Fire Fighting in Canada

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Leadership Forum: September 2009

Some advice for today’s leaders: don’t you dare attempt to think or even lead from outside the box unless you are willing to put your career on the line.

Now that I have your attention, I should clarify that those harsh  words are meant somewhat tongue in cheek. However, I assure you the element of risk in becoming an effective leader is based on real life observations.

September 14, 2009
By David Hodgins

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Some advice for today’s leaders: don’t you dare attempt to think or even lead from outside the box unless you are willing to put your career on the line.

Now that I have your attention, I should clarify that those harsh  words are meant somewhat tongue in cheek. However, I assure you the element of risk in becoming an effective leader is based on real life observations.

During my 33-plus years in the emergency service sector, I have observed several bureaucratic debacles that happened because a leader tried to introduce a novel way of thinking and doing business. I have seen gifted and committed leaders walk the plank simply because they made an effort to introduce innovative changes, even though the changes they proposed were necessary for survival in tough financial times. These astute leaders were forced to retire or move to different positions simply because they had the courage to think outside the box. Their intentions were commendable – to introduce transformation to their organization to meet the service expectations of the 21st century in a more effective and resourceful way. Even so, their proposals for change fell flat – as did they. Why?

What caused these leaders to leave depends on who you ask. Some would say the rank and file caused the shake up because the leader’s ideas for change were too radical and that lack of support created an environment of non-confidence. Others will tell you the municipality’s senior administration caused the leader to move on, because officials were concerned that the leader had lost credibility with frontline staff and, therefore, the ability to manage. The “who” is not important; what’s important is the reason the leader became persona non grata. Based on my observations, the No. 1 reason was because the leader attempted to introduce change without first securing the support of the rank and file. And when the staff is not on side, the leader is on shaky ground.

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Most would agree that change does not come easily in the fire/rescue and emergency management business. Even ideas for change that make good sense can be the downfall of leaders naïve enough to introduce them without considering all of the possible consequences. We all understand that ultimately, like death, change is  a certainty in this world. So the issue is how change is introduced and what plans are in place to implement it. Leaders need to take into account the impact the proposed change will have on all the people
and procedures.

Public-sector organizations often reflect on private-sector success stories when envisioning possible innovations. Municipal leaders look to duplicate this success, which is difficult when you consider how public-sector organizations are structured and how they function compared to private-sector companies.

Business leaders take their innovative ideas to the boardroom first, then introduce creative ideas and change from the top down because they survive on production and profits. Employee support can be counted on because the workers recognize the need to support the increased profit/productivity approach if they want career longevity.

Most private-sector companies (though not all) charge individuals with the responsibility to lead based on their abilities to generate earnings. That’s the leader’s top priority. Second, is the leader’s ability to secure the support of staff.

When public-sector leaders follow this model they are more apt to fail if they have not first secured staff support. Unlike in the private sector, public-sector leaders need to generate buy in from the ground up.

Workers at, for example, any of the big Canadian banks  do not generally have direct access to the president and CEO whereas firefighters and emergency management folks can talk with and influence senior administrators and elected officials. And it’s these officials who decide on a leader’s future.

I strongly encourage leaders in emergency services to be risk takers.  But I would like to add some words of caution: if you want to avoid increasing the casualty rate of reckless risk takers – those who pay the price for good ideas gone wrong – have a well-developed strategy in place before introducing any risk- taking initiatives.

The most important element to be addressed during any transformation process is communication. And that entails interaction with staff.

  Plan your work, then work your plan to ensure the support of the rank and file. And when you think you have communicated sufficiently, communicate more.


David Hodgins in the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. Contact him at David.Hodgins@gov.ab.ca


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