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Leadership Under Fire: The Leader's Toolbox

“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” are words from the popular 1970’s Simon & Garfunkel song “El Condor Pasa.” They could also be the mantra of many fire service leaders, since a common philosophy of leading others tends to rely on the use of the hammer approach. As we discussed in our last article, the hammer approach is the one-sided reliance on telling subordinates what to do with no input or feedback on the employee’s part. This worn-out and archaic approach does have short-term effectiveness (things get done out of fear!), but long-term ineffectiveness (scared people disengage and become bitter).

The roots of the song lyrics actually have their origin in an Abraham Maslow theory called the “Law of the Instrument.” This Maslow insight deals with the over-reliance on a familiar tool or simply that people tend to use whatever means they have success with. In writing about this law in a book called the Psychology of Science, Maslow stated, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Worse yet, when others see that the leader is successful with the hammer, they may decide to try to take a few swings themselves. This is how some really negative cultures are formed – in and out of the fire service. While Maslow’s statement smacks of the power of habit, the opposite would be using the right tool for the job.

This article is about stocking your leader’s toolbox with the right tools to motivate, empower and develop your personnel. While we must admit that while we’re not big fans of the hammer, it does have a place in the toolbox, albeit at the bottom. As the developer of the Servant Leadership model, Robert Greenleaf, once stated, “Until we find a better alternative, the command and control method remains a fall-back or failsafe method of motivating others.” We find this unfortunate, and most of the time unnecessary, and instead suggest that the modern leader will do well to avoid the use of the hammer and rather let it accumulate rust as it sits idle on the bottom of the toolbox.

One of our favorite and vastly more effective tools is the torque wrench. This modern tool enables a leader to tighten the “creative tension” on followers as much as needed. Creative tension differs from regular tension in that it is directed at problems and not people – in that way, it aligns and moves the organization forward. The degree of tightness, then, depends on the situation. In this way, only the right amount of tension is needed in order to put the team on a more productive and effective path. No more and no less!

It would also behoove leaders to have a megaphone and a set of ear plugs in their tool box. The former is to make sure communications are heard, especially on the fireground or in high-noise environments – remember, it is the leader’s job to clearly communicate the vision and goals. The latter is to ensure that you can’t hear what followers have to say sometimes. While you’re probably furrowing your brow right now wondering if our cheese fell off of our crackers, let us clarify this. Sometimes it is good for subordinates to vent and it is equally good for leader’s to deliberately not hear or even ignore their words when they are merely letting off steam (if the ear plugs are worn discretely, they may even go unnoticed). Now, with that said, it would also be a necessity to have a pair of well-fitted hearing aids sitting next to the ear plugs in the box. These should be worn a whole lot more than the ear plugs, and their purpose is to allow the leader to hear better, listen to the words from followers’ mouths (and more importantly, their hearts) and really understand what is being said. These tools would serve any leader well and may very well be the most important ones in the box – treat them well and use them often!

A few things to treat minor medical emergencies would also be good for leader’s to apply at the right times: cold packs to handle the sprains, strains and bruises that followers will get in learning leadership concepts; hot packs and analgesics to warm up muscles and joints prior to more leadership sessions; and some gauze pads, medical tape and simple band-aids for the minor cuts and scrapes that also come along with human interactions. Good tool boxes will also have hand large amounts of headache medicines!

Finally, leader’s need to have a good set of channel locks that can be adjusted to fit the situation and get a firm grip on things, along with a reliable industrial glue to hold things together. As we all know, situations can change rapidly, and both of these tools will be well-used so they should be near the top of the toolbox.

Every leader will soon find out that a reliable set of tools is a must if they are to survive the leadership experience. It is impossible to travel very long without needing these tools to correct situations, set people down the right road, or simply build future leaders. In fact, your experience may even tend to add some other effective tools to the leader’s toolbox.

JOSEPH L. KRUEGER is a 31-year veteran of the fire service who is currently an assistant chief with the McHenry Township Fire Protection District in McHenry, IL. Joe has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Joe also has extensive experience in leadership and management in the private sector and is a principal partner of White Helmet Innovations. DAVID F. PETERSON is a 31-year veteran of the fire service who is currently an assistant chief with the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department in Milton, WI, and a fire officer with the City of Madison. Dave has a B.S. in fire service management from the University of Southern Illinois and is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Dave is a graduate student in leadership through Grand Canyon University's Ken Blanchard School of Business and is a principal partner of White Helmet Innovations. You can reach Krueger and Peterson by e-mail at: