The Fire Service Food Chain Of Bilateral Expectations

June 1, 2008
John G. Dahms, Richard A. Mueller and David F. Peterson begin this series that will examine fire service leadership responsibilities from the perspectives of a fire chief, a line chief and a company officer.

Part 1 - A Chief's View

In some fire departments, the fire chief operates in a castle-like (headquarters) existence surrounded by a deep moat that restricts member access and the flow of information. The only time the serfs (department members) hear from the fire chief is when the drawbridge is lowered and a deputy chief or battalion chief ventures out to the villages (fire stations) carrying the latest edicts. This 12th-century model still exists in too many fire service organizations. This outdated model has different impacts on the members at the company, battalion, and administrative levels. The impacts vary according to the emergency, non-emergency or administrative nature of a particular issue.

As modern community problem solvers, we must maximize the effectiveness of our people and our services. We cannot reach an optimum performance level until we improve our organizational leadership systems. We'll discuss a leadership system from the fire chief's perspective. We'll offer a leadership model that will help everyone in the fire service food chain create better working relationships and stronger organizations.

A fire chief must shoulder the greatest share of the leadership responsibility. The fire chief (and every officer) is responsible for providing and maintaining leadership. The chief should establish and maintain effective systems to allow members to be successful serving each other and our customers. The most important system a chief should implement is a leadership system. The leadership system includes the department vision, mission and values (VMV). The vision, mission and values should guide member actions at all levels. Department leaders must model the department vision, mission, and values transparently to members.

Webster's dictionary defines transparent as "free from pretense or deceit." (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 1988.) Transparency is honest, authentic, from-the-heart action. Followers have great abilities to see past just words. Transparency releases the natural leadership abilities of each member. Compelling vision and mission statements must be active and not just sets of words. The values must be especially compelling and boldly articulated. Most importantly, the values must be practiced and defended. Values like clear communication, delegation, integrity and trust must be self-evident to all stakeholders. These effective leadership system components are some of the best methods a chief can use to ensure that the department can deliver its services to its customers properly.

Leaders are in place for a purpose. They provide direction and momentum. "The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers." (Max De Pree, Leadership Is an Art, Dell Publishing, 1989.) We must release the talents of the followers and allow them to feel the pride and ownership that comes from handling issues properly at their level. Department leaders must teach the essence of the jobs, maintain their own professional development and grow the next generation of capable leaders.

The best leaders share responsibility and information with others. They have enough self-confidence to know that responsibility and information are useless unless they are shared and applied to solve problems. Shared responsibility and information need to be used courageously at the lowest level, at the earliest opportunity. As chiefs we must model the behaviors we want to see in others. Sharing information allows others to handle important issues utilizing the department vision, mission and values as decision-making guides.

The fire chief usually has subordinates in place to lead the department at their respective levels. All too often, the levels of subordinates live in isolation of each other and the fire chief. Each goes through the motions of their predecessors, oblivious to the real work they should be doing. "Leadership" capacities and commitment vary from one person to another. The 12th-century model requires our battalion chiefs to carry edicts to the masses without ownership to the edict. The edict is passed to the company officers, whose contact with the battalion chief is limited. The company officer then has to pass the edict along to the firefighters who must abide by the edict (or not). At each level there is a propensity for filtering. Information is power and filtering allows officers to maintain their control. The filtering can serve as a buffer for the edict and the detachment from responsibility for accomplishing the edict. Absent good VMV systems, inappropriate filtering allows edicts to appear random and inconsistent with known, accepted and comfortable practices.

A fire chief can supplant the bilateral information-filtering process with a good leadership system and good leaders. We need to realize that the most important fire service leader is not the fire chief; it's the company officer. The company officer has the most contact with your firefighters. The company officer can take the most enthusiastic, motivated and skilled firefighter and turn him or her into someone who has retired in place. Or the company officer can sustain and enhance that firefighter's intrinsic motivation using the leadership system and the VMV to encourage contributions and responsibility.

Who's leading your firefighters? Chiefs must choose leaders wisely! Promotional/appointment practices that foster the "promote and release" mentality must be changed to promote the best leaders. We must grow and nurture good leaders through our own leadership efforts. The fire service has revered the promotional processes that were comfortable and gave us "what we've always had" instead of promoting the best leaders.

The fire service is one of the few remaining industries that promotes and then prepares people for the promotion. The "promote and release" practice puts company and chief officers on the street with very little training or alignment with the department vision, mission and values. This sometimes creates an expectation gap. Newly promoted and unprepared officers may be prepared for the 5% of the job that involves emergency responses, but may also be totally unprepared for the 95% of the job that involves leading people. If the VMV are absent, we may not even get what retired Phoenix, AZ, Fire Chief Alan Brunacini calls a "designated adult" in the firehouse. This can lead to publicly embarrassing situations or worse. Fire chiefs must begin the practice of regular substantive meetings with department leaders, especially company officers, to assure that the leadership system is providing the proper support to the people who need it most.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Officer Development Handbook (2003) provides a well-defined career development map for persons aspiring to lead. The Officer Development Handbook subtitle, In Pursuit of the Planned, Progressive Life-long Process of Education, Training, Self-development and Experience, is revealing in its simplicity. Good leadership is work. Good leadership involves sacrifice and self-investment. Good leadership is a journey filled with challenges and opportunities to grow and make a difference as a follower and a leader.

The pursuit of a systematic and deliberate professional development process is a worthy career effort. You must unleash your own professional curiosity, learn at every juncture, contribute responsibly and have fun in your role as a leader. The people you follow and the people you lead will benefit from the professional passion that you expend in your leadership journey. Most of all, you will recognize the value of the journey as you share your leadership with the people you lead. Model and reward the proper behaviors and you'll see them reflected in the behaviors of your followers. Your transparent and congruent leadership will lead to your success. Your successful leadership journey is critical to the success of your fire department.

Fire chiefs need to demonstrate their courage and create leadership systems that liberate the creative energy and talents of the fire department members. The department vision, mission, and values must guide member decisions and actions transparently. Hiring and promoting the best members will ensure that effective leadership and communication practices support the delivery of safe, effective problem-solving services to our communities. The department leadership system helps assure that our members are well informed and their actions are aligned with the vision, mission and values. Fire chiefs owe their departments good leadership.

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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