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Leading from the Floor


June 4, 2013
By Timothy Pley

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We have all experienced the frustration of identifying a need for change or improvement, but not having the rank or authority to make that change.

We have all experienced the frustration of identifying a need for change or improvement, but not having the rank or authority to make that change. While it is true that change is most easily managed from a position of authority, that doesn’t mean that change can’t be effected from anywhere else in the chain of command.

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Younger fire department members may have great ideas for change and improvement but will likely need help getting their ideas heard. Modelling a desired behaviour is a good first step.


 

Let’s consider a common scenario: Quinn has been a firefighter for four years. He is not an officer, and although he is not the newest member of the department, he is still near the lower end of the seniority list. Quinn has an idea he thinks the department should implement in order to improve performance.

In the past, Quinn has seen others bring up ideas for change, only to be shut down by officers and senior firefighters. Sometimes, those who advocated change were attacked personally.

Why do suggestions for change elicit such negative reactions from senior members? There are several reasons, not the least of which is that senior members feel ownership of current practices. They may have helped to develop those practices. Even if they haven’t, the fact that senior members have done things a certain way for a long time makes them defend those practices.

When a relatively new member comes along with a suggestion for change, even if that suggestion appears to have merit, senior members may oppose it because they perceive that a change will mean that the old ways were wrong. Nobody wants to acknowledge that they may have been doing things wrongly; it is easier to resist the change and attempt to uphold current practices. This basic human nature is part of the reason the fire service has traditionally resisted change.

So, should Quinn try to forget his good idea, and continue to follow current practices? That will not help the department improve, and it may result in Quinn becoming one more disillusioned firefighter.

There are some things that Quinn can do to help ensure his idea is well received.

Model the desired behaviour
One of the best ways to effect change, regardless of your position, is to model the desired behaviour. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

If Quinn’s idea for improvement involves improving turn-out times, for example, Quinn could model personal behaviour that supports that change. He could make changes to his own personal actions to ensure that he is ready to respond quickly. You can be certain that if you model positive, professional behaviour, others will notice and, over time, will change their own behaviour to match yours.

In my department several years ago, one of our firefighters, John, noticed that when we responded to alarm calls there was no standard practice regarding which tools firefighters brought into the building. John did some research and, based on that research, he started to bring irons with him on every alarm call, unless he was directed otherwise by his company officer. He didn’t force anyone to acknowledge that current practices were lacking. Nobody had reason to be offended by John’s quiet leadership.

Soon, John’s officer came to rely on John having the irons with him. Other firefighters noticed, too. When they asked John about this, he shared his research with them.

Eventually, it became standard practice for one firefighter to bring irons on alarm calls. John made this change in our department without confrontation and without any real authority. He modelled the desired behaviour and waited patiently for it to catch on. 
 
Seek out a sponsor
Some changes do require the direction of a person in a position of authority, an officer, for example. If Quinn’s idea involves an operational change as opposed to a change in individual behaviour, then he can’t implement that idea on his own. In this case, he needs a sponsor.

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Certain changes that firefighters wish to make can’t be brought about solely by modelling a desired behaviour. For operational changes, firefighters may need to elicit the help of a sponsor – a higher-ranking member of the fire service.


 

A sponsor, such as a chief or company officer, is somebody who has the necessary organizational authority to bring forward an operational change. Quinn should start with his own company officer. He should ask for an opportunity to meet to discuss his idea. When presenting the idea, Quinn should be open to input that modifies the idea, and should ask the officer if he or she will bring the idea forward through the necessary channels.

Sometimes, when working with one or more sponsors, the origin of a good idea can be lost. Quinn should be prepared to share credit with his sponsors. If Quinn’s original goal was to see a good change implemented, he shouldn’t be too concerned about credit. Over time, people like Quinn are recognized as leaders.

Give your idea away
We have all seen individuals attempt to implement change, only to see the change fail because others didn’t really buy into it. The lesson here is that, when we set out to inspire others to support change, we need to allow those people to assume some ownership of new ideas in order to ensure their success.

There are two difficulties that arise when giving away good ideas. As hinted at above, the first is that, as others take ownership of your idea, your ownership diminishes. Some people refuse to share ownership of their ideas, and, consequently, those people do not make change in their organizations. Instead, they unhappily collect a list of good ideas that the fire department would not support.

The second challenge to giving away ideas is that, as others assume ownership, they make modifications to the idea, often making the idea better and/or more likely to succeed. It can be difficult to see your good idea changed, but it is a necessary part of seeing any idea implemented. In fact, experienced change agents know that early signs of success include broad ownership and tweaking of the original idea.     

Be patient
There are a number of possible reasons a good idea is not immediately successful. Most often, it has more to do with current conditions within the fire department than an indication of the quality of the idea. 

Throughout the early years of my career, I was known for asking questions. I would ask why we did things a certain way. Often my questions were met with hostility. I learned to choose when, where and with whom to ask those questions. Looking back, I can recall many changes that we made in my fire department that began because I questioned current practices.

Since the beginning of my career, I have maintained a written list of ideas for positive change for which we just weren’t yet ready. Many years ago, I entitled that list Things to Change, meaning things that I would do if I ever became fire chief. From time to time, I add to or delete from that list. The reason I mention my list is to illustrate that fire departments are not ready for some ideas, as good as those ideas might be. In those cases, writing down the ideas saves them for future use and helps us to move forward in a positive way, knowing that our good ideas are safe for future consideration.

Be a good follower
Every fire department has several members who are either sitting on good ideas or struggling to gain support to implement them. One of the best leadership techniques that any of us can employ is to identify a member trying to implement a good idea and support that initiative. Often we get too caught up in wanting to lead when what our departments really need is people who will follow and support others who are doing good work.


TimothyPley 
  

Timothy Pley is the fire chief for the City of Port Alberni, in British Columbia, and the first vice-president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia. E-mail Tim at timothy_pley@portalberni.ca and follow him on Twitter at @PleyTim


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