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Leadership: The right tool for the right job


December 14, 2007
By Barry Bouwsema

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Leadership in the fire service is the ability to influence people towards the attainment of goals. The end result on the fireground may be “putting out the fire” but how we arrive at this destination is largely determined by the road we choose to travel.

Leadership in the fire service is the ability to influence people towards the attainment of goals. The end result on the fireground may be “putting out the fire” but how we arrive at this destination is largely determined by the road we choose to travel.

There are many theories on leadership and the characteristics of effective leaders. One common theory is the Contingency Theory of Leadership (Fiedler, 1978). This theory matches the leader’s style with the organizational situation. It suggests that effectiveness depends on a proper match between the leader’s style of interacting with subordinates and the degree the leader could control or influence the situation. What does this mean for the fire service?

The leader or company officer can be effective if three conditions exist. First there must be a good leader-member relationship. There must be a bond of mutual trust and respect between the officer and his or her crew. The crew must have a level of confidence in their leader to be effective. The bottom line – if the members don’t trust you, they are less likely to follow you.

Second, a favourable situation for leadership and goal achievement is more likely if the task is structured. Specifically, this means that job assignments are formalized, the goal is clearly stated and understood, there are set performance standards and there is a level of accountability. All these elements exist at the fire scene if the crew is well trained and the officer fills the command role. An organized fireground is more likely to produce a positive outcome.

Third, the leader has a formal position of power. In the fire service, power is inherent with the officer’s position. It should be noted that “legitimate power” is initially granted by the crew, but it is up to the officer to maintain the leadership position through “expert power” (French & Raven, 1960). In other words, it is the officer’s responsibility to have the knowledge and skill to do the job in order to be viewed as a leader.

The contingency theory also suggests that “task motivation” is different than “relationship motivation” and that both are necessary for strong leadership. Task motivation is required when a specific job (firefighting) and specific goal (fire suppression) are apparent. The relationship motivation model is preferred when the tasks are less structured, such as with fire hall duties. What works well on the fireground (task orientation) works poorly in the fire hall. A socio-emotional (relationship) oriented leadership model will enhance leader-member relations in the hall. The company officer who is a strong leader on the fireground may need to tone down the orders and authority when back in the fire station. The officer must adopt two different leadership styles: task-oriented on the fireground and relationship-oriented in the station.

The best leadership style for the fire service depends on the situation with which the officer is being faced. By understanding what makes an effective leader and the different leadership styles, the company officer can use the right tool for the right job.

Barry Bouwsema is a company officer (lieutenant/paramedic) for the Strathcona County (Alta.) Emergency Services. A 20-year veteran firefighter, he began his career with the City of Lethbridge Fire Department in April 1985. He holds a bachelor’s degree in general studies from Athabasca University, a paramedic diploma from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and a certificate in Fire Service Leadership from Dalhousie University/Henson College. He is presently enrolled in the Bachelor of Applied Business: Emergency Services degree program at Lakeland College. Bouwsema guest lectures paramedic students at NAIT and also teaches NFPA 1001 at the Emergency Services Academy Ltd. in Sherwood Park, Alta.


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