Fire Service Leadership: Fear of Education?

By Paul Hasenmeier

A leader fearing the education of subordinates is a social trend that has implications for the ethical leadership of the fire service. This trend will be analyzed in relation to the fire service, and my specific interest area of public administration; however, intuition says that other areas in safety service may have similar trends. It will be difficult to provide concrete evidence to reinforce the claim of this social trend, however, personnel communication with numerous fire service consultants and research have laid a foundation worthy of observation into the future.

A Social Trend

Over the last five years or so, the fire service has begun to see a higher importance placed on college education. The premise behind this move is undoubtedly based on adding a more professional aspect to the field in addition to the already extremely technical-based environment. With all things considered, one would expect this combination to be beneficial to a service rich in tradition and often impeded by change. The social trend that is believed to have implications on the ethical leadership of the fire service is:

Some leaders who lack on-going advanced fire service based and post-secondary education in a related field fear subordinates with that education and utilize their political power to suppress upward mobility opportunities.

If we examine potential candidates for a promotional opportunity and determine all aspects are nearly equal in categories such as tenure, performance, and even the testing process, should a candidate who has gone above and beyond to achieve post-secondary education be in the driver's seat for advancement? One would think so, but the aforementioned statement seems contrary to what is actually happening in numerous instances the author has been informed about. Furthermore, "for most of the history of leadership studies, researchers focused primarily upon empirical questions concerning the nature of leadership: questions concerning the characteristics possessed by successful leaders or various models of leadership style" (Antonakis et al., 2004). A better understanding of what makes ethical leadership may be determined if the fire service considers how leaders use the combined experience, street-smarts, and post-secondary education of those leading the change to a more professional organization.

Implications for the Fire Service

Those that have been affected by the social trend of leaders fearing the education of their subordinates can see the serious impact the events can have upon other employees, customers, stakeholders, and the community. Joanne Ciulla (2003) points out "much less attention is paid to the ethics of how leaders lead and the moral value of their achievements." So, does suppressing the advancement of subordinates with greater education create an environment that is reactive and detrimental to succession and strategic planning?

The easy answer to the previous questions is yes, but the specific implications leading to the long-term detrimental effects of the unethical decision will take greater research, observation, and surveying of leaders willing to participate. For now, here is a probable list of fire-service implications based on this social trend:

  • The creation of an environment littered with unfairness.
  • A decrease in motivation to pursue post-secondary education
  • Underutilizing the knowledge of the organizations members
  • Organizational leadership being questioned and/or not supported
  • Great minds seeking opportunity elsewhere

These implications can and will have adverse effects on any organization not willing to recognize the path to their outcome. Even more challenging will be any attempt to regain (at minimum) the status quo of leader support.

Of course, it is no doubt true that it would be desirable to have "leaders who generally exhibit ethical behavior in their personal and professional lives, and thus that the ethics of leadership should include a general account of both morally right action and the moral virtues" (Palmer, 2009). To ensure the behavior mentioned by Palmer is organization-wide, we must deal with the challenge ahead of time through training and foresight to the problem. In the next section, we will utilize the unified ethic to convince the reader that better decisions for the organization can be made, effectively harnessing a rising and dangerous social trend in the fire service.

Dealing With the Challenge

"If at its core, leadership essentially involves influencing others to act in light of a vision of how best to achieve a shared mission" (Palmer, 2009), then one would hope not to see education alone be used as a reason to suppress a rising contributor. Leaders with one year of experience 25 times can and should use the education of those contributing to the professional rising of the fire service. It should not create a fear, yet an opportunity to advance the organization with combined experience and education.

Let's take this social trend of suppressing a person's education to prevent upward mobility and consider the theories in the unified ethic. If the theories were used in place of fear and/or politics, then a greater force for public welfare could be orchestrated. The following are questions based on the four theories in the unified ethic from Geruas and Garofalo (2011):

Teleology: Act in order to produce the greatest happiness as a consequence.

  • What are the consequences of my action?
  • What are the long-term effects of my action

Deontology: Act according to the proper principle, and be consistent in applying it.

  • What principle applies in this case?
  • Can this principle be applied consistently in this case and in all similar cases?

Intuitionism: Act according to your inner sense of what is right or wrong.

  • What does my conscious tell me about this action?
  • Do I feel good about this action?

Virtue theory: Act as a person of good character and set a good moral example for others to follow.

  • What character traits does this action express?
  • What effect will this action have on my character?
  • What effect will this action have on the character of other people?
  • Is this the action of a person whose character I would admire?

If fire service leaders answer these questions when faced with a situation such as the social trend addressed in this article, they will be more in tune with the potential harm that could be caused to the organization and personnel under their command.

The challenge still lies in the professional direction the fire service is heading, however, those leaders without the education sense their strong-arm and shoot-from-the-hip era coming to an end. According to Aristotle (1999),

Every activity has its own end or purpose – the good or the reason for which that activity is done. The telos of an activity refers to this reason or good for which an activity aims. The difference in the nature of leadership in different fields will then depend in part upon the nature of those fields themselves and the kinds of ends that they seek to secure: that is, from the differences of telos between different arenas of activity.

Maybe the end to the challenge will be when a new standard is set for the fire service and education and experience both have valuable weight in the advancement of leaders within the fire service.

*

I have great hopes for the advancement of the fire service into a recognized professional or business-like service with all the traditions of years past and continued efforts of firefighters running in when others are running out. It will definitely be important for leaders to recognize the potential fear they may feel as subordinates pursue post-secondary education, however, more importantly will be how they use the unified ethic to make decisions that will be proactive into the future development of the organization. "The heart of leadership lies in the offering of a vision in light of a common telos" (Palmer, 2009) whereas social trends can depict uncertainty worth correcting. It will be up to the leaders to offer that vision and welcome the knowledge of those under their command to ensure the organization is the most powerful and unified force.

References

Antonakis, J., A. Cianciolo and R. Sternberg. (2004). ‘Leadership: Past, present, and future', in J. Antonakis, A. Cianciolo and R. Sternberg (eds.), The Nature of Leadership. Sage. Thousand Oaks, CA. pp. 3-15.

Aristotle. (1999) Nicomachean ethics. Trans. by T. Irwin. Hackett Publishing. Indianapolis, IN.

Ciulla, J. (2003) ‘Forward' to A. Sison, The moral capital of leaders: Why virtue matters. Pg. vi-vii. Edward Elgar. Northampton, MA.

Geuras, D., & Garofalo, C. (2011). Practical ethics in public administration. (3rd ed.). Vienna, VA: Management Concepts. ISBN: 9781567262957.

Palmer, D. E. (2009). Business leadership: Three levels of ethical analysis. Journal of Business Ethics, 88(3), 525-536. doi: 10.1007/s10551-009-0117-x

Paul Hasenmeier has been a firefighter since 2000. He is a paramedic, fire inspector, SCUBA diver, and an instructor. He has a bachelor's degree in fire science and nearly complete with a master's in public administration, has gained knowledge in numerous technical rescue disciplines, and is a member of Ohio's Region 1 USAR team. He is a fire instructor for the Ehove Career Center Fire Academy, an adjunct instructor for Bowling Green State University Fire School, and adjunct faculty for Lorain County Community College. He is a contributing author to multiple trade publications and has presented at numerous conferences in the United States and Canada. He can be reached at phas@bex.net or www.firstduetackle.com.

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