Flagpole Leadership

June 28, 2005
Each of you should consider finding a quiet place where you can gather your thoughts in new ways. Each of us needs to take a daily time-out from the trials and tribulations of the world. My front porch is that place in my world. Like I may have mentioned to you on more than one occasion, my front porch is a place of peace and security for me.

Each of you should consider finding a quiet place where you can gather your thoughts in new ways. Each of us needs to take a daily time-out from the trials and tribulations of the world. My front porch is that place in my world. Like I may have mentioned to you on more than one occasion, my front porch is a place of peace and security for me.

It is my personal retreat from the worries of the world. It is also a place where my thoughts come together in seemingly new combinations. It is a place where cigar smoke is allowed. It is also a place where I am free to think and dream. It is a place where ideas suddenly seem to pop into my head.

So it was once again for me the other evening. As the warm breezes washed over me, I sat out on the front porch pondering the ways and problems of the world. What were the notions that caused me to pause and ponder the fortunes of the world? Many were the issues which had the wheels of my brain spinning.

There was the matter of illness among my friends; mainly cancer attacking a buddy. Then there was the continuing problem with my wife's medical issues. There was also the death of a buddy at the young age of 54, not to mention the wars which are sapping our country's strength and squandering our scarce resources chasing shadows across the sky. What a passel of problems of ponder.

It was in the midst of these weighty ruminations that I gazed across the street and saw the American Flag waving proudly from the staff in front of Clayton's Funeral Home. Perhaps it was the way of Mother Nature, but the shifting breezes caused the flag to change its course in mid air with great frequency.

One minute the flag was hanging limply, while in the wink of an eye it sprang to life from the east. Then it shifted to the north and then to the northeast. As I pondered the forces of nature which were moving our national emblem in the night sky, I began to contemplate the forces which are at work in the world of our fire service.

As usual, my ideas started at the top. My worries about leadership have driven my research over the past several years. What sorts of people are rising to command our fire departments? What are their strong points? What are their weaknesses? Are our leaders fixed and resolute? Do they stay the course and fight for what is right, or do they shift in the wind much like the flag which I studied across the street from my home?

My thoughts turned toward the many people I have met in my four decades of fire and emergency medical service. What made some leaders good and others not so good? Then it came to me in a flash. Far too many of the people leading fire departments in our nation really are like the flag across the street from my home.

They change their approaches and actions according to the shifting dictates of the governmental and organizational winds in their community. It is my belief that if we are to grow and prosper as a fire service, we need to do something about upgrading the quality and consistency of our leaders. But then how would we teach a course in staying the course? Do you see my problem?

We are, I believe, facing a serious challenge in this regard. Far too many of the people I see as leaders in the world around me are task-oriented, rather than people oriented. A great deal of emphasis is being placed on the "how-to tasks" of our profession/vocation/avocation.

"If only our people knew more about terrorism", they will say, "think of how much better off we would be". So says a growing segment of our field. Others tell us that we must stress the basics, or else we will continue to kill people in the line of duty. You cannot disagree with that thought, but it is only good as far as it goes. Another group among us speaks of the need to change the culture of our fire service.

However, I think that they are speaking about the followers, rather than the leaders. When can we ever expect to change the culture of anything if we fail to start with the leaders? Leaders lead and followers follow. I do not think I can make the interaction any simpler than that.

How can we ever expect to change the culture of our fire service when we have a plethora of "flag-pole" leaders out there doing business in the shifting winds of society and our American Fire Service? We need leaders who can stay on message.

We need leaders who are far more concerned with their troops than with their personal prerogatives, privileges and trinkets. I believe that we need to create a generation of leaders who will work to shape their organizations around the talent they have, rather than the trends which seem to be driving the train of our fire service.

The literature within the field of leadership has a name for this approach to leading our service. Bass and Avolio are two researchers who have devoted more than twenty years to an intensive study of the competing styles of leadership which have come to be known as transformational and transactional. They have taken the work of Burns (1978) and broadened and deepened the meaning of his thoughts.

