The Good Leader Is Decisive

Over the past many months, I have written a great deal about the concept of leadership. This was a conscious decision on my part. I have seen a growing number of instances where problems came about in fire departments because people were simply not good leaders. As I have said on many occasions, good leaders are not born, they are made. With this in mind, I have taken up the crusade of identifying the wide range of skills that someone aspiring to a position of leadership must learn.

One of the primary skills that we discussed in 2000 was communications. Good leaders are able to convey their ideas to others in a variety of ways. This is a skill that is critical to a leader's success. If people are not able to understand what you want them to do, one of two things will happen:

  • They will do nothing.
  • They will do something.

This action is known as a decision. We will talk more about this in just a moment. Anyway, neither of these actions is a terrific option if it is selected in the absence of information and guidance.

Far too many people in positions of leadership assume that the troops know what they are thinking. Hey gang, none of us are that good. Anyway, that is why I concentrated on leadership in the early stages of this series on leadership. That act was what we in the leadership training business like to call a decision. And if you are to become an effective leader, you too must become skilled in the ability to make timely and effective decisions.

It has been my experience that it is critical for a person's decision-making skills to show themselves via the mechanism of a series of successful decisions, where one small decision is linked to the next. This is the concept known as the decision chain. It is these decision chains that you can use to form the basis for your success in any aspect of fire service operations.

These chains fall into one of three distinct groups:

  • Problem-solving chains.
  • Opportunity-exploiting chains.
  • Project-management chains.

In the case of the problem-solving chain, you are forced to face situations which are not what you expect. Quite simply, something is wrong and a decision is needed to make it right. It is up to you to find out what is wrong and work to fix it. That fix will be your decision.

Decisions made under the opportunity-exploiting chain normally do not have the same level of urgency found with the problem-solving chain. In this case, the decision is driven by question of the difference between what is and what could be. In just about every fire department, the potential exists for improvements. A good decision involves the maximization of benefit for the agency. To be effective, the decision must be based on a reflective review of the organization as it actually exists. These are the sorts of decisions that let you advance to the next level of organizational success.

Decisions that are made under the project-management chain cover the day-to-day operations of the fire department, as well as any special projects. These may be routine decisions, such as managing a budget or determining which inspections will be conducted next week. They may also bear on the development of special projects such as new stations, new programs or a long-range apparatus-replacement plan. Your success as a leader and as a manager will come from making good day-to-day decisions.

It is critical to point out that the primary thing that you must recognize is that you have to acknowledge that a problem exists. If you do not see a problem, you cannot solve a problem. Unfortunately, people sometimes tend to react to problems with an air of ignorance or denial. Some of the ways in which people deal (or do not deal) with problems are:

  • Deny that problems exist.
  • Camouflage the problems.
  • Blame someone else.

Problems do not go away just because you do not want to act on them. It has been my experience that they actually get worse. If people would just stop putting their head into the sand and face up to the fact that a problem exists, we would have fewer problems in the fire service.

When you finally come to the realization that a problem exists, you will need to have a plan for making the necessary decisions in your life. I have developed a seven-step plan for making decisions:

  1. Recognize that a problem exists.
  2. Analyze the data surrounding the situation.
  3. Develop alternative solutions which seem to fit the situation.
  4. Evaluate the alternatives to see which one will probably fit your needs best.
  5. Choose one.
  6. Do it.
  7. Evaluate the feedback and make adjustments as necessary.

The first step in the problem-solving process is the simplest and most important. You must admit that a problem exists. Once you get this step, you can begin to get to work developing a positive solution.

The second step involves defining the problem. You need to define the problem in written form. This helps to focus your thinking.

The third step is the part where you begin to analyze the problem. You must work to get the whole story. Facts are critical. You should review the record, then find out what rules, customs and procedures apply. You should then talk with all of the people involved in the situation. This is critical. You need to gather opinions, facts and feelings. You need to ask people the following questions:

  • What did you see?
  • What did you hear?
  • What did you say?

