The Mission or The People? A Leader's Quandary

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I come to you this month with yet another look at a complex, continuing problem. Many times over the past several years, I have received e-mail, letters and telephone calls that have dealt with boss-related problems. It would seem to me, as a somewhat less than dispassionate observer of the passing scene, that boss-related problems are everywhere.

In most instances, it has been my practice to side with the subordinate and roast the boss. I say this because in most cases, the boss is doing something selfish or just plain stupid. However, there is a whole school of thought within the literature of the leadership world that works to bring a balance to these issues.

It?s been my experience that there might well be a better way to discuss the difference between leaders who favor the troops and those who favor the mission. This argument has to do with the orientation of leaders. It also has to do with their education on the way of the chain of command and with the way in which their predecessors inculcated the values of the organization into their psyches. I am referring to the manner in which they were taught to operate within the world of chiefly behaviors. Let me share a few thoughts with you.

In the world of organizational development, design and leadership, a number of different types of leadership are discussed and illustrated. I have spent a great deal of time researching leadership. Thanks to The Leader?s Companion by J. Thomas Wren, a text that has been in my library for a few months, I am able to make valid comparisons among the wide range of competing leadership styles. I identified a wide variety of approaches to teaching and explaining leadership.

However, since this is not an academic research article on the subject, I have selected two different styles whose use can lead to problems in the arena of supervisor-subordinate friction. I say this because they are seemingly opposites and, in this case, opposites do not seem to attract one another. The strengths of one seem to play well against the weaknesses of the other, and vice versa.

In 1966, Robert Hamm set the tone for this discussion when he noted in his book Leadership in the Fire Service, ?Firefighting has become more complex since the ?good old days? and promotion no longer depends upon political influence, seniority, or luck ? With the increase in fire hazards, the demand for greater knowledge in fire fighting operations ? the Fire Service, willing or not, will be forced to provide a new type of leadership ? a more capable fire department officer.?

The development of effective leaders, able to command respect and loyalty as well as function effectively in crisis situations, would appear to be a precursor event to the delivery of safe and efficient firefighting operations. The teams involved need leaders who can motivate those who work for them and coordinate and interface well with those to whom they report. Hamm speaks to this when he says officers should be careful in ?maintaining allegiance to management or administration and by developing a wholesome respect for all fire department officers.?

The fire service is a specialized field that provides a critical emergency service under conditions that are less than optimal. My research suggests that leadership is a critical element in the success of every fire department, although there are those who seem to ignore that fact. This importance is amplified by the nature of the operational environment wherein the activity of fire suppression is performed. If fire department leaders screw up, people can die.

The two differing styles of leadership are the transactional style and the transformational style. In the first case, the mission is the driving force. People have to be bent to achieve the demands of the position. In the transformational mode, the tasks are developed to fit the people being groomed for the positions within the organization. Let?s take a closer look at the two.

Transactional Leadership

There is a different approach to the leader-follower relationship in the transactional leadership mode. The concern is with shaping the people to the jobs to be done. This is a concept similar to fitting round pegs into square holes. I am certain that I have oversimplified this for you, but that?s all right. Many of you have been loyal readers for many years now. You should know that I am a people-oriented person.

In his book Leadership, Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar James McGregor Burns lays out this argument as simply as any person I have ever seen in my entire fire service and academic careers. He states, ?Some define leadership as leaders making followers do what followers would not otherwise do, or as leaders making followers do what the leaders want them to do; I define leadership as leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the motivations ? of both leaders and followers.?

However, I would urge you to remember that leadership cannot be separated from ?follower-ship.? In the transactional situation, power forms the basis for any interaction. The leader has the power to require an action. The followers acknowledge the right of the leader to exercise that power. They then act in a manner consistent with the demands of the leader.

The followers do what they are required to do for a reason. Usually that reason is financial in nature, but in other cases the relationship occurs because the leader controls an activity that the follower dearly wishes to do. This can describe the fire service equation in many cases. Burns goes on to say that this is not an enduring relationship, but merely one of convenience. These are not the type of relationships that bind people together and make for a stronger, more productive organization.

Sadly, far too many fire officers view their role as nothing more than a series of transactions where people are expected to do as they are told. The leader in this instance has no desire to create a situation where the wants and needs of the follower are met. The result is a situation that does not fulfill the needs of the follower. These are the situations where conformance is minimal. The follower does just enough to get the job done and stay out of trouble.

Many among you may choose to liken this style to McGregor?s Theory X style of management wherein followers are thought to need to be tightly controlled in their activities. This requirement was thought to come from the feeling that workers are lazy and do not want to work. However, McGregor noted that this style of supervision and leadership would never work because it ignores the facets of human behavior that seek to demonstrate a willingness to accept responsibility and a desire to be productive members of society.

Transformational Leadership

Many researchers believe that leadership cannot be separated from the followers? needs and goals. They believe that the greater chance for success comes when people feel that they have an interest in the tasks to be accomplished. Transformational leadership aims for an even higher level of achievement. There are those who suggest, like Burns, that ?such leadership occurs when one or more people engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality,? Burns speaks of a binding together of the interests of the leader and follower into something greater than the acts of the individuals.

Other researchers such as Taly Dvir of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues suggest that their research has shown transformational leadership theory to be a prominent representative of the new theories that have occupied center stage in leadership research in the last two decades. Follower development and follower performance are the targeted outcomes of such leadership.

Dvir and a team of researchers worked to study the emphasis on follower development. They based their work on the research of Burns in the watershed text, Leadership. They looked at such aspects of follower development as motivation, morality and empowerment. The research team worked with infantry officers in the Israeli Army. They created a series field experiments that randomly assigned groups to leadership tasks. A series of experimental groups received transformational leadership training. A control group received routine leadership training. Their results showed a better level of group performance for those members who were assigned to the experimental groups.

Support for this position with regard to transformational leadership can be found in a number of other places. Research findings indicate that transformational leadership training enhanced the performance of those teams led by individuals that had been so trained. This would suggest that a style of leadership is created that forms up around the individuals being supervised in a given situation.

My research showed me that a better leadership interaction comes in those cases where the actions of the leader and those being led come together to form something greater than the sum of the individual actions. Their hypothesis that a symbiotic relationship can occur between leader and follower holds great hope for its use within the fire service.

The following attributes of transformational leadership should be blended into the concept of leadership in the fire service, which is the primary focus of this research effort:

  • Leaders must assess the relative worth of the individuals that make up their team.

  • Transactional leaders must know and understand the needs of their organization.

  • Transactional leaders must know and understand the needs of their people.

  • Transactional leaders must possess the skills to create an environment wherein there is a high degree of correlation between the needs of the organization and the needs of the organizational members.

In the world of transformational leadership, the object is to shape jobs to the people. I hope that I have laid out the case for supporting your people. The job for which you are responsible must be completed. I am suggesting that the work product will be much better if you bring your people into the process and allow them to help in planning and executing the tasks at hand. My suggestion to you is quite simple: Embrace your people and treat each as an individual.

Harry R. Carter will present ?21st Century Leadership? at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.


Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse? contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Dr. Carter is an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. A fire commissioner for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through his website at Dr.Carter@HarryCarter.com.

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