There is so much hunger for leadership in the fire service today. Everyone wants to be a better leader, but the question most often asked is “What do great leaders do?” The real heroism of leadership involves having the courage to face reality and helping people around you to face it. It’s no accident that the word “vision” refers to our capacity to see. Of course, in the fire service, vision has come to mean something abstract or even inspirational in many cases. But the quality of any vision depends on its accuracy, not on how appealing or imaginative it is.
Mustering the courage to question reality is a function of a leader. And that requires the courage to face three realities at once:
- What values do we stand for? Are there gaps between those values and how we actually behave?
- What are the skills and talents of our department? Are there gaps between those resources and the politics our situation demands?
- What opportunities does the future hold? Are there gaps between those opportunities and our ability to capitalize on them?
Leaders don’t answer these questions themselves most of the time. That’s the old definition of leadership. The leader has the answers-the vision-and everything else lies within his ability to persuade people to sign up. Leaders certainly provide direction. That often means posing well-structured questions instead of offering definitive answers. Imagine the differences in behavior between leaders who operate with the idea that “leadership influences the organization’s people to face problems and to live up to our opportunities.”
Mobilizing people to tackle the challenges is what defines the job of the new leader. Most fire chiefs or leaders have a tendency to underestimate their external threats and to overestimate their own power. Fire departments tend to be allergic to conflict. If it ends up in the newspaper, the fire chief has a problem. Being averse to conflict is understandable. Conflict is dangerous. It can damage relationships. It can threaten friendships. But conflict is also the primary engine of creativity and innovation. People don’t learn by staring into a mirror; they learn by encountering difference. So, hand-in-hand with the courage to face reality comes the courage to surface and dodge the artillery that is coming your way.
Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders must be able to stomach the conflict that comes with the job. Conflict with their firefighters, officers, political officials, bosses, and customers will be the norm rather than the exception. The leader of the future must be willing to experiment with things and ideas. Some ideas will be successful; others will fail. Some projects will pay off; others won’t. Every decision and every failure teaches something about the process and the organization. How to improve your decision-making ability depends on how often you get to make decisions. Decision making is a skill and, as such, must be practiced. The more often you practice, the better you will become.
Facing reality means facing up to your mistakes and your shortcomings and overcoming them. That is the reason leaving decisions to only one person in this day and age-even when that person is the fire chief-is like playing Russian roulette. It’s much safer for all to have multiple people involved. You never know which ideas are going to flourish and which are going to die. Not everything is subject to change.
If the roles of leaders are, first, to help people face reality and, then, to mobilize them to create change, then one of the questions that defines both of these tasks is What’s precious and what’s expendable? Which values and operations are so central to our core that if we lose them, we lose ourselves? At the highest level, the leader’s work is to lead conversations about what’s essential and what’s not.
Listening Skills Essential
With leaders, the sense of sight-vision-is closely linked to the sense of hearing. People who love their bosses most often say, “He’s a great listener.” What does it mean to be a “great listener”? Most leaders die with their mouths open. Leaders must know how to listen, and the art of listening is more subtle than most people think. But first, and as important, leaders must want to listen. Good listening is fueled by curiosity and empathy. Listening helps us not to be seduced into trying to provide all the answers all of the time. If you’re the fire chief, the people around you invariably sit back and wait for you to speak. They will create a vacuum of silence, and you will feel a compelling need to fill it. You need to have a special discipline to not fill that vacuum. If the fire chief will just wait a little longer, someone will jump in and say something that will help the group. That will help the group do more than just solve the problem before it. It will help the group grow as a team, as they will know that the fire chief does not have to have all the answers-someone in this group can supply the answer.
Curiosity is a prerequisite for listening, but the enemy is within ourselves-it is known as grandiosity. Leaders need to check their sense of self-importance. But don’t think that grandiosity arises from bad intentions. It usually grows out of the normal human need to feel important. I don’t know of any human being who doesn’t want to feel important, who doesn’t want to matter to other people. And those of us who have a strong need to be needed-I happen to have that need, so I know a lot about it-spend our lives solving other people’s problems. It makes us feel needed. But that creates additional problems. The more we demonstrate our capacity to take problems off other people’s shoulders, the more authority we gain in their eyes until, finally, we become in our own minds “more important than the others.” Our normal need to feel important has been transformed into grandiosity: “I have all the answers.”
