Whether you are able to lead or are effectively followed can depend on your management


“A few evenings ago, I attended a wedding,” said George, a leadership counselor who was addressing a group of volunteer fire chiefs during a seminar. “My wife wanted a dry Manhattan, so I went to fetch it. While waiting at the bar, a neighbor’s son and I struck up a conversation. It went something like this:

” ‘I’m on the list for promotion to assistant foreman in the sanitation department,’ the young man said, ‘but I don’t think I’ll take it.’

“1 was surprised at the remark since the young man was married with a growing family. ‘Why not?’ I asked.

” ‘Hey. When 1 first went into the department, 10 years ago, if a boss said anything to you, you gave him a yes sir or a no sir. Not any more. If a boss says something to a bunch of young workers today, they’ll tell him to youknow-what. Not all the young guys are like that, but enough of them are.'”

George sensed that as far as a first line supervisor is concerned, it doesn’t really make any difference in what organization he works. When interpersonal relationships are involved, the problems are all just about the same.

Now as George faced the five volunteer fire chiefs sitting in a circle he asked, “Would anyone like to comment on the young sanitation man’s remark? And please give your first name before speaking.”

After noticeable chair movement, the youngest of the chiefs said, “Frank. I feel the guv was just yellow’. He doesn’t have the guts for the job. He just remembers things the w-ay he thinks they were. But he’s wrong. I think men have always been just about the same. His bosses of 10 years ago may have said the same thing about him or his friends when they came on the job.”

“My name is John,” a chief who looked to be in his fifties said. “I don’t know if 1 agree with Frank. I think there’s a big difference between, let’s say, the men who came into the fire service after World War II and those men who came in after Vietnam.”

“So, you agree with the young man on the foreman’s list?” George asked.

“No. I think the guy should take the job. He just has to learn how to think a little differently.”

“Would you, if you had the power, force the young man to take the foreman’s job?”

“Absolutely not.”


“Because part of being a good boss is wanting to be a boss.”

“Harold,” a man of about 35 said. “I couldn’t agree more with John. I would never force anyone to take a leadership role, especially a first level role. There’s just too much to deal with, and if you’re not sold on doing your job, it can be too much. I really think a guy has to have a gut feeling that he wants to take it on. There’s too many bosses walking around who should have stayed firefighters.”

“Can you explain your last remark? George quickly asked.

“They aren’t doing their jobs.”

“Because they don’t have a gut feeling?”

Harold hesitated for a moment. “Yeah. I would say that. They back off too easy. They don’t face up to what they should.”

“Can you tie what you’re saying into how the young sanitation man feels?” George asked.

“Well,” Harold replied, “I think the guy was either afraid to face some guys that might not move fast enough when he told them to move, or he could have been afraid of what he would do if they gave him any back talk. You know, like getting into a fight or something like that; or he could have a lot of fears that are just simply stored away in his head that have nothing to do with his manhood, but they are strong enough to tie him up in knots. Who knows what they could be or how they got there?”

George thought for a moment. Harold’s remark, especially his last thought, was really perceptive. “What about the other men who are on the promotion list?” he asked. “Why do you suppose they’re willing to take the job?”

“They may not have the same concerns that this sanitation man had,” . Harold answered.

“It seems to me,” a chief called out, “that the sanitation worker expected not to be obeyed.”

“Go on,” George said.

“My name is Robert. As I was saying, the big difference between other men on the promotion list and’-” this sanitation worker is that this one doesn’t seem to expect to be obeyed. The other men either expect to be obeyed or they haven’t thought about it at all. So they’re not concerned with it.” He thought for a moment and continued, “The ones who haven’t thought about what it means to be a boss and tell someone what to do might be a headache for the organization. Some of them may wake up to the fact that they don’t like being a boss. It’s my feeling that a lot of them spend their term as officers looking for a smart new school of leadership psychology that says it’s okay not to do much about telling people to do their jobs or that it’s swell to lead by suggesting and discussing what has to be done or if anything should be done at all.”

“Is that all wrong?” George asked.

“No. There are times when it’s okay to suggest and discuss. S & D, I call it; but it’s important to remember that it’s not to completely replace being a good old-fashioned boss. I feel a lot of leaders use S & D because they’re afraid, just like the sanitation worker.”

“An old-fashioned boss?”

“Yeah. A man who can be understanding but who can open his mouth when he has to and tell someone to get off their butt.”

“You’re not recommending that fire service leaders act as dictators, are you?” George asked.

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“No. I’m just saying that they should act like bosses who expect to be treated like bosses. Suppose one of us has to implement a policy that’s handed to us from above, a policy that we don’t like and that we know the firefighters won’t like. If, like the sanitation worker, we start out by expecting not to be obeyed, then where will we be and where will the job be? That’s all I’m saying.”

