The Fire Service Food Chain Of Bilateral Expectations

John G. Dahms, Richard A. Mueller and David F. Peterson begin this series that will examine fire service leadership responsibilities from the perspectives of a fire chief, a line chief and a company officer.


Part 1 - A Chief's View In some fire departments, the fire chief operates in a castle-like (headquarters) existence surrounded by a deep moat that restricts member access and the flow of information. The only time the serfs (department members) hear from the fire chief is when the drawbridge is...


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Part 1 - A Chief's View

In some fire departments, the fire chief operates in a castle-like (headquarters) existence surrounded by a deep moat that restricts member access and the flow of information. The only time the serfs (department members) hear from the fire chief is when the drawbridge is lowered and a deputy chief or battalion chief ventures out to the villages (fire stations) carrying the latest edicts. This 12th-century model still exists in too many fire service organizations. This outdated model has different impacts on the members at the company, battalion, and administrative levels. The impacts vary according to the emergency, non-emergency or administrative nature of a particular issue.

As modern community problem solvers, we must maximize the effectiveness of our people and our services. We cannot reach an optimum performance level until we improve our organizational leadership systems. We'll discuss a leadership system from the fire chief's perspective. We'll offer a leadership model that will help everyone in the fire service food chain create better working relationships and stronger organizations.

A fire chief must shoulder the greatest share of the leadership responsibility. The fire chief (and every officer) is responsible for providing and maintaining leadership. The chief should establish and maintain effective systems to allow members to be successful serving each other and our customers. The most important system a chief should implement is a leadership system. The leadership system includes the department vision, mission and values (VMV). The vision, mission and values should guide member actions at all levels. Department leaders must model the department vision, mission, and values transparently to members.

Webster's dictionary defines transparent as "free from pretense or deceit." (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 1988.) Transparency is honest, authentic, from-the-heart action. Followers have great abilities to see past just words. Transparency releases the natural leadership abilities of each member. Compelling vision and mission statements must be active and not just sets of words. The values must be especially compelling and boldly articulated. Most importantly, the values must be practiced and defended. Values like clear communication, delegation, integrity and trust must be self-evident to all stakeholders. These effective leadership system components are some of the best methods a chief can use to ensure that the department can deliver its services to its customers properly.

Leaders are in place for a purpose. They provide direction and momentum. "The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers." (Max De Pree, Leadership Is an Art, Dell Publishing, 1989.) We must release the talents of the followers and allow them to feel the pride and ownership that comes from handling issues properly at their level. Department leaders must teach the essence of the jobs, maintain their own professional development and grow the next generation of capable leaders.

The best leaders share responsibility and information with others. They have enough self-confidence to know that responsibility and information are useless unless they are shared and applied to solve problems. Shared responsibility and information need to be used courageously at the lowest level, at the earliest opportunity. As chiefs we must model the behaviors we want to see in others. Sharing information allows others to handle important issues utilizing the department vision, mission and values as decision-making guides.

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