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Leadership Forum: Leadership beyond emergencies


December 6, 2007
By E. David Hodgins

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During the past several years truckloads of papers have been written about leadership competencies and expectations associated with the command function required for emergency events. Retired Phoenix fire chief Al Brunacini was one of the first to write and lecture extensively on the need for a formal and structured process to guide decision-making on the fire ground.

During the past several years truckloads of papers have been written
about leadership competencies and expectations associated with the
command function required for emergency events. Retired Phoenix fire
chief Al Brunacini was one of the first to write and lecture
extensively on the need for a formal and structured process to guide
decision-making on the fire ground. The concepts that Chief Bruno
introduced are extensively used today and are directly responsible for
improved fire fighter life safety and injury reduction record. However,
what about the leadership competencies required for the remaining 90
per cent of the time while waiting and preparing for the next
emergency?

I have listened to senior fire service officials
passionately argue that leadership behaviours should not be determined
by emergency vs. non-emergency situations. Others are equally zealous
that a command and control approach is a must during an emergency while
a more collaborative and engaging style should be used for day-to-day
leadership activities. These discussions reminded me of what
Shakespeare said, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and
some have greatness thrust upon 'em." (Twelfth Night) Unfortunately,
for many it is an issue of incident command being thrust upon them –
the "trial by fire" approach.

The traditional lock-step
seniority system used by many fire departments to promote individuals
is a challenge, particularly when it comes to management's need to
ensure adept leadership. The seniority system is not totally
responsible for this challenge. It tends to encourage individuals to
climb the career ladder; however, the climb occurs with little or no
formal leadership education and training connected to what they need to
succeed during the 90 per cent of their time that they are engaged in
non-emergency activities. Most departments are doing a great job when
it comes to training officers on incident command. And the seniority
system usually provides the hands-on experience so that it's not all
about book learning. However, in the absence of education and training
to enable individuals to deal effectively with the routine duties and
occurrences, they are being set up for failure. A time-served approach
applied to a promotional process is usually void of any real
performance evaluation component and this in itself is a serious issue.
To place a person in a position of authority based solely on how well
they perform during an emergency does not make sense.

It is
absolutely essential that a fire department focuses its formal officer/
leadership development program and promotional process on the skills
and experiences an individual needs to effectively mitigate an
emergency situation. The number 1 priority is the safety of fire
fighters, other first responders and the public. An incident commander
needs to have lived and breathed the strategy and tactics required to
get the job done. Next, the leader needs to have had the training to
develop the skills to work effectively with people in the less
glamorous aspects of the job. This may include conflict resolution,
collaborative problem solving, motivational theory and change
management.

Here's a real life example of what not to do. A
captain, and an excellent fire fighter I might add, is faced with a
challenge. The crew is not able to agree on what TV station to watch
during their downtime. This had been somewhat of on ongoing issue, yet
in the grand scheme of things, a minor annoyance. This officer did not
have access to human relations and behaviour training. The solution was
simple – he decided seniority would rule when it came to watching TV.
Did this work? No!

Leadership is way beyond managing emergency
events. Leaders need to interact with their followers, peers, seniors,
and others routinely as their support is essential to accomplish the
department's and team's objectives. To gain support, leaders must
understand human nature and related behaviours and how to appropriately
influence desired actions. It can be as simple as understanding what
motivates people. Team members behave according to certain principles
of human nature. For leaders to be effective, they need formal
education and training to understand why individuals behave as they do
and what makes them tick – drivers such as emotion, aggression, etc.

Leaders
need to focus on the fact that they are part of the team and not simply
managers or supervisors. When leaders think and act in the traditional
sense, that of being the person with the power – the incident
commander, it removes them from the team. With the knowledge one
acquires through formal education and training, the leader is able to
understand human relations and behaviours and inspire individuals to be
good team and department members.


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