Burns introduced the concepts of transforming and transactional leadership as parts of the same continuum. Basically the transformational leader is concerned with their people, while the transactional leader is concerned with the organization and its mission. The reality of the world usually falls between the extreme points of the continuum. Please let me apologize to these fine experts for the truncated manner in which I present their complex theories.

However, at the operational level, the meaning is as simple as I have portrayed it. Let me now tie this to the problem of the flagpole leader who responds to the whims and nuances of the organizational environment. The leader must be consistent.

The best leaders handle the organizational demands of their position by creating an environment where the abilities and interests of the people are assessed and then blended into the needs of the organization.

The flagpole leader will not be consistent. One time they will snap proudly in the breeze as the advocates of their troops. Then suddenly the wind will shift and they will be blown about by the dictates of the winds of the organization. Now they are "company people." I used to hate working for this sort of person. One day they would be in your corner and the next they would be breaking you up into little pieces to please the powers that be.

What I am urging is an approach that grows from a concern for developing our organizations based upon the skills and talents of our people. Treat them well, provide them with the best possible equipment and training, and then treat them with respect and dignity. You will be amazed how well people will respond when they are asked for their thoughts and then see their thoughts count for something. This will normally bring them on board as active players on the team.

You should remember that we are a fire service of many levels. Perhaps that is the root of our problem. It seems as though we keep circling the airport and never seem to land in the right place. Having attended fire conventions of all types and sizes for over 30 years, I am here to say that as a fire service we seem to be creatures of the fads which come into being around us.

Maybe the word fads is a bit crass, but what else can it be? I have seen untold wheels reinvented and dead horses without number beaten once again to death. For a few years we worried about arson. For a few years we worried about truss roofs. For a few more years we salivated over haz-mat matters. Then there were the great breakthrough years with new turnout gear. Of course there were also the great strides in self-contained breathing apparatus. Then there is the ever-popular "back-to-basics" approach that pops up every few years.

Let us look at some of the latest concerns in the world around us. We have suddenly noticed that people are dying of heart attacks. Then we noticed that people were dying in tanker roll-overs. Now we are seeing that our fire people have an overwhelming propensity to kill each other while driving their apparatus and their personal vehicles. On and on it seems to go.

Perhaps the sum product of my thinking has come up with an explanation for this. I have come to the sad conclusion that every generation believes itself to be smarter than the last. Why else would so many of our leaders fail to recognize the great successes of the past? Why do we see the same things killing our people year after year and decade after decade? Is it because the more things change, the more they remain the same?

The same mistakes keep cropping up every few years. Where is the learning? The same things are killing our people that have killed them in the past. Why must our flagpole leaders keep shifting from place to place and fad to fad? Why are they currying favor from the boss one day and then trying to be your buddy the next? I wish I could tell you.

Why can't we train our leaders to lead in a way that will impress upon them the importance of taking care of their people? Sometimes I really wonder where we are headed. For all of the successes that have been achieved, there is that reactionary element that seeks to go back to a simpler time in history.

Just look at those fire departments that have moved away from full turnout gear to a variety of bogus substitutes. Our success will not be achieved by searching for the beauty of some bygone era. Our success will come when we begin to believe that people are the essential element in our fire departments. Our success will only come when we create a generation of leaders who are consistent in this belief.

If the mission of our departments is really that important, properly led and motivated people will see this and respond accordingly. We will not see this until we are able to do away with the shifting trends of flagpole leadership.

I want you to consider being the person who will make this change in your area. My turn at bat yielded some results, but more is needed. As I continue on in the service, I see my mission as being one of providing advice and stimulating action among our younger people.

I am only one person. I need your help. Please step up to the plate and take a cut at the fast balls of leadership as they whiz over the home plate of your life.

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