Modeling Courageous Leadership in 2009

It will take no less than the grit and determination of wise and motivated fire service members at all levels to effectively lead, avoid organizational drift.


"So this is Christmas, and what have you done?" While John Lennon penned these introspective words over 35 years ago, they still raise a good question today, especially for us in the American Fire Service.

When it comes to firefighter safety, what have you done? Have you taken the lead on safety within your fire department? Have you shown courage in confronting someone who performed an unsafe act? Have you shown leadership and modeled safe behaviors in the last year? If you cannot answer the above questions with positive replies or affirmative answers the next question becomes, why not?

When it comes to firefighter safety the end of the year becomes a good opportunity to reflect and consequently make commitments for the coming year. So, here are three more questions along with some possible answers for you to consider. Hopefully, these thoughts will help to better yourself for modeling courageous leadership in the coming year.

Where is the safety bar set?

When reflecting on your own fire department consider where the safety bar is set when it comes to firefighter safety. Honestly assess whether safety principles are adhered to or if safety is just a buzz-word. You can tell this if you just look around the station, or when your company answers a call, or on the scene of an emergency. When safety is merely a buzz-word it shows up in the station when firefighters demonstrate malaise or general indifferent attitudes to most things but especially training sessions and safety discussions. When safety is not really important it shows up on the calls as no seatbelt usage, driving recklessly, and rushing too much at the scene of an emergency. When safety is mere lip-service, fire officers look the other way when they see infractions. Finally, if most firefighters think of safety as an after thought your agency is in trouble.

With all of the above examples, what may have occurred is something similar to an organizational drift. One sociologist has even coined a phrase that describes this drift as a human phenomenon. Diane Vaughan wrote a book in 1996 entitled The Challenger Launch Decision where she chronicled the tragedy and blamed the decision to launch the Challenger on "normalization of deviance". Vaughan describes normalized deviance as a long term situation in which individuals or teams accept lower standards or performance until that lower standard becomes the "norm".

Normalized deviance is reinforced in the "getting away with it" over and over, until a point in time comes when no one sees the behavior in question as deviant. Vaughan describes in her book how the Challenger tragedy of February 1986 was caused due to O-ring failure because of sub-freezing temperatures. The morning that the Challenger was launched, the O-rings had become brittle and while engineers knew of this hazard, a culture of compliance to a lower standard led them to believe that it was an acceptable risk. The decision was made to go ahead with the launch and the rest is history.

It is easy to see a parallel with the fire service. When a safety malaise or the "looking the other way" culture has developed then the bar has been lowered. Then, quite possibly, the bar or standard can go lower and maybe it is a matter of time before the inevitable happens. (Does Charleston come to mind?) Courageous leaders are vigilant to adverse behavior and performance and they make the necessary corrections. That leads us to the second question.

What is your own personal leadership profile?

Much has been written about leaders and leadership. There are literally volumes concerning what a leader looks like and how they act. Perhaps the best definition comes from the prolific author, John Maxwell, who wrote that "leadership is influence". Three simple words that can also be a mission statement, or even a vision statement, yet how many people in the fire service really grasp the meaning of Maxwell's definition?

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