The Fire Chief as Artistic Leader

BY TONY C. NIELSEN

Ask people who have been fire service leaders for any length of time, and they will tell you that fire departments, like most other organizations, are pretty complex. In fact, if they’ve spent time in more than one organization, they will probably tell you that the same problems and types of people are everywhere: They just look a little different as you go from one organization to the next.

One of the best ways for fire service leaders to sort through organizational issues and make sense of it all is to become an artistic leader—a leader who is able to creatively view organizations through different frames of reference. (Notice I didn’t say “think outside the box,” because I think we’re all tired of hearing that phrase.) In fact, as a leader, you can trip up when you look at your organization from a single frame of reference. Artistic leaders understand that organizations are pretty complex and are most accurately viewed and assessed simultaneously through several frames of reference. The artistic leader views the organization simultaneously through multiple frames of reference: the structural frame, the human resources frame, the political frame, and the symbolic frame.

THE STRUCTURAL FRAME

The structural frame is probably the frame that we’re most comfortable with in the fire service. It is the most traditional way to look at organizations, especially fire departments with our organizational charts and chain of command. Looking at organizational issues through the structural frame means viewing your department as a machine or factory with the emphasis on rules, roles, goals, and policies; technology; and environment. The challenge for a leader in this frame is to adapt the structure to task, technology, and environment. The structural frame’s image of leadership is that of social architecture, so effective leadership in this frame of reference is enjoyed when you act as an analyst or an architect to analyze the existing structure or design a new one that works better.

THE HUMAN RESOURCES FRAME

Changing gears and looking at your department through the human resources frame means viewing the department as a family and focusing on the central concepts of this frame, which are human needs, skills, and relationships. Human needs range from the primitive such as safety and belonging to more evolved needs like esteem, self-actualization, and feeling as if the organization is investing in your success. The human resources frame is built on the belief that organizations can be highly rewarding and energizing, provided there is a good fit between its members and the system. As the leader, you must use empowerment to align the organization’s goals with human needs. Your members don’t want you to be a weakling or a pushover; they need you to be a catalyst and servant leader as you try to balance the needs of your people with the needs of the fire department.

THE POLITICAL FRAME

It’s a jungle out there. At least, that’s how your department looks when you view it through the lens of the political frame. Most of us conjure up negative images when we hear the word politics, but the reality is that politics are part of every organization. Politics are simply the process of allocating resources in an environment where the resources are limited; they involve promotions, coveted station assignments, and pay increases. Couple this with players who have differing interests, and you end up with conflict that makes power a valuable asset as the divergent groups try to accomplish their goals. Your leadership image should be that of advocacy as you negotiate this frame’s central concepts of power, conflict, competition, and departmental politics. Survival in this frame means mapping the political terrain and developing an agenda and power base to see you through the challenges. Your effectiveness in the political frame will be most evident when you shine as a negotiator or an advocate, building healthy coalitions for organizational success.

THE SYMBOLIC FRAME

With its central concepts of culture, meaning, metaphor, ritual, ceremony, stories, and heroes, your organization is like a carnival or a theater when you view it though the symbolic frame. This makes sense, as we all know fire stations with some characters who should be in theater. Every organization—and certainly every fire department—has developed its own beliefs and values that are evident in a variety of symbolic forms. These forms might be the color of the fire trucks, the style of the uniforms, the way crews attack fires and handle medical calls, or the way they band together to help out a fellow firefighter in need. These are the ingredients of culture, and culture is what holds organizations together and unites their members. In fact, the stronger an organization’s culture, the less likely it is to welcome newcomers without some hesitation or initiation—hence, the reason many of us had to pay our dues as a “probie” before being truly accepted by the department’s members. The best way for a leader to succeed in this frame is to respect the organization’s history and culture while inspiring its members. Symbolic leaders energize their organizations by creating slogans, telling stories, giving awards, and managing by walking around. Just be careful you don’t come across as a fanatic or use a leadership process that is more smoke and mirrors than substance.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

So how do you put the concepts of artistic leadership into practice? Let’s look at a hypothetical organization with all of its various quirks and then try some reframing to sort out pathways to improved organizational performance.

Congratulations! You’ve recently been hired as the new fire chief for a community’s midsize combination fire department. Your first week or two were a whirlwind of getting settled into a new office and connecting various names to faces, but you now have some time to sit down with your new staff and learn more about organizational issues.

 

  • Your deputy chief of support services relates that many of the firefighters are making requests directly to the mechanic and maintenance personnel, which is overwhelming them and slowing progress on priority work efforts.
  • Your division chief of training becomes somewhat agitated as she relates to you the lack of interest among line personnel in testing for promotions along with a lack of funds allocated to her training budget.
  • Your deputy chief of operations tells you that things are running fairly smoothly now that the labor agreement was recently ratified by the firefighters’ union. Unfortunately, negotiations were long and painful and eventually turned ugly and personal, as each side dug its heels in and held fast to positions.
  • Your administrative assistant tells you that she is working hard to put the finishing touches on the annual awards banquet, but there just doesn’t seem to be much interest from folks this year—in fact, interest has been declining over the past few years.

    As you drive home later that day, you replay the staff meeting in your mind and begin to sort out the various issues your staff presented to you. Some of the issues should be easy to solve, given your past experiences; it’s the others that are giving you trouble. But as an artistic leader, you begin to sort the issues into organizational frames and work through them to chart a course of action. By taking each issue and viewing it through each of the four frames of reference, you mentally create a chart (Table 1) to help you.

    By sorting through departmental issues and viewing each one through the four frames of reference until you find one that fits, you can begin to understand them better and how to respond to each most effectively.

    •••

    Artistic leadership requires us to “see and see again” as we reframe organizational issues into a manageable framework. It requires us to look at our organizations simultaneously as factory, family, jungle, and theater. The fire service leader who employs artistic leadership will be more effective at sorting out organizational issues and creating workable solutions by holistically viewing the organizations through frames of reference that they might not typically consider.

    TONY C. NIELSEN is a deputy chief with Spokane County (WA) Fire District 8. He has a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University, a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and an associate degree in fire science. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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