Legacy of Leadership

The legacy of a fire service leader is not about buildings, equipment, programs and apparatus, but about the impact you make on those you lead.


The legacy of a fire service leader is not about buildings, equipment, programs and apparatus, but about the impact you make on those you lead. John C. Maxwell, in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership , writes: "When all is said and done, your ability as a leader will not be judged...


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The legacy of a fire service leader is not about buildings, equipment, programs and apparatus, but about the impact you make on those you lead.

John C. Maxwell, in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, writes: "When all is said and done, your ability as a leader will not be judged by what you achieved personally or even by what your team accomplished during your tenure. You will be judged by how well your people and your organization did after you were gone. You will be gauged according to the Law of Legacy. Your lasting value will be measured by succession" (Maxwell, 1998).

Succession by its nature focuses on a line of progression designed to pass the torch of responsibility to those next in line. The fire service works hard at developing the abilities of our underlings to receive the torch and learn to manage emergency incidents, but we frequently fall short in developing their organizational leadership skills so they can lead the department into the future.

Seeing the BIG Picture

Effective succession planning in the fire service cannot begin by simply looking at those currently on staff and who will be prepared to advance in rank. Fire chiefs must expand their vision to look not only at the individual(s) who will succeed them, but who will lead the organization 25 years from now. With fire service careers spanning 25 years or more and most promotions coming from lower ranks within the local department, the hiring decisions we make today will significantly impact the candidate pool years after we are gone. In reality, current fire chiefs will likely get the opportunity to hire the individual who will be the fire chief in 25 years. The difference is that you are hiring that person into an entry-level position and thereby beginning the process for a future mayor, city manager or district president to appoint him or her as chief.

When we begin to look at hiring from this perspective, the importance we place on this process is elevated to a new level. Many departments hand over this responsibility to fire and police commissions, the human resources department or a hiring board made up of junior officers with little to no involvement from the fire chief. The testing and interviewing of hundreds of candidates can be overwhelming, but the importance cannot be overstated. It has been said that fire departments do not hire good employees who later turn bad, but rather, we hired a bad employee because we failed to recognize the traits that will be a problem in the future (Bender, 2009).

Therefore, today's leaders not only get to hire, in most cases, the future fire chief; we also set up the organization positively or negatively as it relates to organizational health and positive employee relations. Think of it this way: If you want to set up a future chief to fail, hire a bunch of problem employees today and leave them for that chief to deal with in the future. The first step in leaving a lasting legacy is hiring the right people.

Finding the Right Employees

A mistake in hiring will affect the organization for 50 years. A bad employee will not only impact the organization negatively, but will influence the attitudes of new employees. Other employees will learn that bad behavior and work practices and make them their own, be beat down or negatively impacted by the problem employee. The bad employee will shape and mold others in ways that will impact their entire career. It will take a full generation to remove the impact of the one "bad apple."

New-candidate testing is difficult, time consuming and expensive. In a recent study that involved 36 Chicagoland fire departments, it was discovered that the average cost of producing a new-candidate eligibility list exceeds $36,000. This includes the cost of testing and the associated staff time to interview and process a list of applicants. From this list, 10% to 30% of all post-offer candidates will wash out (Haigh, 2009).

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