Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Leadership
Leadership Forum: February 2010

Do you need help to survive and thrive as a leader? I do, even after 33 years of service. Fortunately, there are many leadership development programs and tools on the market and I’d like to tell you about a type of leadership mentoring that has worked for me.

February 17, 2010 
By David Hodgins

Do you need help to survive and thrive as a leader? I do, even after 33 years of service. Fortunately, there are many leadership development programs and tools on the market and I’d like to tell you about a type of leadership mentoring that has worked for me.

Let’s look into the future. Years from now, you and your colleagues are chatting about the good old days and the conversation reconnects to a pivotal time. Your colleagues reflect on the quiet way you served them with your hand-on-the-shoulder approach. They remember the challenges with which you entrusted them and how you encouraged them to take charge of their work. And they begin to realize how you helped them develop their leadership abilities, enabling them to make a difference in the organization.

Now, back to the present. Recently I was speaking with Ian and Bradley Chisholm, leadership practitioners with The Roy Group (, a Sidney, B.C.-based consulting firm specializing in leadership development. They used the phrase “occupying the ground” to explain the process of building leadership capacity within an organization. That made me reflect on a leader who had a tremendous impact on me, one with whom I credit many of my career successes.

Fire Chief Bill Hewitt was the leader who occupied the ground and invited me to do the same. Hewitt and I worked together at the Office of the Fire Commissioner in Manitoba and I worked for him when he became fire chief in Strathcona County, Alta. Bill had a natural ability to position his reports to enable them to assume leadership. He was my ideal of an excellent mentor. Bill was a no-nonsense guy. When you were on the right road you knew it and when you weren’t, you knew it too.


That brings me back to my message, which is to describe a leadership approach that allows us to stay true to the course. The goal of the two leadership practitioners I mentioned is to use coaching to build leadership capacity within an organization. Their approach goes beyond the usual provision of executive coaching to senior management, with a focus on leadership decision making. Their services extend to help leaders with the development of the extraordinary skills needed to achieve desired outcomes during emergency events as well.

They challenge the executive team to enable individuals at all levels to build an environment that is capable of creating leadership from within the organization. Their objective is to have executive team members routinely coaching each other. I find this approach refreshing. It is in direct contrast to the way many organizations work – organizations in which individuals report to work to focus on a “to-do” list. Coaching, when applied properly, allows individuals to be invested in one another’s work. And this, in turn, creates a higher level of engagement, learning and performance.

We are used to working in a command-and-control environment; there is a time and place in which this approach gets the job done. However, the fundamentals used in coaching allow individuals the time to engage before, after and during emergency events. The practice of coaching is an invitation for each one of us to occupy the ground the way our mentors did. This kind of leadership training is about sending a message (often without saying a word) that we are going to do this and do it well.

So, how does coaching engage our teams and create a higher level of performance?

  • Team members benefit from a higher quality of shared intelligence;
  • Team members are completely aware of the context in which they are working;
  • Team members demonstrate accountability for their tasks;
  • Team members are fully committed to objectives that they helped to create; and
  • Team members are continuously self-correcting in the presence of highly specific and real-time feedback.

These are the characteristics of a well-disciplined, finely tuned, high-performance team. These are the characteristics of the teams that Fire Chief Bill Hewitt built. His legacy is the capable teams he left behind. But his legacy is also a group of leaders, of which I hope I am one, who have passed on the art of leadership. I hope the wonderful men and women with whom I have had the opportunity to work will speak of me, as I speak of Bill: that I invited them to “occupy the ground” as leaders. Providing a coaching approach through my leadership will get me there. And it will get you there as well.

David Hodgins in the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia. A 33-year veteran of the fire service, he is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager. Contact him at

Print this page


Stories continue below