Leadership Can Be Dangerous
Why do people not like their leaders? One reason is that people in positions of authority are frequently asked not to exercise their leadership. Instead of mobilizing their firefighters to face the tough, frustrating challenges, the leader protects those firefighters from having to make adjustments. The leader’s job is not to protect the firefighters from challenges that will require adjustments to their way of life.
That’s the reason leadership is dangerous. When you unprotect your people and they have to make changes in their values, their habits, and in the way they fight fire, it becomes dangerous for the leader. People resist change because they are comfortable with the way things are. And that’s why leaders become marginalized, diverted, attacked, and seduced. You want to be able to stir the pot without letting it boil over. You want to regulate the equilibrium to keep people in a productive discomfort zone.
How do you keep people in a nonproductive discomfort zone? Attention is the currency of leadership. To a leader with formal authority, attention comes naturally. The leader must not become so caught up in that attention that he begins to believe that the members will listen forever. The leader must keep the duration of the attention span short by focusing on the topics and maintaining a narrow agenda. Push the organization without alienating firefighters. Remember that drawing focus to the tough challenges the firefighters face creates discomfort. Pace the rate at which you push change.
Decide which issues are important and need focus now and which can wait until later. Deal first with a current issue in need of urgent action. Postpone other issues until a more appropriate time. It can take considerable time and energy to change an issue from the status of nonurgent to urgent-and it can be quite dangerous. When it must be done, do it delicately.
The Informal Leader
What about people without formal authority? Again, it starts with attention. People who lead without authority, who lead from below, must draw attention to an issue and convince others that they also must make the issue urgent. Informal leaders often generate attention by making an issue stick. This type of leader is referred to as a “lightning rod.” If you are an informal leader, you are going to encounter an audience with a much shorter attention span than that given to the formal leader. Communications from an informal leader must be short and to the point. The formal leader may have a little more time-but not much. People will not give much more than 30 seconds, so use this time wisely. Make your interventions short, simple, intelligible, and relevant. The firefighter will determine relevance. The issue will matter only if the leader makes it relevant to the individual or the group.
Leadership is hard on the people who work with leaders as well as on the leaders themselves. Leaders must maintain stamina, energy, and passion to keep pushing the organization in the direction in which the leader wants it to go. If the formal leader is not pushing the organization, then the informal leader will start pushing and gain the momentum.
Separate Role from Self
One of the ways to maintain energy and passion is to separate the role of leader from self, which is extremely difficult for a fire chief to do. Most fire chiefs I know take everything that goes on in the fire department personally. If you are going to sustain over the long term, you must learn not to take issues personally. Leaders often take personally what is not personal and then misdiagnose resistance. Remember: It’s not you they are after. It may look like a personal attack, and it may sound like a personal attack, but it’s the issues you represent that they’re after. Distinguishing role from self helps you to maintain energy.
Because we get swept into our professional lives and identify with that role more than the personal role, it’s hard to distinguish role from self on our own. That’s why we need confidants who can help us stay analytical. We need two different types of confidants-those inside the organization as well as those outside the organization.
Leaders also need some place where they can get away from the department. For some people, this can be best described as quiet time; for others, it is some physical place. It can be an exercise facility, or it can be a social activity that helps keep the mind clear. Each individual must determine for himself the place of refuge that will best allow him to be himself. Doing this is not a luxury; it is critical to maintaining that energy and enthusiasm for the leadership task. It is critical to tend to the wounds of leadership we inevitably receive when we raise the tough questions.
Recognizing the challenges of leadership, along with the pains of change, shouldn’t diminish anyone’s eagerness to reap the rewards of adding value and meaning to other people’s lives. There’s a thrill that comes with the creation of value. Of course, there can be money and status also. Those rewards are surely worth the pain that comes with the territory. Many things in life are worth the pain. Leadership is one of them.
JOHN BUCKMAN has served 22 years as fire chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, and is second vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.