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Leadership Forum: It’s about business, political acumen

It’s about business, political acumen

December 7, 2007  By E. David Hodgins

For me, leadership is “common sense cheered on by business and political acumen.” Individuals that do not have or are unable to use these insights effectively struggle as leaders. Fire department officers attempting to lead without the benefit of acumen may realize some initial success because the system reacts to make things work, despite their shortcomings. Time served and rank become a crutch that tends to support survival. Their achievements, however, are often fleeting. Put them in a situation that requires extensive interaction with the outside world and they fall short. And predictably, stress and associated health issues take their toll.

Accomplished leaders are able to transcend organizational boundaries as they influence people and systems. They understand the power of business and political judgements and that it is only through the effective application of these tools — internally and externally — that long-term achievement is possible. Business acumen is intuitive to chief officers with years of fire service experience. This is because they tend to know their department’s business issues intimately. The challenge, is to identify how and when to apply what they know to the outside world.

Business acumen involves under-standing what drives local government, its vision, mission, goals, objectives and key service delivery initiatives. It’s about budgets, human resources, planning issues and policies and operating guidelines. A fundamental success factor is an overall appreciation of the inter-relationships with those we work for and those we seek to serve. And it means understanding these issues as they relate to the many agencies and individuals with whom we are connected to, or partner with. For instance, does your local chamber of commerce know you? And do they really know what your department provides? And do you appreciate what these business professionals expect from your department in terms of service delivery and costs?

Everything is political. Therefore it follows, to be an effective leader you must possess political acumen. Political acumen means a comprehensive understanding of the implications of your actions beyond the basics. Political intelligence means that you are capable of analyzing the political culture and circumstances associated with an issue and then assessing how your decision will have an impact on, or be affected by this reality. Identify and seek to understand political power and strategic relationships in order to better discern your work and the decision-making process.


Your speech and behaviour should demonstrate that you comprehend the politics that shape actions and influence others, including staff, stakeholders, local government and the community. Be aware of organizational dynamics and become thoroughly familiar with important issues that may have an impact on your organization at operational and senior administrative levels. Continually examine the implications of external events. Look for opportunities to discuss “cross border” issues and challenges with individuals from various disciplines beyond your department. Build relationships with influential individuals who can assist you to understand what is expected of you so they can help you to make good decisions. Your speech and behaviour should demonstrate that you are sensitive, both to cultural and political issues around you, in your community and within partnerships.

Keep up with current events within your community and look for opportunities to talk about local news and issues with direct reports, peers and senior administration. For non-routine and technical decisions, think about what is happening around you from a political and cultural context. Each time you make a decision or take an action, consider and incorporate what you have learned from these points of view. Identify the rationale behind decisions that may appear confusing. This approach will help you to better understand obscure issues and challenges and how others deal with them.

How can you become a successful fire service leader? Understand performance expectations and know where you need to be within your fire department and local government. Then make every effort to use business and political acumen to achieve the required results. Ask a business person and an elected official who you respect to counsel you so that the road ahead will be easier to navigate.

And remember, it’s all about “respect and passion.”

E. David Hodgins is the Fire Commissioner of British Columbia. A 29-year veteran of the fire service, Hodgins is a graduate of the University of Alberta's public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager and fire services instructor. He has held senior fire officer positions in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario.

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