Crafting a Small Unit Vision Statement

Flames in the background with firefighter in the foreground
Photo by Tim Olk

By Todd Donovan

A vision statement is a genuinely lofty goal organized into a very impactful statement or set of statements. Like them or not, the New England Patriots have a set of truly impactful vision statements. One vision statement of theirs that is often quoted is: “Do Your Job.” It’s simple to remember, direct to say, and very significant when it comes to a physical, intense job where the stakes are high. You see this mantra on the walls of their locker rooms, helmets, and locker stalls. Capitalism has taken up “Do Your Job,” and now you spot it on bumper stickers, T-shirts, armless sweatshirts, social media groups, and everywhere an entrepreneur can find a niche. It’s easy to understand and apply to nearly anyone’s job or duty.

As a vision statement, “Do Your Job,” does not address every aspect of our emergency services job. What motivates your team during the down times needs to be in your small unit vision statement. The vision statement often asks: “Where do we want to go?” Once you have a vision statement for your small unit, it will usually impact your crew’s daily actions and behavior during the intense moments, the mundane calls, and the downtime.

Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates’ earliest vision statement was: “A computer on every desk in every home.” It was a simple, rough road map for the future of his company. It was also ambitious and bold. At the time, no one ever thought there would be a computer on every desk in every home. TED’s is: “Spread Ideas.” Tesla: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Notice that Tesla says nothing about “cars.” Cars are just one item that Tesla creates towards its vision. They make solar panels, batteries, and a whole host of sustainable value-added goods.

A firefighter can go many, many years and not need to make a rescue, but there is always that chance when a small unit member will need to rise to that occasion. Will the members of your small unit be ready? Have you instilled in them the vision of a job as intense and necessary as ours?

What a Vision Statement Is Not

A vision statement is almost always for the small unit. It is not usually published like the mission statement. The mission statement is where the department is now, whereas the vision statement is that lofty goal of where we want to be in the future. The mission statement includes milestones and goals. The vision statement avoids goals and milestones. The vision always leaps into the future regardless of where your department or small unit is today. The vision usually guides your department’s mission statement, milestones, and short/long-term goals.

What are the benefits?

We are helping the chief craft a vision for the department. Crafting a vision at the small unit level sets the stage for strategy and higher firefighter performance, which is seen as an essential quality in top leadership roles. Leadership is like a muscle that needs to be exercised and developing a vision for your small unit is one of those exercises that gets better with practice.

Sometimes the vision does not come from the Chief Officer but rather percolates up from the bottom. Changes and innovations at the company level may get noticed by chief officers and spur department-wide strategic management initiatives. Perhaps chief officers may not be receptive to this new idea of a vision from the bottom up, but broader growth is often achieved from grassroots endeavors.

Building a vision for a small unit is not necessarily relegated to your organization’s chief’s level. Unfortunately, a manager or an aspiring leader often feels left out of the process of shaping the vision of their organization. Still, as an officer, you have a unique role in shaping your unit’s vision or translating your department’s vision into your unit’s vision. Regardless of the generation (Gen Z, Boomers, and Millennials), your members yearn for ideas and philosophies that challenge them emotionally and intellectually. You are translating your department’s vision into the everyday work-life of your unit.

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STEPS TO EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP

Many chief officers are far removed from their customer’s experience on a day-to-day basis. The chief officer operates to support and lead their staff and may have less understanding of the operational realities that you, as a company officer, face.  The chief officer may use your insight and experience you have developed. If you have created a vision for your crew as a company officer, this is the kind of problem-solving and leadership skills that a chief officer will rely upon.

When you translate your department’s vision for your team, you are indeed vision-crafting on a small scale. The ability to express a vision and use it to inspire others differentiates a leader from a manager. Influential company officers/leaders will clearly define a vision and communicate it in such a manner that will foster enthusiasm and commitment.

My organization’s vision states: “This organization shall strive to improve quality of life through innovative community risk reduction programs and effective delivery of emergency services as validated through accreditation and professional standards.” It is quite the mouthful to read and digest. It is required memorization for the newly hired member, too. The question begs to be asked: What does our vision statement mean to a 22-year-old firefighter/EMT? What does it mean to a 50-year-old firefighter/Engineer?

Introduce the idea that a vision statement for a small unit is good. The small unit vision statement can exist alongside your department’s vision and can break down what each member of your crew needs to hear and remember for each shift. For instance, my organization’s vision mentions the effective delivery of emergency services. On my shift, we have broken that down to mean several things:

  1. Train with a purpose to be prepared for the unexpected.
  2. Treat each other with respect and each citizen and visitor with respect and dignity.
  3. Be fit to do your job.

