Leaders Must Help to Shape their Organization

Every one of you reading this commentary belongs to an organization. In some cases each of us belongs to more than one organization. So that we will not diffuse our focus, I want you to concentrate on the one type of organization where we have a common interest: the fire department.

Let me suggest that as a member of a fire service organization, you will continually be subjected to the influences created by the three major elements of any organization. These are:

  • Organizational Structure
  • Organizational Process
  • Organizational Behavior

I have found during my many years of fire service experience that there is one sure guide for you on your way through the rocks and shoals of your organizational ocean. These are the policies that have been established to guide the operation of your particular organization.

Far too many in the fire service are so wrapped up in the operational side of things that they forget that the organization needs to be properly structured and managed. Let me strongly recommend that it is the wise leader who masters the art of policy development. There is no better way to leave a lasting imprint on your fire department that to take a strong, leadership role in layout your road map to future success. People are still laboring under the direction of policies which I helped to create back in the 1990's.

It has also been my experience that you must become intimately familiar with the concept of POLICY and what its impact will be for you, and your fire department. I would like to use an example to assist you in understanding where I am headed with this concept. Would you ever consider starting out on a long journey to a far-away location without a road map? I don't think so. Just as you would need a map to guide you on a trip through some strange and unfamiliar territory, so then is a policy book your guide through the world of organizational operations.

There are a number of other terms that are synonymous with the term policy. It has been our experience that an individual organizational member must become familiar with the terms mission statement, policy statement, standard operating procedure or however they are named in your organization. However a leader who fails to master these concepts and bring their agency into the development mix, risks destroying the very fabric of their fire department.

There are a number of items that I collectively lump under the heading of Policy. Regardless of what your agency might choose to call them, policies offer the guidance necessary for you to get your job done in an effective and efficient manner. To use a phrase that is popular in the world of community bands, " … you all have to be playing from the same sheet of music." Think about how bad it would sound if the flutes were playing Beethoven, the trumpets were playing Mozart, and the tuba section was belting out a fine old Sousa march. You would have a cacophony of chaos.

And so it is with fire departments, as it is with all organizations. I have noted that a major problem faced by fire departments across America revolves around the fact that they are entering new areas of operational expertise, where old ideas and training are just not good enough to get the job done.

To protect itself, and its members, the organization must set down, in writing, the ways in which it intends to do business, so that all personnel can operate to a common denominator; similar rules and uniform procedures. Lest you set off in pursuit of writing policy, without a method to use in accomplishing the task, take heart for I am about to give you some much-needed help.

It has been my experience that the greatest problem I have seen in the policy-making arena over the years has been the tendency that some people have for starting out on their trip to a workable policy without knowing what it is that they wish to accomplish. You have to know what you want the policy to do, before you can write a policy to do it.

If you feel that your department's response to daytime fires should be standard, then you must decide, before hand, which units you wish to send to a particular type of incident. You would then specify the manner in which they are to respond. Something that does not specifically pertain to daytime response should not be a part of any daytime response policy. And so it must be with every aspect of how your fire department operates. There should be a definitive, written policy. This is critical. Otherwise, you might discover that you have several different sub-fire departments operating within your agency.

Who makes policy within an organization? Usually policy is a matter for the upper echelons of an agency. It is typically formulated by the individual in charge of the organization or by his designated representatives. Policy must come from the top so that it is broad-based enough to bring all members of the group into conformance with the mainstream of group thoughts and actions.

It is in the arena of policy development where the best leaders really get to show their stuff. They are so thoroughly conversant with the people in the organization and the ways in which they work, that they are able to distill the true essence of the operation. They are so thoroughly trusted by the members of the organization that their requests for help from the troops are met with enthusiastic support.

True leaders have their finger on the pulse of the fire department. This knowledge, when coupled with their skills at creating consensus, allowed them to develop a solid focus for their fire department. They were then able to follow through and lead their people in the proper direction.

Far too many leaders think that policies are created by the leaders without any output from the people who will be most impacted by the policies: the members of the organization. It has long been my position that the best policy-making decisions are made with the concept of those being led. Why should I dream something up and then shove it down the throat of the troops. I doesn't sound all that good when you say it that way.

Let me now share with you my view of the policy-making process. The first step in any policy development scenario involves setting the objective to be accomplished by the policy matter under consideration. Once this has been accomplished, some individual must be charged with the responsibility for assembling the necessary resources to study the issues surrounding the policy study.

You must be sure to search far and wide for possible solutions. I have found that it is the rare problem that has not been solved by someone else in another place. Study the various model codes, research documents, trade journals, professional texts or come in contact with members of other fire departments around the country.

Far too often we overlook asking other fire departments if they have a particular policy. We stumble around trying to create a wheel which has already been crafted by someone else. I am not suggest that you simply take someone else's policy, white out their name, and then paste yours in at the top. No, I am suggesting that you use the work of others as part of your research process. You will then be able to tailor the work to the actual identified needs of your fire department.

I will be discussing more about this critical issue in an upcoming "The View from My Front Porch." Stay tuned.