Questions to Ask Potential Leaders

Leadership is critical to any organization, and fire and emergency medical services (EMS) organizations are no exception. Over the years, we have seen any number of publications, presentations, and courses on developing leaders and discussions on selection processes such as tests, interviews, and assessment centers. Whatever the process used to develop and select leaders, there are several questions that should be included to ensure we are selecting the leaders we need.

Q. If you had to choose between making employees happy or completing an organizational task, which outcome would you select?

Typically, if you ask this question of new or potential officers, the answer would be that they can do both. This may be the desired outcome, but it is not always possible. Those selected for formal leadership positions must understand that their new roles necessitate an organizational focus and that they were selected to achieve the organizational mission. Ideally, they will be able to keep people happy as they carry out the tasks, but the tasks must take precedence. It is a fundamental expectation of the organization. Consider it this way: If an officer failed to achieve a task and his sole defense was that the firefighters remained happy, he likely would not be serving in a leadership position much longer.

This does not argue for an authoritarian approach or for a lack of empathy or sympathy for the concerns of firefighters/emergency medical technicians (EMTs). However, this works both ways. Firefighters/EMTs are perfectly correct to argue their views should be considered, but they must understand their officers, serving in formal leadership positions, have higher-level responsibilities and that if they fail to fulfill them they are failing the community, the organization, and the firefighters/EMTs themselves. This question is well-suited for the selection of frontline supervisors, those who engage in and supervise the work of employees, but it is applicable to leaders throughout the organization.

Q. What is the mission of the organization?

Many, if not most, in the fire/EMS services are task-oriented. They like to solve problems with a hands-on approach. When they entered the fire/EMS services, they were often encouraged to focus on the task at hand. As they moved up in the organization and became leaders, they were expected to take a more global perspective, and we often hear them stressing the mission.

Interestingly, when you ask, many do not know the mission of the organization. They might know that the organization has a mission statement, but they might not. Even when aware of the presence of a mission statement, they are sometimes unaware of what it contains. We are not talking about being able to recite it in rote fashion, but at least knowing the specific concepts, even if only in broad form.

An effective mission statement should express why the organization exists: what it does, how it does it, and whom it serves. It should be sufficient to serve as a decision-making guide in the absence of formal policy or procedures or in the absence of more senior officers. In a very practical sense, we must question how individuals intend to be effective leaders if they do not know the mission of the organization.

Many authors stress the need for an organizational mission statement; others argue against it. They feel it is too constraining. They may be right; it is a subject for debate. However, those who argue against a formal organizational mission statement nevertheless argue for a shared set of values, principles, or vision. We need to focus on the concept of “shared.” Even if not formal, a shared set of values or principles or a shared vision creates a de facto mission statement and provides a framework for decision making, coordination, and alignment. We often see chiefs create such documents and posting them around the workplace, but this is insufficient.

One officer took a more proactive approach that others should model. As a company officer, he routinely sat down with his firefighters/EMTs and played the game of “what if.” He asked what they would do in differing circumstances, including instances where formal policies or regulations were lacking. In doing so, he transferred and imprinted the organizational mindset onto his firefighters/EMTs, which he reinforced by recognizing them when they acted properly and correcting them as necessary. As a battalion officer, he did the same with his company officers and as a shift commander, with his battalion officers.

You can use any approach, but your organization must ensure its members know the organizational mission. Knowledge of the mission should be a criterion for selecting mid- and upper-level leaders and should be tested on in the selection process.

Q. How and when would you decide to act outside of organizational policies, rules, and regulations?

As one rises further within the organization, the roles transition from operating the current system to creating the system of the future. At the upper levels of the organization, the roles involve recognizing the need to manage change—shedding the ways of the past, meeting current needs, and preparing to meet the emergent needs of the future in what is often a tumultuous environment. When moving into the unknown, we often find that the framework of policies, rules, and regulations created for current or past challenges no longer serves us. Executive leaders cannot avoid such circumstances. Change will occur; we cannot stop it. We can hope to manage and seek to control it to achieve organizational aims. Declining to take on such challenges because the rules do not apply is not a tenable approach; it will contribute to organizational stagnation and, ultimately, failure. At lower levels of the organization, leaders might be able to rely comfortably on the norms created by standardized policies and procedures, but that is no longer possible at higher leadership levels, where change represents a massive challenge. The question becomes, how do you know when it is time to work outside the system to meet new demands?

Those in formal leadership positions often acquired those roles because they had mastered the system that is not necessarily the system of the future. In the past, they had achieved success by mastering the current system, implementing that system, and sustaining that system, thereby achieving the tasks created for them by the organization’s uppermost leadership tiers.

