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Leadership Forum: All in the family – or maybe not

To what extent do personal relationships influence the leadership arrangement and decision-making processes in your organization? As the leader, you are not the father, mother or friend. You are the boss.

November 14, 2008 
By David Hodgins

To what extent do personal relationships influence the leadership arrangement and decision-making processes in your organization? As the leader, you are not the father, mother or friend. You are the boss.

If I asked those in the fire/rescue and emergency management services why their organization exists, the majority would say they are there to deliver quality emergency services in a timely, safe and effective manner.  And if I were to ask those same individuals about their work culture, they would tell me that the interaction within their organizations and their specific work teams is similar to that of a family relationship. For example, firefighters will often explain their culture this way, “It’s like one big family. Sometimes we argue and fight; however, we look after each other in dangerous situations.” Or, they might say “We are brothers and sisters from different mothers.”

Many view their work environment and structure as a social arrangement that allows for collaboration, trust and mutual respect based on personal relationships.  When you think about it, this type of system is similar to what organization design gurus refer to as “a tribe”. In a tribe-like environment, individuals come to depend on one another for life’s basic necessities: food, shelter, protection, etc. Interestingly, most tribes that operated by those means are long gone and those that remain are not doing well. So, how does all this connect to emergency services management and leadership? 

Should a family- or friendship-based organizational structure be encouraged or avoided? There are reasons for and against such a system. The rationale used in favour of allowing family-like closeness and personal relationships among work colleagues is that it’s inescapable and therefore should be nurtured. It’s natural for individuals who work together to share common interests, especially those working in dangerous professions – they want to be familiar with and become intimately connected with others within the group. It’s normal for individuals who have developed personal connections to demonstrate strong feelings, including compassion, for coworkers.


Interaction based on familiarity leads to an intimate knowledge of the likes and dislikes of colleagues, including an awareness of what energizes them. Given effective leadership, this can be a good motivator. As well, trust is more easily attained among individuals who know and appreciate each other. Personal loyalty tends to grow as the culture of family and friendships develop. As co-workers become more socially interactive, they become more motivated about being supportive of each other. Co-workers cease to become simply colleagues but rather valued members of an extended family.

On the other hand, there are many credible arguments that point to the fact that organizational structures based on the culture of extended family are often dysfunctional. It is my experience that individuals who grow up in a workplace family-centred culture experience significant challenges when placed in a leadership position. Inevitably, interpersonal connections tend to play far too prominent a role in their leadership styles. How can one lead effectively in a system in which decision making is based on meeting individuals’ needs rather than upon what is right and responsible? This inwardly focused approach, anchored in a tribe’s social needs, is not why we exist. Let’s remember, we are here to deliver quality and citizen-centred emergency services. And let’s also remember that  we are not here to stroke one another’s egos. What happens when a leader’s chief motivator is to avoid offending direct reports? The result is disastrous. And it ends in a “circle-the-wagons-and-shoot-inward” strategy.

Worse yet, a family-like work environment tends to create a system of preferment. Although we don’t like to admit it, we all have family favourites and the chosen ones are treated better than others. The favourites come to expect privileged treatment from the leader, regardless of the organization’s policies, procedures or rules. In this situation, the leader’s actions are based on the desire to be liked rather than the desire to be right. All relationships experience ups and downs. When the leader’s relationship with a direct report is positive, chances are the individual will be treated agreeably and will be supportive of the leader. The reverse also applies and that’s when conflict ensues.

Sound leadership is not based on avoiding the family-type culture permeating the work place, rather, avoiding having it influence the decision-making processes. To influence and then change emergency services culture and change how we relate is a huge challenge. Change takes determination. Remember, as the familiar saying and book title goes, you’re born an original, don’t die a copy. Be original!

David Hodgins in the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia. A 30-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

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