The Power of Empowerment In Leadership

Kimberly Alyn discusses when you empower firefighters, everyone wins.


Kimberly Alyn discusses when you empower firefighters, everyone wins. Developing effective leaders in the fire service is a growing issue for every department across the United States, both career and volunteer. Firefighters are starving for great leaders. Company officers are in desperate need...


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Kimberly Alyn discusses when you empower firefighters, everyone wins.

Developing effective leaders in the fire service is a growing issue for every department across the United States, both career and volunteer. Firefighters are starving for great leaders. Company officers are in desperate need of better role models. Command staff is wondering why people are not stepping up to real leadership and creating an inspirational work environment. Rookies are wondering why no one is mentoring them in how to become effective leaders, whether formally or informally.

When I conduct a training class in a fire department or at a conference, I preach empowerment. I can see some people in the room lean forward with the "tell me more about this" look on their faces. I see others lean back, arms crossed, with the "you have no clue about the fire service" look on their faces. Some people are convinced that empowering people in the fire service doesn't work because it's a paramilitary organization. Let me dispel that myth.

The effectiveness of empowerment shows no partiality to organizational establishment. It doesn't matter if you're a government agency, a corporation or a family: empowerment works! Empowering people to think and make decisions wherever possible accomplishes many things including:

  • Building better teams
  • Improving morale
  • An increased level of ownership in the department
  • A feeling of trust
  • Higher productivity
  • Better customer service
  • A stronger public image
  • A more efficient fire department
  • Better succession planning

Command and control or barking orders at people works on the fireground and autocratic leadership is necessary in an incident command situation. But back at the station (where over 90% of the time is spent), that style of leadership hurts morale. People want to feel like they are part of the process and they want the ability to give input and make suggestions. That is a good thing! That's what inspires people to take ownership in their fire departments.

Many managers suffer from what I call "power hoarding." They think if they let others think and make decisions, it will dilute their own power and render them useless. The exact opposite is true. When you empower others, you increase your level of effectiveness and usefulness. You multiply productivity and increase responsibility. You show others that you trust their best judgment and when you do that, most people will rise to the expectation.

Yum! Brands Inc., the world's largest restaurant company, is a conglomeration that took over KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers, Taco Bell and A&W. After acquiring all of these food chains, Yum! Brands set down a new corporate policy that requires that every employee be empowered all the way down to the front line to make any decision that did not cost more than $15. That seems like a pretty negligible amount, but not to Pizza Hut. They freaked out. They said the price of a large pizza was $15 and their minimum-wage employees would be giving them away right and left. Profits would fall. Employees would abuse it. All hell would break loose.

Yum! Brands felt otherwise. They said employees would take ownership when given responsibility. They said sure, one in a hundred employees would abuse it and each location should use a progressive discipline model to discipline that one employee and not deny everyone else the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't make sense to initiate or prohibit policy because one ignoramus can't follow the rules (hmm, I don't suppose we ever see that in the fire service, huh?).

So Pizza Hut went kicking and screaming while implementing the new policy. Guess what happened? Profits soared. Employee morale went up. Customers started coming back more often and bringing their friends. Employees were now able to say "I am so sorry we messed up your order. Let me knock $10 off for you" or "I am giving you a free soda and salad with your order for the inconvenience of the extra wait time." The employees didn't have to stand there with the deer-in-the-headlights look wishing a manager who could actually make a decision was close by.

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