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Leadership Forum: March 2019


February 15, 2019
By Chris Harrow

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Every day we see people walking around with a device in their hands. Whether it is a phone or tablet, people are more connected than ever.

Many fire-service leaders have adapted quite well at communicating online. However, many have fallen into the traps of having an online presence. Leadership traits can not be forgotten when leading through your online persona.

Used properly, your online presence can be a very valuable leadership tool. Used improperly, it can sink your career in a hurry.

Many fire-service leaders have extensive online presences. They are constantly communicating with the public and their firefighters, offering leadership advice and firefighting knowledge.

I have learned many things following different feeds online. However, I have also seen a lot of missteps and traps leaders have fallen into. These traps can quickly undo years of work building up your image. Below are some of the common traps leaders fall into communicating online.

Embellishing: Many leaders portray things they or their department have accomplished or methods they utilize, even though they don’t. Stretching the truth or stating items that are not true will be discovered in a hurry. With so many familiar people following your social media feeds, there is no hiding the truth. Too many leaders stray from the truth, causing many of their firefighters to immediately lose respect for them. Firefighters know what happens and what doesn’t. They will respect you for bragging about their programs and their accomplishments. They will also be very disappointed in telling the world about items they know are not true about their department. Leaders need to be careful to not create an ideal department that is perfect in every way, when in reality their department is far from perfect.

Grammar Errors: More than other people, leaders are held to a higher standard online and in their normal writing. A huge mistake seen online are posts containing spelling or grammar mistakes. Leaders need to ensure they are constantly editing and proofreading all of their posts. When reaching out to your readers on a higher level, you need to have it correct. Your points and thoughts can be drastically diminished if your post contains errors. Every leader should re-read and check their spelling and grammar before allowing the post to go forward. A leader is always seen as a professional even when they are posting late on a Saturday night. A good rule of thumb, if you are on your fourth glass of wine, don’t go online.

Opinionated: As mentioned previously, you are always a professional in the fire station and online. If you would not go around the office stating your opinions on politics or current events, then don’t do it online either. Your online persona is an extension of your professional career. It doesn’t matter if you view your Twitter feed or blog as personal. Your persona is all one. Imagine my partner in this column, Toronto Fire Services Chief Matthew Pegg expressing personal, controversial opinions on his Twitter feed. The citizens of Toronto take what he says at all times as his professional opinion. There is no differentiating between personal and professional.

Too much: Whether you blog, tweet or Snapchat, too much posting will deter people from wanting to read your material. A specific post getting your point across is more effective than repeating point after point. Readers do not want to spend time scrolling through post after post by the same person. Most social media sites were designed for quick, to-the-point information for readers.

Many leaders get wrapped up in conversations or challenging respondents online, frustrating other readers. Readers don’t want to spend time scrolling through comments and opinions. A good leader states his or her point and leaves the reader thinking about his or her views on the topic.

Being a leader online is a newer concept to the fire service. There are a lot of great leaders whom firefighters respect and look forward to seeing their next post. Unfortunately, there are a few online personas who fall into one of the traps I’ve mentioned here and do more damage to themselves and their departments.

You must take your reputation online as serious as you do in person. The biggest difference is that a mistake online will be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, and is almost impossible to correct. Remember, you are a leader 100 per cent of the time.


Chris Harrow is the fire chief in Minto, Ont. He is a graduate from fire programs at Lakeland College and Dalhousie University and holds a graduate certificate in Advanced Care Paramedics from Conestoga College. He can be reached at c.harrow@mintofiredept.on.ca.


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