Leadership Forum: Leadership beyond emergencies

Leadership beyond emergencies
December 06, 2007
Written by E. David Hodgins
During the past several years truckloads of papers have been written about leadership competencies and expectations associated with the command function required for emergency events. Retired Phoenix fire chief Al Brunacini was one of the first to write and lecture extensively on the need for a formal and structured process to guide decision-making on the fire ground. The concepts that Chief Bruno introduced are extensively used today and are directly responsible for improved fire fighter life safety and injury reduction record. However, what about the leadership competencies required for the remaining 90 per cent of the time while waiting and preparing for the next emergency?

I have listened to senior fire service officials passionately argue that leadership behaviours should not be determined by emergency vs. non-emergency situations. Others are equally zealous that a command and control approach is a must during an emergency while a more collaborative and engaging style should be used for day-to-day leadership activities. These discussions reminded me of what Shakespeare said, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." (Twelfth Night) Unfortunately, for many it is an issue of incident command being thrust upon them - the "trial by fire" approach.

The traditional lock-step seniority system used by many fire departments to promote individuals is a challenge, particularly when it comes to management's need to ensure adept leadership. The seniority system is not totally responsible for this challenge. It tends to encourage individuals to climb the career ladder; however, the climb occurs with little or no formal leadership education and training connected to what they need to succeed during the 90 per cent of their time that they are engaged in non-emergency activities. Most departments are doing a great job when it comes to training officers on incident command. And the seniority system usually provides the hands-on experience so that it's not all about book learning. However, in the absence of education and training to enable individuals to deal effectively with the routine duties and occurrences, they are being set up for failure. A time-served approach applied to a promotional process is usually void of any real performance evaluation component and this in itself is a serious issue. To place a person in a position of authority based solely on how well they perform during an emergency does not make sense.

It is absolutely essential that a fire department focuses its formal officer/ leadership development program and promotional process on the skills and experiences an individual needs to effectively mitigate an emergency situation. The number 1 priority is the safety of fire fighters, other first responders and the public. An incident commander needs to have lived and breathed the strategy and tactics required to get the job done. Next, the leader needs to have had the training to develop the skills to work effectively with people in the less glamorous aspects of the job. This may include conflict resolution, collaborative problem solving, motivational theory and change management.

Here's a real life example of what not to do. A captain, and an excellent fire fighter I might add, is faced with a challenge. The crew is not able to agree on what TV station to watch during their downtime. This had been somewhat of on ongoing issue, yet in the grand scheme of things, a minor annoyance. This officer did not have access to human relations and behaviour training. The solution was simple - he decided seniority would rule when it came to watching TV. Did this work? No!

Leadership is way beyond managing emergency events. Leaders need to interact with their followers, peers, seniors, and others routinely as their support is essential to accomplish the department's and team's objectives. To gain support, leaders must understand human nature and related behaviours and how to appropriately influence desired actions. It can be as simple as understanding what motivates people. Team members behave according to certain principles of human nature. For leaders to be effective, they need formal education and training to understand why individuals behave as they do and what makes them tick - drivers such as emotion, aggression, etc.

Leaders need to focus on the fact that they are part of the team and not simply managers or supervisors. When leaders think and act in the traditional sense, that of being the person with the power - the incident commander, it removes them from the team. With the knowledge one acquires through formal education and training, the leader is able to understand human relations and behaviours and inspire individuals to be good team and department members.

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