Leadership Forum: Leadership presence
A number of years ago, I was attending a course at the Ontario Fire College alongside a number of fellow fire service leaders. As was always the case, after the classes had ended for the day, we all gathered for dinner and some time together as colleagues and friends afterwards.
To be honest, I don’t remember which course we were taking, yet I vividly recall the evening debate that found its way into the discussion on this particular night. Amidst some laughs and fun, we found ourselves debating the topic of leadership presence and specifically whether chief officers should still be engaging directly in significant issues, incidents and events.
There were some who felt strongly that the authority and trust in frontline officers is undermined when senior officers engage in an issue or respond to an emergency scene and that senior officer engagement should be reserved for only the most major of situations. Others felt that the role of today’s fire chief ought to be one of an administrative CEO, leaving the operational aspects of the job to those in operational leadership roles. Still others felt strongly that senior officers need to be visible and engaged and that doing so enhances both team morale and confidence.
There has been a lot of water go under my personal bridge since that discussion. I have more experience than I did then, have seen more, have made more mistakes and have continued to learn from those around me. Most recently, I have the opportunity to look back over more than a year in the role of COVID-19 Incident Commander and think about all that we have endured, achieved, learned and experienced together.
What I find interesting, though, is that my opinion on the topic of senior officer response and engagement hasn’t changed. In fact, my feelings on the subject of leadership presence have only become stronger as my experience as a leader has continued to grow. My position that night at the Fire College and my position today remain unchanged: In times of trouble, uncertainty and fear the most important thing leaders can do is be present, visible and engaged.
As fire service and first response professionals, we are called upon to make the very worst day of someone’s life better. We are asked and expected to efficiently bring order to chaos, to take calculated risks to protect the safety of others and to be the face of calm against a backdrop of anxiety, fear and uncertainty. When successful, we bring a sense of hope and confidence that the present issue, situation or emergency will be well managed and that we will lead the way back to a place of safety, security and calm.
One of the sincere yet unexpected privileges that I am enjoying amidst the challenges of leading the response to COVID-19 in our city has been to work closely with retired general Rick Hillier, who is leading the province of Ontario’s COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force. I had heard General Hillier speak in the past and had read his book entitled Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom for Today’s Leaders. In his book, Hillier explains that leaders must “show up” when things aren’t going well. He further explains that this need is most evident when those on the frontlines begin to question themselves, look over their shoulders and begin thinking about retreating from the mission at hand. This is when the leader is needed most to “stabilize the situation and reassure and reinforce his or her followers.”
I have the privilege of working alongside Hillier on a daily basis as we serve in our respective roles in response to COVID-19. What impresses me most about this man is actually not his simply extraordinary CV and experience, but the extent to which he practices what he preaches. He shows up and leads from the front with energy, confidence and enthusiasm. The tougher things get, the more I hear from and see him. His presence is unmistakable and inspires confidence each time he reassures his team that they will succeed in this mission and beat COVID-19. Hillier has unmistakable leadership presence.
Oftentimes, leadership presence isn’t about giving orders, taking command, providing direction or even making decisions. Rather, leadership presence is often about choosing to stand alongside and in front of our teams in the face of conflict, adversity, challenge and even danger at times, rather than choosing to leave those functions to others to manage in our absence.Effective leadership presence is unmistakable when it exists – and undeniably absent when it is missing.
Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. He is currently the incident commander for Toronto’s COVID-19 response. Contact Matthew at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.