invent interesting and meaningful ways to celebrate an organization’s accomplishments in a timely manner. Something as simple as a sincere pat on the back or a handwritten note can be powerful. Celebrations need not be elaborate or expensive when they come from the heart of a leader who appreciates dedication and contribution.
In summary, successful leaders constantly look for new methods and ideas, inspire others with a clear vision, empower and include everyone and acknowledge contributions of their employees. These practices do not require huge budget outlays; they merely require commitment, clarity, vision, and time. Every member deserves quality leadership, and the survival of some departments will depend upon it.
What followers expect & admire
In two extensive surveys, Kouzes and Posner determined that the majority of us admire leaders who are honest, competent, forward-looking and inspiring. It comes as no surprise that some of the characteristics are similar to the practices employed by successful leaders, as described in the previous section. In these surveys,honestywas the most frequently-selected characteristic.„
What message does this send to a leader of a department? A good leader must practice what he preaches, keep his promises, and follow his beliefs with confidence. All too often, leaders enter office with grandiose ideas, only to become overwhelmed by the work involved. As a result, projects aren’t completed and the workers feel “”let down”” by their leaders. Although the leader may have had the best of intentions and integrity, the perception by the workers is that he never planned to make these changes.„
The second most frequently-selected characteristic in the survey wascompetency.When projects are not completed, workers also question the leader’s competency. When certain goals cannot be met, a good leader will gather the membership, explain, adjust, and re-commit to achieving revised goals.„
The next most frequently-selected characteristic of good leaders is beingforward-looking.To be admired, the leader must have a clear vision for the organization. Blanchard says, “”If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”” Workers in any setting can quickly tell when a leader is not forward-thinking. They are the fire department leaders “”too busy chasing the cows to fix the fence.”” For example, poor service leaders will struggle trying to recruit more new volunteers while they disappoint the ones currently on board. And disappointed members vote with their feet.„
Fourth on the list wasinspiration.If I, as a leader of a service, am not enthusiastic about my vision for the organization, how can I expect others to be? If I am not excited about the potential benefits of a new truck or medical device, why should my workers take the extra training required to use the device? Good leaders spread communication and inspiration throughout their organization.„
Without admirable leaders, members lose confidence in their leadership, the organization, and sometimes even themselves. Poor confidence is very destructive to any organization; it leads to poor morale and high turnover. It also negatively impacts volunteer recruitment, because most recruitment occurs through existing members who are excited about being in the organization. Members seek leaders who live the ideals they, too, wish to embody. They are motivated and inspired by leaders who “”walk the talk”” with honesty, confidence, and competence.„
Good leadership for fire departments ƒ including volunteer and combination departments„ƒ is widely recognized as an important need, but the opportunities for learning quality leadership skills are currently limited. On-the-job education does occur, but often at a significant cost to the organization.„
Leaders need to be able to recognize the characteristics of high-performance teams in order to succeed. Once identified, these same leaders need to learn how to replicate them within their own organizations. Services must make the effort to educate themselves if they are to meet the standards of the public, the community, and local government that they serve.
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].