Cornerstone: November 2015

Strategic leadership for modern chief officers
Lyle Quan
November 11, 2015
Written by
While instructing a fire officer program at the Ontario Fire College, I noticed a shift occurring in the field of leadership.

This shift is a change in mentality from leading to survive (in some cases) to a true interest in being more proactive and looking to the future. I find this not only reassuring – confirming that our industry is in good hands – but also exciting. The focus is changing to look at the big picture – how departments can work together and with other organizations to make all services offered to their communities better than ever.

Two books I’m recommending provide innovative concepts of leadership, whether you are the head of a large multi-billion dollar corporation, or a fire officer with a career or volunteer department. One thing is for sure – it’s what you do in a leadership position that matters. These books will give you some solid concepts and processes to embrace and apply.

The first book, The Strategist by Cynthia A. Montgomery, will make you think about how leadership and strategic thinking are inseparable. The author writes, “What’s been forgotten is that strategy is not a destination or a solution. It’s not a problem to be solved and settled. It’s a journey. It needs continuous, not intermittent, leadership. It needs a strategist.” This quote sums up what we all talk about: learning as a lifelong journey. Shouldn’t leadership be the same – a lifelong journey?

The book takes readers through some exercises to find out if they are strategists and to find out their types of leadership. The key is to begin with a purpose. Understand what your goals are and what the organization needs; make that your purpose. Then turn your purpose into reality. All the planning and talking in the world won’t get you there if you don’t have a solid strategy. Over the years, I have seen and heard of many programs that failed because the leaders were either unable to keep the goals of the organizations vibrant and in the forefront for all to embrace, or failed to have personal investments in the initiatives.

Montgomery’s book ends with a chapter on the “essential strategist”. This chapter lists the key qualities that a strategist should have, such as being a fire starter. As a leader you need to ignite the fire of excitement in your team. Learn how to stay agile so you can adjust if or when it is required. And most of all get your team on board.

As a final note in the book, the author explains that the choice is all yours. Will you be a strategist and lead with a focus on the future? What type of leader will you be? The Strategist is a great book that I found easy yet exciting to read. I highly recommend this book.

The second book What Matters Now by Gary Hamel complements what Montgomery writes in The Strategist. Both books grabbed my attention right from the first chapter. Hamel writes, “If you are a leader at any level in any organization, you are a steward of careers, capabilities, resources, the environment, and organizational values.” Chief officers are all of these and maybe even more. The key message here is that you own and wear the organization, whether you want to or not.

Hamel takes the reader through several chapters relating to innovation. He suggests leaders learn how to adapt and be adaptable. Have a passion for what you do, he writes, and demonstrate that passion to your staff. And finally, demonstrate your ideology by supporting the organization’s goals and your team/staffs goals. Allow staff to take the lead when they can. Turn the organization structure upside down like an inverted pyramid so the leader supports the team.

A question the author asks his readers caught my attention and should catch yours also: “What are the fundamental, make or break issues that will determine whether your organization thrives or dives in the years ahead?” Does this relate to the fire service? You bet it does. The fire service is under great pressure these days to be as cost effective as possible, and in some communities that means reducing staff levels. If you as a chief officer and leader are unable to look into the future by working with what you know today and what you think may be coming down the pipe tomorrow, then you will be one of those organizations that dives instead thrives in the challenging years ahead.

The Strategist by Cynthia A. Montgomery, published in 2012 by Harper Collins, and What Matters Now by Gary Hamel published in 2012 by Jossey-Bass, can both be purchased through firehallbookstore.com


Lyle Quan is the retired fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He has a business degree in emergency services and a degree in adult education. Lyle also works with fire services throughout North America to assess and develop service improvements and master planning. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow Lyle on Twitter at @LyleQuan


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