The Leader’s Dilemma

You are the volunteer fire chief in a small, suburban community. Your fire department has been in business for well over 100 years and is a fixture in your area. You have been a member for a long time and thought you were comfortable in your role as the...


You are the volunteer fire chief in a small, suburban community. Your fire department has been in business for well over 100 years and is a fixture in your area. You have been a member for a long time and thought you were comfortable in your role as the chief. However, things have been happening...


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You are the volunteer fire chief in a small, suburban community. Your fire department has been in business for well over 100 years and is a fixture in your area. You have been a member for a long time and thought you were comfortable in your role as the chief.

However, things have been happening lately that are causing you to be uneasy. People are questioning just about every order you give and every request you make. The normally active volunteers who were the backbone of your department for many years are not turning out any more. They are skipping the alarm malfunctions, trash fires and false alarms. It is getting lonely in the middle of the night with just four or five people turning out.

Many of these people have been buddies for many years; many were childhood friends. Where once you experienced a great sense of teamwork you now see a group of people who seem to be acting as an array of selfish individuals.

Guess what, my friend? There is a good reason for what you are seeing. These people are individuals and they are returning to the roots of elementary human behavior. You are suffering through one of the great problems every person in a leader ship position will face at one time or another. People are unique and you must take this into account every time you interact with members of your team.

You cannot lead your people in the same manner as that proposed by early management and leadership studies when people were considered to be nothing more than resources much like water, steel, wood or money. They were thought to be expendable “things,” rather than individual human beings with feelings and emotions. Today, we (hopefully) look at things differently.

This change did not come overnight. It came over time as a result of a wide variety of studies completed by colleges and universities around the world. Many of these studies started out as projects to identify how companies could get more labor out of each worker. Change came about at least in part as a result of the human relations movement within management research. This movement began as a seemingly accidental offshoot of a time-and-motion study conducted at the Hawthorne facility of the Western Electric Co. in Illinois from 1927 to 1932. Its original premise involved altering environmental variables in an industrial setting.

Elton Mayo and a group of fellow Harvard researchers were assessing the impact of various lighting levels in the factory. When light was added to their working environment, people worked harder. This seemed to make sense to the researchers. To qualify this, they took away light to see what would happen. Wonder of wonders, rather than drop back to a lower level of productivity, these people began to work even harder.

Being good researchers, they worked many different iterations of the working environment. After experimenting with a number of environmental factors, the researchers came to believe that it was the attention being paid to them that motivated the workers, not the factors themselves. One interesting element of the study was that the workers’ productivity seemed to improve when changes were made and slumped when the study was concluded.

Mayo concluded the effects his team observed had to do with the fact that the workers felt better in the situation because of the sympathy and interest of the observers. He noted that this experiment was about testing overall effect, not testing factors separately. Think about this. Do you not feel better when you think someone sincerely cares about you and what you are working to accomplish in your fire department?

Concepts identified by such research may play an important part in the operation of your department:

  • Peer pressure – The effect of the group on the individual
  • Group norms – The standards of conduct as determined by the group
  • The informal work group – Relationships that form between members of the group
  • The informal leader – A group member who gains the respect of the members of the work group because he or she most exemplifies the ways in which the group expects its members to perform
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