Leadership Under Fire: Rowing with One Oar

Command and control has been the name of the fire service leadership game for decades, maybe even centuries. That is, when it comes to how decisions and directions are given at most fire departments, it is “my way or the highway” and “do as you...


Command and control has been the name of the fire service leadership game for decades, maybe even centuries. That is, when it comes to how decisions and directions are given at most fire departments, it is “my way or the highway” and “do as you are told” that flows from the higher ranking people down to the lower ranking people. In essence, this equates to rowing with only one oar in that efforts to move a fire department forward are minimal at best, sometimes things go round and round, and the decision-making process is wholly one-sided (we all know that many chiefs have been accused of only having one oar in the water!). It does not have to be that way and the modern, progressive fire department will find that rowing with two oars is by far easier, much more productive, and many times more empowering for all employees. Leadership is a lot like rowing in that it is done best through good technique rather than brute force.

The act of rowing a boat is all about power, not as much in the sense of the physical action required as much as it is about motivating the workers who are doing the work. In this sense, “power” refers to the means available to leaders to move or motivate others in order to achieve organizational goals and objectives. Power, then, is all about influence and that goes back to our series definition of leadership.

The traditional forms of power are called “positional” power and they include legitimate, coercive, and reward power. Legitimate power is found completely in the leader’s position or rank in the organization. In other words, I will obey your orders because you are my superior officer. An example of this source of power in use would be when rank is the reason for someone acting on an order. Coercive power is used when a person is in position to inflict some type of harm on another person if a request is not honored. This can come in a number of different forms and actually be transferred both up and down the ranks. For example, a supervisor can administer sanctions such as corrective action or unattractive work assignment. Conversely, a subordinate can use coercive action towards a supervisor by badmouthing him amongst peers. Finally, reward power can also be used by higher-ups to reward a subordinate’s behavior some way if an order is completed satisfactory. A payback for doing a task could be a promotion or pay raise.

The problem with these positional sources of power is that, for the most part, they are all one-sided where the leader subjects the influence on the follower without any input. While the request may get accomplished, the follower, over time, will become resentful and most likely will develop waning loyalty. Positional power is not effective in the long-term and because it is one-sided it is also extremely inefficient as a leadership tool.

Much more effective forms of power come from “personal” power sources such as expert and referent power. These forms of influence are developed through effective communication and relationship building over time. Expert power is born out of influencing others through personal knowledge and skills in a specific area – in other words, knowing your department and your job. People listen to those who are consistently demonstrating their subject matter expertise. Referent power is the natural attraction that people have to a charismatic leader. It is derived from treating people with respect and dignity and through consistent authentic and sincere relationships. Numerous studies verify that followers engage with leaders whom they like and trust.

The trust component must not be overlooked! As trust takes time to develop between leaders and followers, it requires consistent attention, effective communication and above all, honesty, to accrue. Trust cannot be rushed and it is best when developed a little at a time. Trust is also a critical component of effective leadership because it is absolute. That is, trust is ether all or nothing. It is not so simple to say you can trust someone a little or even a lot. Trust is an intangible that is black or white: trust is either present in a relationship completely or it is not. And there is no such thing as leadership without trust, but, in the absence of trust, leadership becomes merely authority.

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