You can then decide on your method of attacking the problem. You can choose to solve it yourself, without outside assistance, or you can choose to call a conference with the key people. It is possible that you could delegate the investigation to another person or form a committee to study the situation. Lastly, there are those who decide to call in an outside consultant to assist you in attacking the problem.

As you work to develop alternative solutions, do not jump to conclusions or use the first solution you find. You should fit the facts together, consider their interaction, one upon the other. Which is the causal factor and which is just the symptom of the problem?

Review department policies and procedures for possible pre-existing solutions. Consider any potential effects on people and the organization. Consider all possible alternatives. This is called "brainstorming." Put the ideas of your people to work. And it is critical to ask yourself if all of the alternatives are realistic.

The fourth step can be the most difficult. You need to take action. And do not try to pass the buck! You will need to select the best alternative for the situation at hand. Then it is important to decide if you are going to do the job yourself or if you need help. There are some other questions that you will need to answer. Should you kick the solution of the problem up to your boss? Or is it within the capability of your team to do it? Whichever way it goes, it is critical to do something!

The fifth step is very important. You must check for results. Follow-up will tell you how well you are doing. How soon should you follow up? If the task is critical, checking soon is good. How often should you check? Often enough to insure that the desired results are being achieved, but not so often that your people think that you do not trust them. You must watch for changes in output, attitudes and relationships.

At this point you will need to ask a critical question. Did you solve the problem? If the answer is yes, congratulations. If the answer is no, then you would be well advised to try another of the alternatives that you identified. But it may well be that you will come up short and have to start the problem-solving process again. Be sure to work right from the very beginning of the formula. Do not skip any steps.

And if the solution does not work, select another. If none of your solutions work, then it will be necessary to go back to step 1. Redefine the problem and reanalyze the data. Work the system until you get it right. That will equal a solved problem.

While it may be difficult to remember all of the steps, we would urge you to commit them to memory. We would also strongly advise that you use them in order. Do not jump steps or jump to obvious conclusions. This can lead to problems, and problems are what you are attempting to solve with your decision-making process.

Truly effective leaders make this decision-making process a part of their soul. One of the worst leaders I ever worked with couldn't make a decision to save his life (or the lives of his men, I might point out). I learned early on that if you want to be an effective leader, you had best make your mind up that there is one thing that you will have to do well, and often. You are going to have to learn how to make a decision. Decisions are the things that leaders get paid to do - whether that remuneration comes in the form of salary dollars or the personal satisfaction of a job done well.

And you certainly cannot make a decision if you are too tied up in the mechanisms of making that decision. You've got to make decisions, not study things to death. Get off the dime and make some decisions.

A good way to judge how effective a leader is can come from a review of that person's ability to make decisions on a daily basis. Are they made in a timely fashion? Are too many decisions being made by that person when they could have been made by that person's subordinates? That's right, gang, not every decision has to be made by the leader. It is the mark of a good leader that he or she lets others make decisions at the lowest appropriate level possible.

It is my goal to provide you with a good decision-making system. I am going to pat you on the head, then send you out into that cold, cruel world. You're going to learn about making decisions in that tried and true way. You are going to be forced to make one hard decision at a time.

You must remember that a decision is the conscious choice of an action in response to a problem, based on a given set of circumstances. So what are we saying? To make a decision requires making a choice within a real-world scenario. Research tells us that two basic types of decisions exist throughout society:

  • Programmed.
  • Non-programmed.

A programmed decision is one that you expect to make on a regular basis. These are the routine decisions that are the bread and butter of your operation. You will have to repeatedly respond to box alarms, order fuel oil for the fire station and deliver replacement equipment. These are the types of decisions that should be covered by standard operating procedures (SOPs) or general operating guidelines (GOGs). The act of creating pre-made policy decisions frees up your mind for the non-programmed, or exceptional, decisions which will require the whole of your decision-making time and talents.

Decisions are a means to an end and not an end in and unto themselves. Some people get so caught up in the glory of the mechanics of decision-making that they never get around to actually making the decision. They keep studying things and they are continually weighing their options.

