The leadership capability required to effectively operate a fire department is critical, just as with any organization. Fire departments offer their fire chiefs unique challenges and the quality of leadership present in all officers throughout a department has a significant impact on the performance of the people who make up the organization.
A fire department executive-level manager commented in a meeting, “I’m so busy I don’t have time to lead.” What he failed to realize is that leadership manifests itself in everything those in formal positions of authority say and do.
Positively or negatively, fire officers are always leading, they’re always teaching, and those inside and outside the organization are always watching and learning from them. What these “others” learn, and the perceptions they form concerning a formal leaders’ competence and character, affect the degree of trust and respect people have for that leader. This, in turn, can affect the amount of political influence this leader has internally and externally, which can directly influence the level of political support the leader and the fire department enjoy in the process.
A fire chief’s degree of political influence comes to life in several ways. Perhaps the greatest of these is the way external decisions are made regarding resource allocation and the latitude the chief has to make internal decisions that relate directly to the fire department. It is also apparent in the weight the chief’s opinions and recommendations tend to carry on other internal leaders and on external decision-makers. This issue of influence has never been more important than it is today in the current economic and political environment being experienced.
Many experts say that the way things are today represents somewhat of a “new normal” for the future. If that’s the case, the development of fire chiefs and other fire department leaders, as well as the importance of understanding political science, should be near the top of the list for fire officer training and development requirements. Poor leadership usually results in some degree of personal and organizational dysfunction, and fire departments are not in a position to be the victim of this type of incompetence.
To build this level of trust, respect and influence inside and outside the fire department, there are several important leadership qualities that should be practiced by fire chiefs and other department leaders. Some of those include:
• The inability or unwillingness of leaders to lead by example undermines a person’s ability to lead more than any other factor. Bottom line, people don’t trust leaders who they don’t respect, and they don’t respect leaders who fail to lead by example and are disrespectful toward them.
• Leaders must display ethical personal and professional values and practice self-discipline.
• Developing a plan for the future of the fire department is important for many reasons, including the fact that it helps others have confidence in the leader.
• The leader should always act in a way that reinforces their belief that people are the most important resource in the organization. This includes building positive and functional relationships with representatives of the members of the department.
• Participate in training and educational opportunities that can help leaders maintain a high degree of competence.
• Maintain open lines of communication with others inside and outside the fire department.
• Become a “trusted advisor” to elected officials and other policy-makers. They need to be able to rely on what the leader says and the advice he or she gives.
The reputation and character of the leader, to a large extent, can dictate the level of influence that leader has, both inside and outside the organization. A leader’s reputation and character are built on what he or she does and says over time, and the way that is interpreted by others. But it is important to know the differences between reputation and character.
The author, philosopher and teacher William Hersey Davis wrote:
“The circumstances amid which you live determine your reputation.
The truth you believe determines your character.
Reputation is what you are supposed to be.
Character is what you are.
Reputation is the photograph.
Character is the face.
Reputation comes over one from without.
Character grows up from within.
Reputation is what you have when
you come to a new community.
Character is what you have when
you go away.
Your reputation is made in a moment.
Your character is built in a lifetime.
Your reputation is learned in an hour.
Your character does not come to light
for a year.
Reputation grows like a mushroom.
Character lasts like eternity.”
It is easy to see the interrelatedness of the quality of leadership to the quantity of influence. To be effective in these new times and the times ahead, we must invest even more in the training and development of fire department leaders of all ranks. This will help ensure that tomorrow’s leaders have a high degree of influence in the fire department, as well as with decision-makers and policy-makers outside the fire department. Leadership affects (positively or negatively) everything the fire department wants to do, and political influence is critical to the success of the organization. Therefore, we should all be committed to this cause.