With these vision statements, we break down what is expected of each member of our small unit. It drives our day and our schedule. A vision statement can drive your small unit’s shift plan, too. Eventually, we will all be in the barrel, as Top Gun fighter pilots say when faced with a severe event. Eventually, we will be placed in a situation that requires all of our training, all of our respect, and all of our physicality to do the job.

Additionally, the company officer/leader builds trust with the small unit by acting consistently with the small unit vision and making that vision a reality. Walking the talk means something here. If your vision says you will treat each other with respect, then do it. Modern-day firefighters and staff want to see you in action and leading by example. As a leader of a small unit, you want to model the change you want to see. Tackling your behavior first through your small unit vision statement provides you “street credibility.” People run on habits. Many of our decisions are not based on rational thought but are governed by habitual responses, and to change our responses takes effort and starts with the small unit leader.

What are the elements of a small unit vision statement?

Your vision statement should be concise so it is memorable to your crew. You want your crew to understand it, live it, and get inspired by it. Unlike the mission statement published to the general public, the vision statement is often not a published document. It is used only for your crew or your department. A mission statement is the “who,” “what,” and “why” of your department, and the vision statement is the long-term results of your everyday work.

Is your purpose for being a small unit relevant to your customers? The answer is, of course, emergency services are relevant to the customers. However, what is it that you do that makes you applicable, and who are you relevant to?  Remember to include each other in your vision. You must take care of each other, and you are internal customers. Please include in your vision statement how you are relevant to them. As I have mentioned earlier, it may not be this shift or the next shift, but it could be the following shift where your crew is called upon to make a rescue or perform a dangerous job, and your customers will be watching with high expectations.

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Creating a Vision for Your Fire Department

Is your purpose or existence unique? Are you a rescue company with a unique set of skills? Perhaps your specialty is farm equipment, high-angle rescue, heavy rescue, or swiftwater. Whatever your uniqueness is, put that in your vision statement(s). One fire department excels at delivering EMS. They pioneer new standards and protocols. The equipment they procure is cutting edge. Their members chair important committees for EMS standards and training. This department very much drives innovation in their state. Stand proud of your uniqueness and unwavering in your vision statement.

Look at the vision statements of other fire departments. What’s more, look at vision statements of businesses outside the emergency services. You will find creative and inspirational visions from a variety of sources from businesses, large and small. When you find that vision statement that speaks to you, you and your crew can adapt it to your situation and your small unit.

Finally, begin with collaborating with your crew. Approach them with the idea of developing their own small unit vision statement and why it is crucial. Brainstorm the idea, provide examples and help them warm up to the exercise. This may take several shifts to accomplish but be patient, and most of all, be persistent. Developing a vision may not be what some of your crew is expecting from you. Perhaps they may even be skeptical of you for attempting to develop this idea.

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Collaboration is one of those leadership skills involved in creating a vision statement. Begin your collaboration with patience but persistence. Remember, this may be a new process for many of your members. Skepticism may abound when you approach them with this idea. But without their help, they won’t own it.

Talk with other leaders who have developed visions. You may find other company officers in online forums who have developed their vision for their crews. Attend a conference and compare notes with other leaders. More importantly, find vision statements from businesses outside the emergency services world and mimic them.

When you exercise your leadership skills, you go from a manager to a leader, which sets the stage for top leadership to notice. Vision is not above your paygrade. Your small unit vision is not relegated to just top management or top leadership, seeing into the future for your crew. It can be driven by the company officer for the day-to-day actions you want your crew to achieve. It is your crew’s vision that will drive their everyday behavior to “do their job.”

The vision you create with your crew will set the standard for higher performance. That vision will improve the standing of your department in many ways. As the author and speaker Simon Sinek has said: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Why should a taxpayer pay your salary? Why do you do what you do? You may have excellent knowledge as a leader of why you do what you do. Now, let’s put that down on paper and live it out.

Stand proud of your vision. It is noble to think of lofty goals and make adjustments in your actions and behaviors to meet that vision. Begin with yourself as the leader/company officer because they are watching you intently. Do your best to live out the vision each shift. Finally, remember that your crew yearns for leadership. They will be inspired with a vision, renewed by a vision, and driven by a vision. Exercise that leadership with this project and see where it takes you and your crew.

Todd Donovan is a lieutenant/paramedic with the Derry (NH) Fire Department and has been with the department for nearly 19 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Granite State College in Business and is completing his master’s degree in leadership. He is also a Designated Fire Officer through the Center for Public Safety Excellence.

REFERENCE

Sinek, Simon. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. 2011.

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