Leadership Styles – things our firefighters want and don’t want from our leadership.

By John K. Murphy
As a chief officer I learned my management style initially as a follower then from the seat of my pants and by observing and working under a variety of leadership styles in my and 38 years in a uniform, 32 of those years in the fire service. In addition to my military service, I am proud to say that I worked for five (yes 5) fire departments in my career and seven (7) fire chiefs, some of them two times in different departments. In my observations of the good and bad in leadership I tried to take the best of the good and learned from the bad to determine my leadership style. I also read a lot to determine what works and what does not work for leaders in the fire service. In one of my experiences, I learned that leading firefighters is akin to herding cats. As long as you get them moving in the right direction you are doing pretty darn good. Cats, like firefighters, don’t want to get bunched up; they like to take the lead and just when you don’t expect it they scatter.

I also learned that less is more. There is a balance to this equation as it will take a large time commitment to make an impact when you are new to an organization. As a new leader you need to demonstrate your leadership style and consistency, and over time when you will see natural leaders emerge from your organization you can step back a bit and guide those natural leaders to greatness. I also learned that you have to show up for work every day. Absent leadership only causes problems for the chief and the department. It’s not to say your staff and line officers can’t to the job, it’s different if you are not doing the job. The department hired you to lead not to be absent. In my experience the department never benefits from an absent leader.

I also experienced and read that firefighters want inspiring leadership, quiet problem solving and compassion from their leadership. How do we balance all of those traits and ensure that our departments are moving in the right direction and that you have followers. We have several inspiring leaders in our service (don’t want to name them all lest they all get a big head) and the best of the best get their jobs accomplished with the minimum of fuss and noise but with a lot of hard work. The noisy ones usually get fired as they are generally incompetent leaving one to wonder what will be my leadership style when the time comes for me to be the leader.

We also have to realize that different employees crave different things from their leaders and supervisors. As many flavors of ice cream as there are at Ben and Jerry’s, are about how many different cravings we have for different leadership styles. For example there are employees that want a hands-on Chief who stops by with “what’s up or how are you doing” and sit for a time in the beanery. Other firefighters do not care if they ever see the fire chief but complain that they never have seen the fire chief when there is trouble in our station or in the department. Unless you are a psychic, it's nearly impossible to know exactly what your staff wants from you. Leadership needs to be observant, insightful and sometimes intuitive.

How does one resolve this conundrum? In a survey of employees with results published in What People Want, by Terry Bacon provides some insight as to what really matters to employees and in turn our firefighters. Of the 9 things employees wanted from their leaders and managers, they wanted:

 Honesty whereas most surveyed, over 90% say they want honesty and integrity from their manager. Lies and secrets are the biggest killers to credibility.
 A nearly equal amount (89%) want their manager to be fair and to hold all employees accountable to the same standards.
 Trust. More than 86% want to trust-and be trusted by-their manager.
 84% want to respect-and be respected by-their manager.
 Dependability. 81% say they want to be able to count on their manager when needed.
 Collaboration. 77% want to be a part of their manager's team and be asked to contribute ideas and solutions. Shutting employees out will shut them up-and send them shipping out.
 Genuineness. 76% want their manager to be a genuine person. Employees sometimes spend more time with their boss than with their families-they don't want a phony.
 Appreciation. 74% want their manager to appreciate them for who they are and what they do. When was the last time you handed out a "Thank you!" or "Great job!" to employees?
 Responsiveness. 74% want their manager to listen, understand and respond. Be a sponge, not a brick wall.

In the same survey there were also things not needed by the employees:

 Friendship. Only 3% want their manager to be a friend. As in parenting, it's more important to be a leader, mentor and example than a buddy.
 Conversation. Only 14% want to have interesting conversations with their manager.
 Touchy feely TLC. 24% say they want their manager to "care for them." That doesn't mean you have to be cold and detached, but most employees aren't looking for a best friend in their boss.
 Emotional support. 25% want emotional support from their manager. Employees typically look for that among co-workers rather than a boss.
 Cheerfulness. Only 28% want a cheerful or happy manager. They'd rather respect you than like you.

Emergent Situations - It’s important to realize these needs by the employees and some insight by our leadership to recognize the needs of the firefighters. There are times in emergency situations where the leadership rubber hits the road as it comes to leadership and DIRECTNESS but those issues should be addressed in training sessions long before the emergency happens so there is not a lot of huggy- feely discussions about how are we going to fight this fire or perform the rescue.

Your firefighters also respect when the leader provides praise in a public setting, discipline in private; confidentiality; competency, and approachability.

Keep your firefighters engaged in projects. I have had firefighters come to work and go home after the shift contributing nothing the improvement of the department. I have also found out that these same firefighters have a wealth of knowledge in journalism, advanced mountain climbing skills, rope handling skills, they raise and train search dogs, they are off duty medical practitioners and attorneys. When asked why they never participated in department activities, they responded in unison, NOBODY ASKED US. You have got to keep your firefighters engaged in the activities of the department as bored firefighters are neither happy nor productive and sometimes get into trouble. To keep your firefighters involved and satisfied, challenge them with assignments and opportunities to learn, grow and develop and seek out those firefighters who never “volunteer” to do those projects. All they want is to be asked.

Finally, leaders need to lead by example not only in your professional life but your personal life. Firefighters are ALWAYS watching you and your leadership team and you need to set a good example for your firefighters to follow. You should be looking for and grooming the next generation of leadership n your department and it is imperative that you set the example of how that next generation of leadership should lead.

Leadership is neither intuitive nor natural. You have to work hard to be a leader watching and observing other great leaders, go to school and get educated, read all that you can on leadership and experiencing challenges and difficult situations before you get good at leadership. You will also have to develop your own style as well. I know of no fire chief who all of sudden said, “I know everything there is to know in my occupation.” First of all you don’t, second, you are deceiving yourself and if you take that position you should retire because you have stopped learning and are now in the way of successive leaders. You cannot clone another leadership style so prepare for the long haul in your quest for leadership.

Have fun and be safe

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