Parker Palmer, a well-known author and presenter in the education world, once stated that “Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded.” We would bet that most of you in the fire service would agree with that assessment. Indeed, it is easy to throw stones at those who make the decisions in your fire departments, and perhaps some of that sentiment is with merit. In other words, leaders earn their praise or their share of the blame. But, it is also important to remember that one day you may be one of those leaders so it behooves you to take stock in the leader-follower relationship. That is, all people are leaders sometimes, in certain settings, and, all people are followers at times.
This dynamic requires a respectful communications model in which each role supports the other and is very careful with words that harm. This does not suggest that as a follower your role is to cheer on whatever hair-brained idea your leadership comes up with – quite the contrary. We are advocates of rigorous debate between leaders and followers so that the optimum path towards the goal is achieved. The key is in the way that the debate is carried out – remembering that in the end, we are all on the same team with the same goals. If this axiom can be followed, good things can happen and leadership may be looked upon in a completely different light.
But what is leadership? While it is easily identified, it is not so easy to define. In the simplest terms, leadership can be defined as people who lead others. While leaders do have to have followers, there is much more to leadership than that! If you read this definition and think to yourself “that’s part of it, but it seems like there’s more,” don’t feel like you are the Lone Ranger here! Jon Maxwell defines leadership as “influence,” but that definition also seems too vague and inadequate. It also does not factor into the equation that leaders can have both, positive or negative influence. Rest assured that even experts such as Maxwell have struggled to nail down a solid definition for leadership. In an attempt to do so, he published his seminal work “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” in 1998. But 10 years later, two of Maxwell’s laws became refutable, and were replaced. We don’t say this in criticism to Maxwell – conversely, we are avid students who applaud his courage to lead in the field of leadership!
Another definition of leadership comes from an expert on leadership issues by the name of Peter Northouse. He defines leadership as, “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” Leadership defined as a process means that it is based on the interactions between the leader and followers. In this respect, as Northouse points out, the capability to lead is available to all of us rather than only those possessing certain traits. Describing leadership as a process also means there is an exchange of information upwards and downwards between leaders and followers – interactively and collaboratively. Influence is still a large part of the process because, as Northouse suggests, “leadership does not exist without it.” The key here is that sometimes the leader is influencing followers, and at other times they are influencing him. This removes the common conceptualization that places the leader above the followers, and places them as equals – as they should be.
All of this also works in a group setting where there is a common purpose and common goals. But common goals can be good (as in the case of the American Red Cross), or they can be very bad (as in the case of the Nazi regime). Northouse also points out that the common goal aspect of leadership focuses on ethical overtones through mutually agreed upon goals between leader and follower – rather than forced goals assigned by unethical leaders. In our minds, however, the idea that pursuits should be good, worthy, and ethical needs to be highlighted in the leadership definition. Therefore, our working definition of leadership for this series is as follows: