Seven Deadly Sins of Fire Service Leadership, Part 2

By John K. Murphy

Let’s continue to evaluate the Seven Deadly Sins of Fire Service Leadership with a few suggestions to avoid such leadership sins.

 

Failure to Use Your Staff Effectively

One of the best resources a chief has is the people on his staff. Many staff members are capable of leading the organization on their own; they have worked hard to become the assistant chief, deputy chief, or other levels of chief officers. They are bright, educated, have vision, and possess the wherewithal to work effectively as a leader and as a follower. These individuals are a tremendous resource to help a chief effectively put in place his goals, visions, and strategies, ensuring the success of his organization. Unfortunately, and all too many times, a chief’s ignorance, insecurities, lack of experience, or bad experiences keep him from using his talent effectively. The chief frequently fears that someone in his organization will know more than they do. This chief believes his power is based on his knowledge. Although that is true in most instances, sharing that knowledge and power makes the organization stronger. Holding that knowledge “close to the vest” will eventually weaken the organization. Some chiefs fear that sharing that knowledge will usurp the chief’s position as the leader of the organization and, eventually, the politicians and firefighters will look to the staff for direction instead of the chief.

Other times, the chief delegates to staff but does not provide the authority to carry out the task, or he will divide the responsibility for a particular task among the staff. Divided responsibility is a danger to the successful development or implementation of a program occurring when it is unclear who owns the process; it is the surest way to ensure that a necessary action will either not be completed or will not be performed in a predictable fashion. The department cannot win when the responsibility for a procedure is divided among the staff.  Once ownership is assigned, the owner must be provided with the means and methods for running and assessing the procedure to determine if the process, procedure, and outcomes conform to the department’s wants, designs, and desired outcomes. It is imperative that, to ensure success of the organization, the chief must take the time to educate the staff; the people making up the organization are its greatest asset and potentially its greatest liability. Everyone in the organization must participate in an ongoing, coherent, controlled, top-down educational process by which they learn the department’s goals, the system by which the programs are created, and services to the citizens are delivered. It is also imperative the methods used in the processes in which they participate are clear and concise.

 

Failure to Responsibly Engage in the Political Process

Politics are the bread and butter of our profession. Chiefs all have bosses, and it is the elected officials who are generally ignorant of the workings of the fire service. The chief and his staff are responsible for educating the newly elected and incumbent officials as to the capabilities, services, and needs of the fire department on a continuous basis. This means engaging in constant meetings and lunches, e-mailing, creating reports, holding budget reviews, and other means of connecting to the elected officials.

Many times, the chief is not well equipped to engage in this constant contact with his bosses. There are many reasons for this, which includes a chief’s introverted personality, his fear of offending elected officials, poor preparation, intense criticism from prior experiences, his inability to answer questions presented by the elected officials, and many other reasons. This will cause the chief to send others on his team to represent the department, possibly someone better at that representation skill. The question most often asked by the elected official is, “Where is the chief?”

Remember, these are your bosses; it is imperative that you learn to deal with them at their level, become the expert in your profession, and be well prepared to answer ALL of their questions.  It is the chief’s job to engage the elected officials on a continuous and mostly positive basis. Not all of the news delivered to them will be good, especially around budget time. But remember—you are competing for the diminishing budget dollars in your community with other aggressive leaders in your community. Become politically astute; if you are not, look to your peer group for some pointers on how to deal with the elected officials. Chief’s must remember that they are the one “constant factor” in the ever-changing, insane political world, which occurs through frequent elections and elected officials staying or going based on a particular election period. Learn how to play the game, and play it well. At times, your department’s survival depends on how well you engage in the political process.

 

Hubris

Hubris is defined as exaggerated pride or self-confidence. You are in a profession where you want your leadership to be strong and confident. These traits are important in creating a long-term goal for the fire service; having the tools to achieve those goals with the appropriate staffing and resources and to place those concepts before the elected officials for approval. At times the leader’s hubris becomes all about oneself, losing sight that there is a team behind you supporting your work. When the leader becomes self-absorbed, he takes credit for the successful accomplishments and the failures become everyone else’s. The chief’s primary response to failure becomes a “not my fault” scenario and he is willing to throw anyone and everyone into the fire to avoid blame or consequences. These chiefs end up placing most of their energy and resources into self-protection at any cost and have little to no energy left to do anything positive in their organizations.  Like the first sin of Lack of Courage in Leadership or leading from the rear, this behavior breeds more of the same. When a chief constantly focuses on making himself look good, it’s almost inevitable that the staff will try to continue moving the bad things downstream; it becomes a gigantic game of hot potato, with no one taking responsibility for mistakes or failures, which therefore never get addressed and resolved. Hubris is the double-edged sword of the fire service. Be aware of its existence, and attempt to control the downside of this trait.

