"Terrorism" Leadership

April 1, 2008
John G. Dahms, Richard A. Mueller and David F. Peterson propose strategies for dealing with fire service leaders who can and do inflict terror on members.

The words "terrorism" and "leadership" are not often used together, but there are fire service leaders who use terrorism tactics to lead. These are people in leadership positions who can - and do - inflict terror on their members. The behaviors resulting from poor leadership decisions can decrease followership and increase organizational dysfunction. This article will examine the profile of the "terrorist type leader." It'll also explain how they conduct themselves and describe the weapons they use to terrorize the workforce. More importantly, this article will identify coping mechanisms and anti-terrorism measures to employ in order to remain safe in a terrorist environment.

Terrorism has been defined by the FBI as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." These actions are meant to instill terror in victims with the meaning of terror being "an overwhelming feeling of fear and anxiety." Key words above, then, provide a good working definition of the leaders who stoop to the behaviors we will examine. Words such as unlawful, intimidate, coerce, political, social, fear and anxiety define the leaders that need to be monitored and, even more importantly, stopped.

Weapons of Choice

The first place to start is to identify the weapons that fire service "terrorist" leaders have at their disposal and willingly us to intimidate and coerce their subordinates. The acronym to remember the weapons of terrorists is "B-NICE," which certainly qualifies as one of the largest oxymorons ever penned.

B-NICE represents:


B stands for Biological weapons

These are the living organisms or "bugs" that often need a living source in order to sustain life. They include things like viruses, bacteria and toxins. Terrorist leaders can resort to spreading viruses through the workplace and are not above planting viruses in places where they know the virus will be cultivated. This means that the virus will grow and spread and maybe mutate as to be unrecognizable in a short time.

The easy part for the terrorist leader is all they have to do is plant the virus and then stand back and observe. In this way, rumors or deliberate non-factual information are the practical weapons they use to plant a virus. Other ways are to instruct or direct others to do the same. This removes the hierarchal terrorist leaders from culpability and deniability becomes plausible.

Anti-terrorism efforts require members to, first and foremost, resist spreading rumors. Continuing a rumor chain when the information is not yet proven to be factual places followers in the same positions as the terrorists who started them and essentially creating an informal terrorist cell. Rumors hurt organizations because they hurt the people in them, especially the person who is the rumor subject. A good leader will first recognize the damage rumors can inflict and break the rumor chain by not repeating them.

When leaders recognize rumors that have significant damage potential, they seek out correct and factual information. This may mean going directly to the source for verification. This may even include a chief officer. It has been said that the truth hurts for a short time, but lies can hurt forever. Leaders seek out truth and eliminate lies or the very least inaccurate information.

N stands for Nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons, when deployed, release radiation and kill silently and insidiously. Over time, the radiation sickness manifests itself slowly by causing people to eat less, do less and even look less appealing. A malaise sets over everyone who has been exposed.

Terrorist leaders unleash nuclear weapons on organizations by dropping the all-powerful and threatening "change" bomb on them. This usually appears as a new program or directive without any input or even advance notice to the employees. These programs or directives are usually not very well planned or thought out and do not include opportunities for member input. This leaves the organization to muddle through the new policy change and in the process making numerous mistakes. This type of terrorism zaps the energy and confidence of good employees and induces feelings that "this is the worst thing that has ever happened to this place." Poorly implemented change slowly erodes workers confidence and eventually workplace competence.

Anti-terrorism involves replacing the emotions of change with research and planning that outlines where the change will take the organization. This would include answering the "Five Ws" of who, what, why, where and when, and how the success of the change will be measured. Anti-terrorism involving change requires rational thinking, thorough planning, member involvement, patience, and the ability to look at the big picture of how change will affect our customers, not just the employees.

I stands for Incendiary weapons

These weapons use flammable liquids to cause terror quite commonly in the form of Molotov cocktails. Terrorists light the wick on the glass bottle filled with gasoline and throw the weapon on or near their intended target. The result is an all-consuming flash fire and total devastation.

Terrorist leaders use incendiary devices such as their fierce, volatile tempers and this usually happens when workers least suspect it. Once unleashed, the incendiary temper consumes everything in its vicinity. The result is that survivors run for cover and they may not fully recover from the event or events.

When leaders lose their composure, followers lose respect and confidence in the leader. Incendiary devices consisting of losing one's temper restrict communication. Followers can become fearful to approach terrorist leaders at other times. Trust is eroded and relationships die. When leaders include profanity or racism in these bouts of terror, the damage can be even worse. It shows a lack of respect for workers and the workplace and it also demonstrates a lack of maturity.

As a leader it may be hard to resist using words in anger, especially when followers may be using them, but as leader you are held to a higher standard. Yes, leaders have different rules than followers! When a leader breaks these rules they simply take themselves out of the leadership position. When leadership positions are filled with non-leaders organizations will suffer high casualties.