However, once you rise to an executive level position with a responsibility for achieving a departmentwide program or project or a major division of the organization, mastery of the current system might be a limited liability. Subordinate leaders at differing levels will be operating the existing system. Those new to this level of leadership will have to know how and when it is appropriate to work outside the formal organizational framework and focus more on what is needed to accomplish the mission than on how to apply outdated or limited policies or practices. This will necessitate a significant change in personal paradigms, and not everyone will be prepared to make the transition. Consequently, questioning candidates for such positions on this issue may be critical for determining if they are prepared for a new, higher-level role.

Q. How do you guide employees on how and when to act outside of organizational policies, rules, and regulations?

Once you reach the uppermost tiers of the organization where executive leaders are reporting to you, a new challenge arises. Just as company officers are expected to mentor and develop firefighters, executive leaders are expected to mentor and develop new executive leaders, and mid-level organizational leaders will be challenged to learn how to work outside of formal frameworks comfortably; those at the highest organizational tiers will be challenged in supporting them. This can be problematic.

Again, as noted earlier, individuals achieved their positions by working within the system, following and enforcing existing policies and practices. It is challenging for leaders to learn to work outside the formal parameters. Now, they are challenged to prepare others to do the same. They need to create a process for teaching, mentoring, and supporting others in not following the rules under some circumstances, but the specific circumstances cannot be identified beforehand. Clearly, this is challenging.

We can imagine the chaos that may develop if everyone did as they wished at any time or if they did so in a wholly inconsistent manner. We can likely think of people within our organization who are not ready to work outside of the formal framework; many will never be able to, and they may not ever achieve executive-level positions within the organization. Questioning candidates on this issue is clearly something that should be considered in the selection process: How do you prepare other executive leaders to work effectively and comfortably outside of the extant framework of rules, policies, and procedures?

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The Balanced Scorecard

Assistance for the executive leadership of an organization is available. For example, in 1992, Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton developed the initial Balanced Scorecard; its basic concepts were presented in the Harvard Business Review. The framework has evolved over time. They argued that developing a multifaceted, strategic view of decision making would help to propel performance to higher levels. This strategic view required executive leaders to consider four distinct perspectives:

  • The Customer Perspective focuses on meeting customer expectations for quality and quantity of services, contributing to higher levels of customer satisfaction.
  • The Financial Perspective focuses on cost efficiency, ensuring that scarce resources are used in a manner that maximizes the cost benefit of all activities, which is always of concern in tight economic times.
  • The Learner/Growth Perspective, which focuses on employee development, employee satisfaction, and employee retention.
  • The Internal Process Perspective focuses on workplace quality, ensuring that our processes are well-suited to achieve organizational aims of providing high-quality services to the community.

The Balanced Scorecard suggests that executive leadership should consider all four perspectives when making decisions. If the decisions are balanced—if all four perspectives are addressed in a relatively equitable manner—the probability of achieving or exceeding organizational goals is increased. Keep in mind that each decision does not have to address each perspective but that decisions collectively must address all perspectives in a balanced manner. If the four perspectives are not addressed in an even manner, as illustrated in Table 1, it is likely that the organization will not achieve long-term success in the areas in which some perspectives are marginalized. This is one means of framing executive level decision making—focusing on organizational performance, not on policies and procedures. Such an approach is probably not suitable for leaders throughout an organization, but it is critical for those in executive level positions. Therefore, questions on how candidates for such positions will approach this challenge are important to the process.

Table one. The balanced scorecard

The Balanced Scorecard provides a decision-making framework that ensures we explore issues from differing, more global perspectives, supporting decisions with strategic value. Additional insights on this approach may be found in many sources such as the Balanced Scorecard Institute, which is available at http://www.balancedscorecard.org/BSC-Basics/About-the-Balanced-Scorecard.

Although we might often hear rules, policies, and procedures disparaged as being too inflexible, they play an important function in an organization. Written parameters on issues such as safety, financial management, and diversity provide for behavioral controls concerning acceptable and ethical performance. We also may find value in technical policies such as those associated with patient care, documentation of incidents, and maintenance of apparatus, where adherence with accepted standards is vital. Larger, complex organizations and organizations where senior-level leaders might not always be present rely on a framework of rules, regulations, and policies to ensure an alignment of organizational activity toward the achievement of organizational goals.

However, as we all know, written documents can never cover all the challenges we will face today or tomorrow. We also must accept that, as organizational leaders, we are expected to meet the needs of the organization, not just of those we work with closely daily. Recognizing this, we can use these differing questions of leadership to ensure that those selected for leadership anywhere within an organization are prepared to meet the challenges they will face and ensure that they are prepared to serve the needs of the organization and the community.


Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS (I/O Psych.), EFO, is a core faculty member in Capella University’s public administration program, serves as a contract instructor in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has more than three decades of experience in the fire service.

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