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Features Leadership
Cornerstone: February 2012


February 14, 2012
By Lyle Quan

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I have had the pleasure of speaking to fire and safety organizations on the topics of leadership, change management and risk management.

I have had the pleasure of speaking to fire and safety organizations on the topics of leadership, change management and risk management. I often try to blend all three into my presentations because I truly believe that good leaders need to be ready (and plan) for change in their organizations. With change comes risk. In some cases, the possibility of failure causes certain organizations to resist change. For others, it’s easier to deal with the status quo and bury their heads in the sand, hoping that change will pass them by and leave them unscathed.

To me, good leaders plan for today and prepare their organization for tomorrow. I’m not saying that we can always plan for and predict things. In fact, the last time I looked, I hadn’t met any fire chiefs who had crystal balls on their desks so they could look into the future. So what do we do? Well, it’s a well-known fact that those who refuse to learn from the past are likely to repeat their mistakes. Therefore, we need to learn from our mistakes and successes and from the experiences of others, and be flexible.

Recent incidents in Ontario have resulted in firefighter deaths and injuries. Fire officers are seeing a heightened emphasis on liability and responsibility for our actions. As such, we are experiencing some of the greatest change in the fire service in a shorter span of time than witnessed in the past 100 years. It’s because of the rapid pace of this change that I am concerned about the numbers of phone calls I get from fire chiefs who are feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility they must shoulder. With all these worries and pressures, how are chief officers to enjoy a proper work/life balance to maintain their own physical and mental health?

There are two well-recommended books on the market that I believe can help fire-service leaders deal with this change and uncertainty.

The first book, Who Killed Change?, by Ken Blanchard et al. (2009), is a lighthearted approach to dealing with something that happens every day: many of us resist change and don’t want to accept that it will happen (with or without us). Through a whodunit story, the authors discuss how the culture of the organization can assist or hinder change and how open and timely communication with all involved is important. I really enjoyed the chapter related to reflecting on the urgency of the change and the vision of the organization. There is also a handy step-by-step guide in the back of the book to show you how to apply the lessons learned from the book. These step-by-step questions will help you evaluate the health of your change initiative. I know you will find these steps helpful and will want to keep this book close to remind you how to deal with change in your organization.

The second book was introduced a while back, but I want to remind everyone about it because of the uncertainty that I’m seeing among chief officers. This is not to say that these fire-service leaders aren’t able to do the job or that they resist moving their departments in a forward direction; it’s more about the lack of a support system in the fire service. This may be because we have always been viewed as strong, stoic types, and that image has contributed to our difficulties by not allowing us to reach out.

This book, Embracing Uncertainty, by Susan Jeffers (2003), deals with the personal conflicts we encounter and how we need to understand what uncertainty is and how to deal with the uncontrollable.

Yes, I said uncontrollable: this is what causes much of the anxiety among fire-service leaders. We feel that if we can’t control something (change, for example), then we have lost the battle. In fact, good chief officers understand that some things are simply outside of their control. The real question is, what’s next?

The key is not to give up, because surrendering is not an option when dealing with conflict in our lives: we need to regroup and deal with the problem from a different angle.

Jeffers points out that we cannot know everything, and by accepting this fact we can create a level of freedom and understanding that pushes us to honestly learn more. One of the more refreshing points Jeffers makes in her book is that throughout time, generations have always thought that the speed of change in technology and other facets of their lives was almost too much for them to handle. Yet today, we view past decades as having been more relaxed, saner times that were less hectic and less confusing. So, years from now, will the next generation think the same about what we consider to be our wildly hectic times?

Embracing Uncertainty is a book that will help you to deal with the tumultuous times in your life and teach you to relax. I’m sure you will find this book quite refreshing, and even comforting, to read.
Only by meeting change positively, and realizing that you have control over most of what you deal with, will you be able to step back, relax and smell the coffee.

Who Killed Change? (2009) is published by HarperCollins Publishers and Embracing Uncertainty (2003) is published by St. Martin’s Press. Both books can be purchased online through Chapters and Amazon.


Lyle Quan is the fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He has a business degree in emergency services and a degree in adult education. Lyle is an associate instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University. E-mail him at  thequans@sympatico.ca


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