“It’s interesting to note,” George said, “that, judging by your facial expressions, you all agree with Robert. I think I also agree, but let’s make sure what we’re agreeing to.” He quickly wrote the words autocrat, democrat, and “abdicrat” on the chalkboard.

Leadership types

“In general,” George said, “we can divide the leadership style of most fire service leaders into the three classes that I have written on the board. Now let’s define the terms. An autocrat in the true sense is like a king or a dictator. Such an approach is necessary, to some degree, with a variety of individuals and in some work situations. A fireground emergency is a good example.

“A democratic leader tends to decentralize his authority. He looks for genuine input from those who are around and will probably have a natural S & D approach to leadership.

“An ‘abdicrat’ has rejected the whole concept of fire service leadership. For one reason or another, an abdicrat has ceased to perform as a leader. Some do it openly. Others, as Robert indicated, do it dishonestly. They tend to hide in the folds of democratic leadership psychology because in assuming an S & D posture they can elude the role and responsibilities that are associated with being a fire service leader.”

George hesitated for a moment. He did not like what he was about to say. “Then, there are those leaders who are not necessarily abdicrats but who love to deal in S & D with those around them. For them, S & D stands for stealth and deceit because they take what’s not theirs and use it. They pick the brains of those who have ideas. Frequently, they don’t give credit and that’s a disgrace.”

“Steve. Boy! Are you down on democratic leadership.”

“Are you a democratic leader?”

“I consider myself to be democratic, or rather let’s say I’m not an autocrat.”

George smiled and said, “Okay, let’s even up the sides. Arbitrary rightness (being right by willing it so) can also be considered a curse. An individual who practices arbitrary rightness frequently cannot stand doubt or the unknown. Things have to be resolved just as quickly as possible. They have to be settled once and for all by declaring the right way of doing it, and, of course, to keep everything neat and tidy you have to always know what’s right and be willing to arbitrarily and dogmatically declare it as being the right way and make it stick. A leader who never varies from an autocratic style may be locked into such a role behavior due to deep rooted fears. Of course, we’re talking about a leader who is excessively into the ‘always right’ role; not someone who tends to be just a bit dogmatic in his approach to things. For the excessive autocratic leader, he may see indecision in an unrealistic way. It’s normal for all of us to experience doubt and to seek help, but if an individual sees indecision as an undesirable weakness that is intolerable, then, to remain on good terms with himself, quick decisions are necessary. Since these decisions must be made quickly, there’s not much input from staff or peers. Firefighters generally find it tough to stomach such an individual. Also, think of the wasted expense to the organization that’s bound to occur if such an individual reaches a managerial position that involves making policy decisions.”

“I’m in the autocratic area of leadership,” Harold contributed.

“Do you object to what I said?”

Harold smiled. “Well, I don’t know. Is there any way that one of these arbitrary rightness leaders can be spotted before they do any damage?”

“There’s no sure way,” George answered. “It’s nice to play arm-chair psychologist, but one indication could be the individual’s reaction to outside influence. If the individual seems to want to be a king in his own kingdom without any contact with the world, and if the individual takes it very personally if his word or decision is doubted, and if this is a consistent reaction, then perhaps the individual is practicing leadership by decree. He’s a leader who rules without considering any source of knowledge but his own and forgets the great managerial training practice of delegation. This type of an autocrat will never think of delegation. He could be very expensive, especially on a long-term basis.”

Robert thought for a moment and asked, “Changing back to the abdicrat, how can he be spotted so he doesn’t get in a position to hurt the department?” He quickly added, “I mean the one who hides out as a democrat.”

“Perhaps the most noticeable trait may be the individual’s tendancy to blame others. You see, since a group decision process is frequently used by a democrat, then why, according to the abdicrat, shouldn’t the group who made the decision take the blame? Of course, the managerial principle of the inseparability of responsibility from command makes such thinking incorrect, but either the principle is not known or is not enforced.”

George thought for a moment and added, “A democratic leader in the fire service may use a group process to gather and discuss factors involving a decision. However, he has learned to somehow remain in the sole position of making the final decision, a decision that he will take responsibility for. An abdicrat’s tendency is to hide behind the group.

“In contrast to an autocrat,” George continued, “the abdicrat loves to delegate. The highly prized process of delegation, when used by the abdicrat could backfire. If you have ever helped a little old lady only to be cursed out if something goes wrong, you know what it’s like for a firefighter who gets it in the neck from an abdicrat who is looking to get out from under.

“Of course,” George continued, “when we’re talking about the S & D type of leadership approach, it’s always necessary to mention the stealth and deceit type: The leader who steals from others and doesn’t give credit. The guy who wants to ride quickly on to success on the ideas and efforts of those around him. He is an expensive type of leader for an organization, especially on a long-term basis. Eventually, to survive, everyone has to shut down or be mentally raped on a continual basis. Thus the organization is hurt.”