Anti-terrorism requires patience, understanding and the ability to listen, not just hear. In our fast-paced world, it is easy to hear only what you want to hear and not listen to what is being said. When listening is not practiced, it is easy to misinterpret spoken and unspoken messages. Effective leaders use reflective listening skills so that the messenger knows that they "got it" - message received. Fire service members have never been shy about speaking their minds and the effective leader will find the time (or make the time) to listen to multiple points of view and consider what the followers have to say. The anti-terrorism lesson for words is to choose them wisely. Words will hurt followers and leaders by damaging their spirit. When the words are unprofessional, they can damage careers.

C stands for Chemical weapons

Chemical weapons kill by coming into contact with the human body. They do this on the skin and in the eyes, lungs and stomach. Nerve agents essentially incapacitate and kill by affecting enzymes that control breathing functions. Terrorist leaders can also get on people's nerves. Blister agents cause damage to the skin by touch. Contact may be very painful.

Terrorist leaders can also blister with their words and actions. Nothing touches the nerve of followers more than ineffective or improper discipline. Discipline done improperly, or even unprofessionally, leaves lasting scars. It can create snipers who will lay and wait for a very, very long time to get a revenging kill shot. Knee-jerk discipline done without appropriately applied behavior modification methods can really create a hornet's nest. In fact, you don't even have to listen very closely to hear all the buzzing.

The anti-terrorism behavior involves being fair and using restraint when it comes to discipline. Gentle pressure applied relentlessly will generate the most long-lasting change. Discipline is also a policy decision that is closely watched by associations and they will not hesitate to challenge poorly executed discipline. As supervisors, it is good to remember that if it feels good, don't do it! Take time to process; keep a level head and most of all keep the situation in perspective. After all, your fellow employees are also only human.

E stands for Explosive weapons

Explosives kill by exerting extreme force on surrounding material. Terrorist leaders can also exert force and ultimately harm the workplace by selecting pipe bombs filled with nails or other projectiles. Terrorist leaders employ pipe bombs when they want to nail everyone in the form of "e-mail" bombs. E-mail is an effective communicating tool when it comes to routine information meant for a large audience. This is because it is a very impersonal way to communicate. When e-mail is used for individual or small group critical information, the impersonality does not match the level of the audience. This makes it easy for receivers to misinterpret the emotion or feelings of the writer. This can cause the message in the words to get lost or in the very least misinterpreted. Experienced e-mailers understand this and insert pictures such a smiley faces to help recipients understand message contexts.

Anti-terrorism involves using this communication tool for basic information only. When messages are touchy or could be misinterpreted, make the time to deliver them personally so that the receiver(s) can interpret the message by your actions as well as your words. Trying to dialogue via e-mail about important and significant messages can easily turn into a war of words in which everyone loses. Use e-mail for scheduling, reminders and basic information distribution and dialogue with people face to face (or in the very least phone to phone) for anything that resembles sensitive information.

In the end, leaders should actually "be nice" to their workforce, and the public for that matter. This approach promotes civility and a business-as-usual atmosphere where calm levelheadedness prevails. Leaders who conduct themselves this way also become predictable and approachable. Ultimately, members will be willing to talk issues out and they will know that their issue will be handled in a mature and responsible way. All of these actions add up to the creation of a trusting workplace and when people are treated with dignity and respect, they respond in kind. The Golden Rule or Reciprocity Principle works in the real world and it also should work in the fire service.

Chief fire officers ultimately have the greatest responsibility to be nice in fire service organizations; to accomplish this, a good skill to acquire and develop is that of reflection. The Greek philosopher Socrates once stated that the unexamined life was not worth living. Never has this sentiment been truer than for chief fire officers. Most of us understand that as the chief goes so goes the department. Is it any wonder when:

  • The fire chief is vindictive that the entire department also becomes mean spirited?
  • The chief staff blatantly does not trust subordinates that the entire department becomes distrustful?
  • The chief officers do not include subordinates in decision making that the entire department does not want to be included?

The fire chief is at the helm and steers the ship. What direction do you want to go? We hope this article inspires all fire service leaders to reflect, to learn and most of all to lead by being nice. We are confident that anti-terrorism tactics, when applied to your own efforts, will keep organizations going in the direction our customers want, need, and expect. After all, it is all about trust and (apologies to Rudyard Kipling), that is another story!

JOHN G. DAHMS is the fire chief of the City of Brookfield, WI, Fire Department and a veteran firefighter of 30 years. He has a master's degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). RICHARD A. MUELLER is a battalion chief with the City of West Allis, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 30 years. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University. DAVID F. PETERSON is a lieutenant with the City of Madison, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 29 years. He is completing a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from SIU and is enrolled in the EFOP. All three authors are veteran fire service instructors and are members of The Wisconsin FLAME Group LLC ("Fire Leadership And Management Excellence").

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