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Why Be A NORMal Leader?

Recently, I saw a bumper sticker that read, “YB NORMal?” Wondering how this might apply to leadership, I ask, “Who wants to be NORMal?”

Recently, I saw a bumper sticker that read, "YB NORMal?" Wondering how this might apply to leadership, I ask, "Who wants to be NORMal?" Normal means usual, average, predictable, status quo, conventional, conforming, nothing out of the ordinary, good enough. As the fire service takes a point position for homeland defense and fire service leaders struggle with budget and staffing issues, a better question to ask is, "Can a leader afford to be NORMal?" The rules and the playing field are changing. The leadership skills of today will not work for tomorrow's leaders.

For some, being NORMal is good enough. For true leaders, good enough never is. The axiom "When you're green, you grow, when you're ripe, you rot" sums that idea nicely. An organization or individual that is satisfied with business as usual is not growing.

A major problem with being a NORMal leader or working in a NORMal organization is that the norm pulls you down to an average. I do not mean to say that all norms are bad. Leaders should use industry norms to compare one department's operations against national statistics, for example. However, when a leader or organization relies on being NORMal, they have stopped looking forward and are looking sideways. NORMal leaders focus on what others are doing. Leaders that do this lose sight of what they should be doing.

Consider the debate over minimum staffing levels for fire apparatus. Several nationally recognized organizations say four personnel per company is the minimum safe standard. Many fire department and local government leaders will state that two or three people per company works just fine in their jurisdiction. The justification that "this staffing level works for us in Normaltown" sounds logical to NORMal people. After all, if a department does not make many working fires each year, one or two fire fighters can easily check out a call for burnt toast or an overheated motor. In one large city, a councilman even suggested sending the older apparatus on false alarms. That is NORMal thinking.

But what happens when a working structure fire occurs? NORMal leaders subject their two or three person companies to more physical punishment and greater risk of injury because of a lack of sufficient staffing to perform the many tasks required on the fire ground. Fire fighters on understaffed departments go through three or four air bottles before the fire is knocked down because insufficient staffing prevents rotating crews through rehab or distributing the workload among more engine companies.

Another issue is that of accreditation, both for a department and for departmental leaders. The accreditation process challenges leaders and departments to grow. Last year I completed the application for personal accreditation through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. Just completing the application process revealed areas where I need to improve or do more. I wanted my department to begin the self-analysis process as the first step toward departmental accreditation. When I brought the subject up, I ran into a wall of NORMal thinking. Our facilitator questioned the validity of the CFAI/CFOD standards. City officials questioned the benefit of accreditation and "getting a plaque to hang on the wall." My staff questioned whether the department was ready for accreditation right now. This is NORMal thinking. NORMal thinking leads to incremental growth at best and puts limits on your performance.

What is the answer? Don't be NORMal. Do not accept mediocre standards that others set. Challenge yourself and your organization to grow. You may have to work with mediocre standards for the time being, but never give up on achieving higher standards in the future. Significant change may be incremental.

Establish achievable objectives that lead to the larger goal. To use accreditation as an example, get a copy of the standards and find some items that your department can achieve with present resources. Use these items to develop achievable objectives. You are probably doing many of the right things right already. The accreditation standards will confirm this. Develop a strategic plan to achieve the items that require more work or additional resources.

Look to others for examples, but do not adopt their norms and standards as your own. Set your own goals and develop your own capabilities. Only you know what you are capable of achieving, but you may have to challenge yourself first to find out what you can do. The goal is to create challenges because challenge stimulates creativity.

How many times have you heard or used the phase, "That is close (good) enough for government work." Never be satisfied with good enough or the industry average. Leaders who become satisfied once they reach or slightly surpass the norm stop growing.

Look inward towards yourself and your organization when you want to compare or evaluate performance. When you compare yourself or your organization only against the industry norm, you miss the opportunity to assess your performance against your potential.

Help your staff become people of vision. Start by being the best leader you can be. Establish a personal vision for yourself and an organizational vision for your department. Set the example for others by your actions. Practice what you preach. When you set high standards, you will attract people who espouse high standards and are not afraid to change things to reach those standards.

Do not let ignorance hold you back. If you do not understand new technology, new concepts, or if you need to improve your management and leadership skills, get an education. Become active in professional organizations. Go to conferences and seminars, read fire service periodicals. Enroll in a college degree program. The fire service is as much a professional business as Federal Express is, and both industries need good managers and leaders to thrive.

As leaders, we have choices. We may not like them, but we have them. The easy choice may be to go with the flow and be a NORMal leader. The hard choice may be to swim against the tide and say that our standards are too low and that having low standards is not acceptable. When you consider the logic and benefits of devoting money and resources to improving public safety, for example by meeting national standards and challenging the accreditation process, the decisions are easy. The consequences are hard to live with. NORMal leaders accept the status quo and avoid the consequences. Exceptional leaders make the right decisions and live with the consequences.

Dennis Wolf is the chief of the Germantown, Tennessee, Fire Department. Dennis holds a bachelor's degree in fire administration from the Universityof Memphis. He has the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFO) through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and holds the grade of Member (MIFireE) in the Institution of Fire Engineers. Chief Wolf can be reached at: