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Leadership in extreme contexts, such as those experienced by wildland and urban firefighters, represents an area deserving of formal study given events such as 9/11, the wildfire in the South Canyon on Storm King Mountain in Colorado in 1994 and the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013.
Despite the importance of leadership in extreme contexts, little is known about the effectiveness of various leadership styles in extreme contexts as compared to normal (non-extreme) contexts, specifically in firefighting.
In cooperation with Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, I conducted a research study with some of the largest fire departments in the U.S. that explored leader behavior in “normal” and “extreme” contexts. The purpose of the study was to explore, in the setting of firefighting, which leadership style is most effective in a “normal” context such as a routine working day in the fire station) and in an “extreme” context such as a working fire scene.
Effectiveness was defined in this study as the leadership style with the highest association to performance outcome. An extreme context was defined according to Hannah et al. (2009) as “an environment where one or more extreme events are occurring or are likely to occur that may exceed the organization’s capacity to prevent and result in an extensive and intolerable magnitude of physical, psychological or material consequences to organization members” (p. 898).
This study examined two groups of firefighting professionals, first-level leaders (captains) and their followers (firefighters), where the leaders rated the followers’ performance and the followers rated the leaders’ leadership style. The study used online surveys for data collection and multiple-regression statistical methods for data analysis to determine the most effective leadership style.
Eight fire departments in the U.S. participated, providing 75 pairs of leaders and followers. Leadership style was measured according to the Full Range of Leadership Model and followers’ performance according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) job performance requirements. The selected leadership model for this study was the Full Range of Leadership Model, which includes three major leadership styles: transformational; transactional; and passive-avoidant (Avolio, 1999; Bass & Riggio, 2005).
• Transformational leadership style – Transformational leaders “transform” their followers, as such leaders impact the way followers think about themselves, their work, their leader and their organization in positive ways. Transformational leaders have considerable power over their followers as they are role models who inspire followers toward new visions, get followers intellectually engaged in their work and coach and mentor their followers. Transformational leaders promote followers to be self-motivated/intrinsically motivated to accomplish tasks. Thus they have the ability to transform the follower’s performance toward desired outcomes, which leads to performance beyond expectations.
• Transactional leadership style – Transactional leadership implies that a follower receives some kind of reward from the leader in return for successfully carrying out their duties and meeting the leader’s expectations, which represents a form of a “transaction.” The reward could be of positive nature in a tangible (e.g., award, time off, promotion) or intangible (e.g., praise) form, or even the avoidance of something negative. Transactional leaders promote followers to be reward/extrinsically motivated to accomplish tasks.
• Passive-avoidant leadership style – A leader who either waits for problems to arise before taking action or takes no action at all would be labeled passive avoidant. Such passive leaders avoid specifying agreements, clarifying expectations and providing goals and standards to be achieved by followers.