Leadership Forum: August 2018

Email: Burden or opportunity?
July 16, 2018
Written by Chris Harrow
We have all felt the overwhelming crush of email abundance that comes each and every day. We have all felt the sense of defeat when trying to organize and answer all of the correspondence coming through your inbox. Emails have become a daily grind for many leaders, but at present time, a necessity of the workday.

Have you ever stopped to think the importance of the email coming through the inbox and how vital a leadership and communication tool it actually is? Do you consider about how destructive or how rewarding a reply to an email can be? The importance of how you respond to an email or other electronic platform, especially to the personnel you lead, is drastically underappreciated in today’s workplace. A good leader will take the time to respond to an email; a great leader will put the proper thought and effort into the response.

I know emails are overwhelming, especially after returning from a much-deserved vacation and facing an inbox with hundreds of emails. However, similar to the lost art of writing a letter, someone has taken the time to send you an email, and most of the time, deserve a proper response. Emails, text messages or snaps (if I can ever figure the Snapchat app out!) are the new norm on how firefighters correspond with leadership in the department. Now, hardly anyone has a face-to-face conversation unless it’s absolutely necessary. If this is the primary method of communication with your staff, do you put the proper amount of effort into it?

One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing emails sent by staff that have had a great deal of effort put into them only to receive a highly impersonal response back. It is like having someone take the time to come and speak with you and then you shut the door in their face. A good leader is able to realize when to send back a well thought out response appropriate for the original message.  One word or even worse one letter replies will often not cut it.

A firefighter sends you an email addressing a concern they have with a particular aspect of the department. If they get a reply of “K thanks”, what are the firefighter’s immediate thoughts of the leader? I can tell you they probably don’t have much faith the issue will be looked into, let alone dealt with.  

So many messages can be interpreted from an email or a response to an email. Ten different people can read an email and come up with 10 different interpretations of what the sender was intending to say. A good leader will always keep this in mind when sending a message.  How will your reply be interpreted by the recipient?  What is the tone of your email? All of this needs to be considered when sending an email.

Sometimes what works for me is to put myself in the sender’s shoes. What are they asking for in the email? Is it someone venting over an ongoing issue or is it a genuine request/idea they have for the department? Many times, the individuals who are chronically voicing their displeasure to you can be dealt with in a simple well worded reply. If anything, you are acknowledging their concern and thanking them for bringing it forward.

When composing an email, take some time to consider your wording to the individual you are sending it to. Do you close off the email properly by saying a simple thank you for taking the time to read the message? Or, acknowledging their original email and appreciating all of their work on the particular issue? Including words of encouragement and gratitude can go a long way in an email to working with the staff. Consistently sending vague and non-personal emails to staff can have the exact opposite effect. It can encourage the recipient to not read the message thoroughly and put little time into the requests involved in the message.

In the electronic era we are working in, messaging is here to stay and arguably will only get worse. Putting the same effort into your electronic messages as you would a face-to-face conversation is important for the leaders of any organization. There are many leaders who would never ignore someone in a face-to-face conversation or not give the individual the proper time listening time. Emails should be no different; the receiver should give the proper time and consideration to the message and/or reply.

We talk about the ability of people to hide behind their computer and send messages or say stuff they would usually not say. A good leader will see this as an opportunity to communicate with their staff and be able to engage them in meaningful conversation. Good communication and great leadership encompasses all forms of messages.


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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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