Leadership Lessons: Developing Leaders Within Your Department

Countless firefighters have voiced their frustration to me when their departments open the promotional process to outsiders instead of promoting from within. This often hurts morale as firefighters feel they are being “dissed,” unappreciated or retaliated against for past issues. On the flip side, it hurts morale when people are promoted to higher positions when they have no business being promoted because they do not possess the necessary experience or competency.

Departments open up their promotional process to outside candidates for a variety of reasons. The main reason is they don’t feel they have an adequate pool of leaders to choose from within the department. If this is the case, whose fault is it? My answers may surprise you.

Every fire department has the responsibility to develop effective leaders for promotions and succession planning. Most people think this responsibility falls solely on management, but it also falls on fellow firefighters and the union (if you are unionized). Developing effective leaders for succession planning and the future of your department is not just some “program” you put into place – it’s an everyday activity that starts with ensuring accountability and responsibility. That’s everyone’s job.

• Management’s responsibility – To provide strong role-model examples, mentoring and training. Leadership training involves equipping your firefighters with the skills and tools they need to be the best firefighters they can be. It means teaching them and modeling for them what principle-based, ethical leadership looks like and what it means to be accountable and responsible. If management doesn’t provide mentoring, training and leadership development, then it can’t expect a great pool of potential leaders when it comes time for promotion.

• Fellow firefighters’ responsibility – To hold each other accountable to the mission, vision and core values of the department. You don’t need to be firefighters’ supervisor to pull them aside and talk with them about a bad attitude or an unprofessional manner. If firefighters sit back and watch when other firefighters violate department policies, they are perpetuating a void in leadership and shouldn’t be surprised when the promotional process is opened to other departments.

• The union’s responsibility – To hold a high standard of accountability and responsibility. It’s the union’s job to make sure a firefighter who faces discipline gets a fair process. However, it is not the responsibility of the union to try to get a guilty firefighter off the hook or get back the job of a firefighter who is a disgrace to the fire service. If the union engages in such activity, it hurts the fire service as a whole, makes the union look bad and puts public safety at jeopardy. Additionally, this contributes to poor choices when it comes to promotional candidates.

I have worked with many departments that have outstanding unions that protect firefighters when needed, but do not make excuses or stand by firefighters who should be fired. Such unions recognize how much that hurts morale and does not serve to create responsible and accountable leaders who are ready for promotion.

If core values and policies are ignored, it’s everyone’s responsibility to correct this problem to ensure outstanding candidates are available for promotion. If management ignores a company officer who won’t step up to discipline, it is perpetuating the cycle of irresponsibility in the department. If fellow firefighters ignore or cover up bad behavior, they are contributing to the problem as well. If the union allows bad firefighters to remain undisciplined or employed, it becomes part of the reason the promotional process gets opened to other departments.

Unless you are doing your part, you may want to reconsider pointing the finger at others who are not doing their part. When all members of your organization make themselves and others accountable to the department’s mission, vision and core values, you will begin to see a great pool of prospective leaders for your succession planning and promotional processes. n