‘Talk about democratic leadership.”

“I feel the essence of democratic leadership,” George continued, “can be at least partly found in how a leader views the world around him. If he looks down the road and, like the sanitation worker, sees nothing but darkness, he’ll try to find a way to bring a little light into his world, and that is so important to an organization. An autocratic leader is a different type. He may be highly disciplined to perform in whatever environment he has to operate in, and, as a consequence, he may simply accept the darkness and work in it without questioning and without trying to bring about a change. The abdicrat can be expected to close his eyes and play dead until it’s all over or until someone steps forth and takes over or, in any event, until he senses that it’s alright to open his eyes.”

“Explain that?” Harold requested.

George smiled. “Look,” George said, “I’m talking in generalities. I’m not saying an autocrat is a man who works with his head in a bag. I’m saying that we’re all different and we tend to see the world around us differently, and that’s why we tend to approach leadership in a variety of behavioral ways. Just take what I’m saying as a very broad indicator to help gain an insight into leadership. Don’t take it as gospel. A considerate autocrat can be a great asset to the fire department; however, an autocrat who practices arbitrary rightness can be an awful drag.”

In general, we can divide the leadership style of most fire service leaders into three types: autocrat, democrat, and “abdicrat.”

“Give us an example of what you mean,” Harold asked.

“Okay. Let’s key in on what Robert said a few moments ago. He indicated that a chief sometimes has to take some pretty tough policies from upper management and lay it on the troops. Policies that you as a chief do not care for.

“A democratic leader might approach upper management with a desire to delve into the reasons behind such policies in an effort to understand and perhaps give his input, all to make the policies workable. He would expect that his superiors would be willing to discuss the reasons for these policies. His approach with the troops would basically be the same. He would share his thoughts and discuss the policies in an effort to make them work and do so in an intelligent, humane, and responsible manner.

“A true autocrat, the arbitrary rightness type, could possibly take the policies as given to him and since he doesn’t like them, not bother to fully understand them or the reasons for them. He could be capable of ramming them down the throats of those who are his subordinates. He will probably do so without bothering to explain or soften the blow, and he may not try to pass off any of the reactionary heat to his superiors. He may absorb it all and consider that to do so is the act of a good loyal leader. The overall impact of his approach leaves something to be desired. He did what he was asked to do. He operated as a fearless leader. He expected those under him to also do as they were told. The organization was served. But how? He operated in the dark and did nothing to bring a bit of light into his world.

“An abdicrat will simply pass the whole thing off and explain that it’s not his doing. It’s upper management’s idea. If asked for an opinion he may not have one or he may be afraid to give it. If pressed, he will give an opinion that would gladly be received by those who are asking. He will stay neutral until it’s all over. The organization is not really served by the abdicrat.”

George continued, “Rules are another area in which a democratic leader seems to stand on different ground than, say, an autocratic leader.”

“I’m not sure I get your meaning,” Steve said.

“Let’s see how we can best say what has to be said.” George hesitated and added, A democratic leader does not live by a check-off list of dos and don’ts. If a rule is violated, a democratic leader, will not usually react in a strict, arbitrary manner. There are a few hard and fast rules, and if necessary, even these can be examined for possible non-compliance. His mind is not closed to reason, understanding, and justice. He especially does not feel that he is the source of all knowledge. Nor does he practice arbitrary rightness. It’s natural for him to enter into S & D, but it’s also natural for him not to be afraid to discipline someone when necessary. He will not hurt people by stealing their ideas or correcting their faults in public, by yelling and screaming, or by doing any other thing that will tend to dehumanize another.

“A democratic leader is a balanced person. He tends not to act one way today and another tomorrow. However, he is human. He senses that those with whom he deals will have failings, just as he does. He expects to understand the failings in others, just as he expects others to understand his shortcomings.”

“You aren’t telling us that it’s okay to break the rules, are you?” Robert asked.

“Not really,” George answered, “but that’s a good question and the one that I expected. But let me try to explain. The life of a true democratic leader is really rather hazardous, especially in a large fire department. I don’t feel that we have the time to go into it fully, but let me tell you that a large fire department like Los Angeles, Boston, or New York City expects its leaders to practice a military approach to leadership. That is their official position. There are no provisions for a S & D approach to decision making in these departments’ books of rules. If I was teaching city firefighters, I would flat out say to them that to practice true democratic S & D leadership may be hazardous to your career aspirations for promotion, because if something goes wrong and you didn’t obey the rules as they’re written, you could, as they say, be left holding the bag. But you men are volunteer chiefs. I feel you have a bit more flexibility in your approach. So I’m pushing democratic leadership; however, you must find a way to equate an S & D approach with your department’s official views.

“Let’s go back to considering how a democratic leader naturally sees rules. For a democratic leader, the rules are looked upon as guides. There is a sense that the organization is governed by intelligent people who make intelligent decisions, and while the rules are there, never to be totally disregarded, the needs of people and organizations in a rapidly changing environment are also there. It’s not easy. A democratic leader does not live in a black and white world. He is obedient, but not to the point where he stops thinking for himself; therefore, he is never completely controlled by the organization. He cannot totally live by a check-off list approach to life. To be a true democratic leader requires an ability to analyze and to take chances, chances that could place him in a bad position as far as the rules go—but think of the payoff to an organization. Think of the motivation and commitment that such a leader can foster in those around him.”

Harold said, “That’s what I mean. The volunteers are also a paramilitary outfit. I don’t know if being a true democrat would be that good.”

“You have to find your own way,” George said. He waited a moment and continued, “Balance may be the answer. Most of us act as a democrat, autocrat and abdicrat. We are human beings. We can’t help it. If you can work with a balance that fairly reflects the needs of the organization, the needs of those whom you lead, as well as your own needs, in that order, then perhaps a feeling of satisfaction can be gained, and your organization will act as most fire organizations do, close their eyes to a strict compliance with every rule on their books. That’s the way most large municipal fire departments operate, and most democratic leaders sense that it’s that way. So, they continue to practice their art and help their organization to run smoothly.” George paused and said, “I haven’t introduced the varying grades or degrees of autocratic or democratic leadership. It’s very rare to find an individual who operates as a true autocrat or democrat all the time. We must save that for another session and for a further discussion of leadership. For now, I’d like to return to something Robert said earlier.”

“What was that?” Robert asked.

“You mentioned that the sanitation worker seemed to expect not to be obeyed. You said that if he starts off not expecting to be obeyed then where will he be. What did you mean?”

“I just meant that if the guy expected to be obeyed it would have been better because he would not have gotten mixed up will all those thoughts about not being obeyed. I really think that expecting to be obeyed or to be taken seriously is a basis for charismatic leadership. A charismatic leader just expects to be followed, and it rubs off on those with whom he deals. They feel so strongly in their ability to lead that it’s no big thing for them to do what has to be done.”

Frank added, ”Hey! If you don’t respect yourself, how can you expect others to respect you? Like we said earlier, if a chief has to lay down a tough policy and he comes across like he expects to be listened to and obeyed, it has to make a big difference in how things work out for him.”

George could have kissed Frank for his last remark. “In line with what Frank just said, let me tell you another of my stories. In 1934, Mao Tse-Tung’s army was completely surrounded and about to be exterminated. Mao was in such a position because he, against his wishes, defended a group of cities rather than the surrounding terrain. He knew that defending the inner cities was wrong but he obeyed and exhibited the discipline of a good leader. He not only expected to be obeyed, but he knew how to obey. It’s a lesson that we can apply, especially when we deal with a superior whom we don’t like or agree with. In the final hours before complete ruin, Mao was given control. He knew the nature of the soldiers whom he led. It gave him the strength to expect them to follow his impossible order, which was to infiltrate through the surrounding army’s lines and march over 6,000 miles. It took over a year and has become known as the Long March. The point that Frank made is found over and over again. Mao expected to be obeyed. It’s as simple as that. There are a lot of other factors involved, but it comes down to a man who has an expectancy that is felt by others. His army sensed that expectancy. The army ate off the ground, crossed 18 mountain ranges, forded 24 rivers, and fought 15 major battles. Not because they had to or were forced to, but because they wanted to. A good leader can get such things done. In the fire service we don’t have to ask our men to ford rivers, but we do have to implement policies that are needed. Frank said it like it should be said, ‘If you expect to be listened to, it has to make a big difference in how things work out.’

“John,” George requested, “can you summarize what you feel the lesson covered?”

“I think,” John responded, “that the last point about having faith in yourself and those around you is very important. I think that’s what is involved in expecting others to take you seriously and to obey your directions. If you have that expectancy, then, in all likelihood, the doubts and fears associated with not being obeyed will not be a problem because they won’t surface. Mao, for example, expected the impossible and got it. The idea of the different types of leaders was interesting. I learned that I should basically act as myself and to act in a humane way, balancing the interests of the organization, the troops, and my own. I felt that you favored the democratic type of leader, but one who could also become a strict autocrat when necessary. Sharing, discussing, and the inseparability of responsibility and command have to be woven together by a leader who wants to practice democratic leadership. The sole responsibility for a decision must rest on the shoulders of a fire service leader and that includes those decisions that use the group process. 1 think that’s about it.”

George smiled in approval. “That’s great. Let me just add that it is so important to have faith in yourself and not to allow fears to creep into your mind, like the young sanitation man perhaps did. Fear can tie you up in knots. The young sanitation man finally turned down his promotion to assistant foreman. With that, let’s close. I’ll see you all next time.”

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