If you are a fire service leader, the following are some effective ways you can avoid the Seven Deadly Sins:

Check your ego at the door. Remember for whom you are working when taking the job as a chief. If you were brought in from an outside department, you were hired to problem solve or troubleshoot and fix a department in crisis. Sometimes, you were hired to advance a department into the next step of a delivery model that is in tune with the desires of your elected officials. Those who were promoted from within the organization are not looking for the status quo. The organization and your bosses are looking to you to make the necessary improvements and possibly a course change to improve the department; create a firm financial footing; and eliminate any possible legal challenges caused by theft, embezzlement, discrimination, or other high-risk activities occurring in the fire service. The testing or promotional process was the easy part; just because you were chosen doesn’t mean you are special. The real work begins when you walk through the door of the firehouse on the first day. Ego issues must have no place in your management ethos.

Transparent Communication. Problem solving requires transparent communication where everyone’s concerns and points of view are freely expressed. It is impossible to get to the root of a problem in a timely manner when people do not speak up. Communication is a fundamental necessity for the success of your organization. When those involved in the problem would rather not express themselves for fear of losing their job or exposing their own or someone else’s wrong-doing, the problem-solving process becomes difficult. Effective communication toward problem solving happens because of a chief’s ability to facilitate an open dialogue between people who trust the intentions of the process and feel that they are in a safe environment to share why they believe the problem happened as well as specific solutions. Once all voices have been heard and all points of view are accounted for, the chief and his staff can effectively create a path toward a viable and sustainable solution.  As basic as communication may sound, never assume that your staff are comfortable sharing what it really thinks. This is where the chief must trust his intuition enough to challenge the team until accountability can be fairly enforced and a solution can been reached.

Remove Silos. Achieving transparent communication requires you to remove “silos” in your organization, helping to create an organization without boundaries and whose organizational culture is focused on the improvement of performance and health of the staff. Silos invite hidden agendas rather than welcome efficient, cross-functional collaboration and problem solving. Silos become the root cause of most workplace problems, creating difficulty in resolving problems or completing programs.

The fire service must emulate the private sector and embrace an entrepreneurial spirit where staff and employees can freely navigate and cross-collaborate to connect the problem-solving dots. When you know your workplace dot, you have a greater sense of your role in solving the problem, thus creating a solution. This is almost impossible to gauge effectiveness when you operate in silos that potentially keep you from having any influence at all.  In a silo ridden workplace, problem solving becomes even more difficult; you are now dealing with self-centered individuals rather than a team. In a silo environment, everyone wants to be the star. Problem solving becomes difficult, if not impossible, to improve things and causes discouragement among the remaining players. Breaking down silos allows a leader to more easily engage his employees and solve problems together making the organization stronger.

Hire, promote, or train open-minded staff. Effective organizations hire, train, and retain open-minded individuals. The end goal of problem solving is about your staff working together creating a solution to a particular problem or to create and implement new programs. An organization with closed-minded individuals drags the organization to their level of negativity, making it more difficult to achieve goals and solve problems. There are many people in the workplace that enjoy creating unnecessary chaos so that their inefficiencies are never exposed and the organization becomes less efficient.

Open-minded staff and firefighters see beyond the obvious problems and details and view risk as an ally. They will approach a problem or program head on and move the department’s problem-solving agenda forward to a successful conclusion. Closed-minded people can turn things around to make it more about themselves and less about the long-term issues and solutions facing the department. Chiefs need to carefully reflect on their own behavior and observe others on their management team when dealt a real problem requiring a team approach for resolutions.

Create a solid foundational and operational strategy. Without a strategy, change is simply a substitution, and not an evolution. When attempting to solve a problem or create a problem, many leaders attempt to dissect the issue and not identify the strategy required to resolve a problem by creating a solution. Effective and successful leaders will gather the right people and resources, create a budget, provide sufficient time, and provide the foundation for success. Many times, the collective brainpower of the team can resolve a problem in relatively short order because of its experience with a prior situation; having read or observed others with the same needs to resolve a problem, implement a program, or reach out to other organizations who have had similar needs with a solution. Effective leaders connect the dots and map out a realistic plan of action in advance. They have a strategy that serves as the foundation for how the problem will be approached and managed. They anticipate the unexpected and use the strengths of their people to assure the strategy leads to a sustainable solution. Eliminate the “Ready, Fire, Aim” concept of problem solving. Take the necessary time to step back and assess the entirety of a program or problem before seeking the solution as well as the opportunities that accompany that assessment time. Remember, each situation has its own nuances that may require a separate and distinct strategy for resolution.

As the leader of any organization, it is your job to make tough choices and decisions. If your staff is inept or unproductive, you will have to make those tough choices, which may mean demotions or terminations. If you become ineffective, you may have to step back or step down from your position in the organization. Remember, you work for the citizens of your community, and committing any one or a combination of the Deadly Sins makes you less effective and does not serve your community in a productive and successful manner. 

 

JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of career service; is a practicing attorney; and is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues at local, state, and national fire service conferences. He is a frequent contributing author to Fire Engineering and a podcast host.

 

 

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