Let me offer a thought to you: The best solutions come to people who have taken the time to become familiar with the goals, objectives and policies of their fire department.

How can you make a good decision when you are not aware of what an acceptable decision might look like? This is a concept that is similar to boxers learning the size of the ring in which they are fighting. You cannot fight a 1,000-square-foot battle in a 100-square-foot ring. There is a lot less room for dancing around - and a far greater chance of getting smacked in the face by your opponent.

I want to stress that you must know the parameters of your organizational playing field. And since decisions do not come in a vacuum, you must know what your department is all about and the goals for which it is supposed to strive. You can then create solutions that are logical and acceptable within your organization.

Problems can arise when a fire department has not taken the time to properly develop its organizational structure. If there is no vision, and if there are no goals or objectives or policies, you have a serious problem. You will be making decisions devoid of any organizational road map. That is why I covered the concept of policies in an earlier column. It is tough to make good decisions in an atmosphere of ignorance and bad policies.

You will probably still be required to make decisions anyway, so you will have to collect and analyze data from the organization and the world around you. In data analysis, you should:

  • Look at the world around you.
  • Review the hard data of the organization you work for.
  • Or choose to do both.

You must make a conscious decision to do something. To avoid this step is to court disaster, because a decision is probably not necessary if no data exists which indicates that one has to be made. Once you have laid out the data that tells you that you must make a decision, go to work developing alternative solutions to the problem that you have identified.

Evaluation of solutions is the next critical step on the road to effective decision-making. Do not leap toward the first solution that comes to mind. The most obvious choice may not be the most effective or efficient means to reach the ends you desire.

Incidentally, you should decide what constitutes a good decision before you begin your search for that decision. It makes little sense to entertain alternatives that are too costly, possibly illegal or patently inappropriate for the talent of your personnel. Lay out a range of solutions and then compare them to your specifications.

Pick the one that seems to come closest to doing what you want done. Do not stretch things out. Some of the worst decisions that I have ever made were ones that I spent too much time agonizing over. Be businesslike. Look at the problem and, after an appropriate period of study, solve the problem and move on to the next problem.

It is critical for you to remember to evaluate the feedback generated by any decision you make. While this is more important with non-programmed decisions, it is also good to look at your routine decisions periodically to see if your programmed solution is still appropriate.

Let me warn you that several factors are working to stymie your decision-making procedures. Decisions cannot be divorced from the people making those decisions. Be aware that these people will be making value judgments. These will be based on their personal background and experience. You must look at these people, learn how they think and what they think about. Their personal biases can tinge their judgment and submarine your operation. Know this fact and exercise caution. People are all different. They think differently and this may work for you or against you. Be aware of it.

Your organization can be a critical factor in determining how successful you will be as a decision-maker. The use of a mission statement along with solid goals and objectives can get everyone in your department thinking along the same lines. But if your organization lacks these critical elements, you will be left on your own to set the criteria for acceptable decisions. And you can imagine how lonely that place can be.

Effective leaders are aware of these matters. They know that a certain amount of organizational development is necessary on their part in order to create an environment where the personal skills of the leader can be brought to bear. This is especially important in the world of decision-making.

The mechanics of what constitutes an acceptable level of decision-making risk varies from person to person. The amount of risk that a person is willing to tolerate says a lot about the types of decisions that will be made. This can lead to solid decision-making or shooting from the hip. Guard against the latter.

You need to remember that different people will tolerate the same risk in different ways. And a person may react differently on consecutive days, given differing personal pressures. If I am giving you the idea that decision-making is difficult, then you have been paying attention.

Lastly, avoid post-decision blues. "Did I make the right decision?" This is a question that has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. Once you make a decision, move on, unless the feedback says to take another look. To continually mull things over is to court an ulcer.

When all is said and done, people will remember only your very best and your very worst decisions. And you will not know which one is going to end up being the really bad one while you are in the midst of making them. If you are going to be a leader, you will really need to be out front on the issue of making effective decisions. So get on with it, and start making some good decisions. The choice is yours, partner.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is also an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark 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). He may be contacted through his website at