Leadership Forum: The great shirt debate
By Chris Harrow
I wanted to start off by saying how honoured I am to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on leadership in the fire service. For my first stab at a leadership column, I thought I might jump right into the blue shirt versus white shirt for fire chiefs debate.
By Chris Harrow
Fire chiefs love to talk about this and it always makes for some great discussion in departments across the country.
I am sure everyone can agree that a shirt itself does not make a leader. The same can be said about the amount of “bling” you have on your shirt. Yet the debate continues over why some chiefs wear white shirts and why some wear blue shirts. We all understand the history of the shirts and colours as well as the importance of showing rank when necessary. Departmental policy will always dictate the colour of your shirt, but in no way will it dictate the type of leader you can be while wearing the shirt.
For many fire chiefs, wearing dark shirts is an absolute necessity. As a fire chief with regular operational duties, trying to keep a white shirt clean is an impossible task. In a day’s work, I will find myself filling bottles, cleaning and bedding hose or washing vehicles. One of the realities of the job is that small town chiefs are required to perform hall duties. I also argue that this is an important aspect of leadership.
A basic part of leadership is leading by example. All fire service leaders have read many articles on the topic and probably have recited it many times to our firefighters. But how many of us actually practice this on a daily basis? How many chiefs have helped firefighters clean and bed hose after a structure fire? Does it really matter if you are a full time, composite or volunteer department? I know from many experiences that white shirts do not stay white while bedding hose with very keen young firefighters.
“As a manager, or leader at any level, you can choose not to lead by example . . . and not play by the same rules you expect others to. But why would you want to? That is, if you want to have the best chances of succeeding,” Forbes management writer Victor Lipman wrote in a 2016 column. A great way to lead by example is to be the first to grab the wash brush or the length of hose. One of my favourite sights to see is the look on new firefighter’s faces when they see me jump in to help.
I recently had a conversation with a captain in our department. We were talking about leadership styles and how to gain respect from the firefighters. We discussed two ways to ask a firefighter to wash a vehicle. The first way was “Hey, can you get that pumper washed? it’s filthy.” The second approach was “Do you mind giving me a hand to wash this pumper?” I told our captain I prefer the second way when I lead (hence the blue shirt) and I asked the question, which way would you prefer to be given the task? He immediately saw the difference and I have watched him grow as a leader since that conversation.
For career departments, I understand the roles are different and contractual obligations kick in. I argue however, there are many ways to get in the trenches without breaking any rules. Maybe chiefs could cook dinners at stations or assisting with clean up at a smaller fire? There are many tasks that can come to mind if you really want them to. Perhaps start a discussion with other chief officers about maintaining trench work ethic? Sharing ideas can give you many options.
I choose my daily wardrobe according to the duties I know I will have to perform that day. If I am making a presentation to council or am engaged in senior management meetings, I understand the necessity to wear a white shirt and show rank. If I know I need to do air management or hose testing, I might decide that it’s a blue shirt kind of day. However, I always ensure I have a back up white and blue shirt hanging somewhere in my office (and an extra tie in the glove box).
Fire chiefs may be required to perform a number of tasks in a day. You could go from a budget meeting or senior management meeting right out to the floor to perform hose testing with a group of firefighters. The role of the fire chief sometimes requires a few costume changes, similar to a multiple act stage performance.
Firefighters do not care what you are wearing. They don’t decide whether or not they will follow a particular leader based on the colour of their shirt. They follow leaders they respect and trust.
Whether you wear a white shirt or a blue shirt, it’s the leader inside that counts. Being able to step back to reality once in a while is a very valuable thing. I have no issue showing my rank when the time calls for it. But knowing the right time is the hardest part . . . that, and getting the stains out of my white shirts.
Chris Harrow is the fire chief in Minto, Ont. He is a graduate from fire programs at Lakeland College and Dalhousie University and he holds a graduate certificate in Advanced Care Paramedics from Conestoga College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.