"Terrorism" Leadership

John G. Dahms, Richard A. Mueller and David F. Peterson propose strategies for dealing with fire service leaders who can and do inflict terror on members.


The words "terrorism" and "leadership" are not often used together, but there are fire service leaders who use terrorism tactics to lead. These are people in leadership positions who can - and do - inflict terror on their members. The behaviors resulting from poor leadership decisions can decrease...


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E stands for Explosive weapons

Explosives kill by exerting extreme force on surrounding material. Terrorist leaders can also exert force and ultimately harm the workplace by selecting pipe bombs filled with nails or other projectiles. Terrorist leaders employ pipe bombs when they want to nail everyone in the form of "e-mail" bombs. E-mail is an effective communicating tool when it comes to routine information meant for a large audience. This is because it is a very impersonal way to communicate. When e-mail is used for individual or small group critical information, the impersonality does not match the level of the audience. This makes it easy for receivers to misinterpret the emotion or feelings of the writer. This can cause the message in the words to get lost or in the very least misinterpreted. Experienced e-mailers understand this and insert pictures such a smiley faces to help recipients understand message contexts.

Anti-terrorism involves using this communication tool for basic information only. When messages are touchy or could be misinterpreted, make the time to deliver them personally so that the receiver(s) can interpret the message by your actions as well as your words. Trying to dialogue via e-mail about important and significant messages can easily turn into a war of words in which everyone loses. Use e-mail for scheduling, reminders and basic information distribution and dialogue with people face to face (or in the very least phone to phone) for anything that resembles sensitive information.

In the end, leaders should actually "be nice" to their workforce, and the public for that matter. This approach promotes civility and a business-as-usual atmosphere where calm levelheadedness prevails. Leaders who conduct themselves this way also become predictable and approachable. Ultimately, members will be willing to talk issues out and they will know that their issue will be handled in a mature and responsible way. All of these actions add up to the creation of a trusting workplace and when people are treated with dignity and respect, they respond in kind. The Golden Rule or Reciprocity Principle works in the real world and it also should work in the fire service.

Chief fire officers ultimately have the greatest responsibility to be nice in fire service organizations; to accomplish this, a good skill to acquire and develop is that of reflection. The Greek philosopher Socrates once stated that the unexamined life was not worth living. Never has this sentiment been truer than for chief fire officers. Most of us understand that as the chief goes so goes the department. Is it any wonder when:

  • The fire chief is vindictive that the entire department also becomes mean spirited?
  • The chief staff blatantly does not trust subordinates that the entire department becomes distrustful?
  • The chief officers do not include subordinates in decision making that the entire department does not want to be included?

The fire chief is at the helm and steers the ship. What direction do you want to go? We hope this article inspires all fire service leaders to reflect, to learn and most of all to lead by being nice. We are confident that anti-terrorism tactics, when applied to your own efforts, will keep organizations going in the direction our customers want, need, and expect. After all, it is all about trust and (apologies to Rudyard Kipling), that is another story!

JOHN G. DAHMS is the fire chief of the City of Brookfield, WI, Fire Department and a veteran firefighter of 30 years. He has a master's degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). RICHARD A. MUELLER is a battalion chief with the City of West Allis, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 30 years. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University. DAVID F. PETERSON is a lieutenant with the City of Madison, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 29 years. He is completing a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from SIU and is enrolled in the EFOP. All three authors are veteran fire service instructors and are members of The Wisconsin FLAME Group LLC ("Fire Leadership And Management Excellence").