As anyone who has ever donned a set of turnout gear and saddled-up on a rig can attest, the sense of accomplishment that responding to an alarm—however routine or severe—can bring is unmatched in its profoundness. The simple knowledge that you’ve done the job the right way, that you’ve been able to help someone during their darkest hour, is one of the most potent tonics an individual can be exposed to.
However, for all of the inherent joys and triumphs that a career in the fire service can occasion, the very nature of the industry spawns its own, perhaps crippling, tribulations. Yet the tribulations that will be addressed in this article are not those generated by the sacrifice of blood, sweat, and tears, the currency emergency response so often deals in. We’re not talking about the damage that unavoidably flows from repeated confrontations with external traumas and hazards.
No, we’re talking about the injuries that stem from the machinery of a department’s administration. We’re talking about a collection of inefficiencies, an assembly of willfully self-inflicted wounds that fundamentally impair a given department’s operational capabilities. We’re talking about the organizational strains caused by ineffective leadership.
For most of those who choose to venture down the path of becoming a firefighter—a back-breaking journey that culminates with the issuance of the coveted badge and helmet—noble motivations abound. These selfless souls are overwhelmingly guided by the dictates of an innate sense of honor. They’re commonly propelled at mach speed by an overpowering, and almost duty-bound, yearning to safeguard the public’s wellbeing.
Yet each and every day, behavioral malignancies are allowed to take root in fire departments across the world. Unnecessary impairments that slowly, but surely, poison passion, the very lifeblood of the competent firefighter. If allowed to fester, these virulent leadership inadequacies can plunge even the most celebrated cohort of proverbial all-stars into the cavern of mediocrity.
Any firefighter with even a modicum of tenure has likely seen a number of these failings of leadership manifest in their departments. And they’ve probably not only witnessed, but been burdened by mismanagement’s shackles. They’ve likely seen the flame of passion flicker in the wind. They’ve undoubtedly stood aghast as response times declined, witnessed technical proficiency stumble backward, and felt camaraderie give way to adversarial and counterproductive rivalry.
Now not all motivation-hobbling leadership follies are inflicted intentionally. Some are unwittingly tracked-in and allowed to grow. For instance, a department’s slow creep into organizational complacency. A gradual retreat away from the pursuit of individual and collective betterment, the tolerant embrace of shrinking in the face of rigorous challenge.
Yet the most egregious impairments are often planted and cultivated with forethought. They tend to be fundamentally guided by self-serving ambition, rather than an honest desire to see the collective prosper. And they typically result in decisions that favor the ease afforded by short-term expediency, paying little attention to the exorbitant long-term costs. Within this cluster of pernicious leadership follies are the overt inefficiencies that many of us have likely encountered.
Perhaps chief among them is the open-armed embrace of favoritism. A failing that becomes particularly noticeable in the promotional arena, especially within smaller departments that lack rigorous or near ironclad advancement standards. We’ve all undoubtedly crossed paths with leaders, perhaps officers, that not only impart the distinct impression of unfitness, but remain firmly-affixed to a dubious history laden with close calls. Nevertheless, these folks rise at a meteoric rate, despite the glaring absence of demonstrable ability or discernable preparation. Their only observable qualification for promotion being their suspiciously-close personal proximity to the officials poised to pin brass on their collars.
From the wellspring of favoritism flows the folly that arises from an affinity for the existence of “grey areas”. You’ve likely encountered departmental leaders who harbor—to varying degrees—disdain for the inherently black-and-white language contained within administrative standard operating procedures (SOPs), usually preferring the flexibility offered by standard operating guidelines (SOGs). Unfortunately, those grey areas are often exploited, facilitating the disproportionate application of both rewards and discipline. The grey areas serving as the velvet glove covering a subjectively-wielded iron fist.
In other instances, you may see leaders who radiate inconsistency, both in words and in deeds. You may see them routinely unfurl inconsistent expectations. For some, near perfection may be demanded, yet for others, repeated and pronounced failure is tolerated. These leaders may time-and-again promise one thing, yet deliver another. At other times, they may long tout forthcoming changes that will further the organization’s mission, yet fail to deliver at all, thereby allowing enthusiasm to simply fade away. They may even solicit the input of the membership regarding consequential organizational changes, yet embark upon a course of action that makes it abundantly clear that the opinions of the collective were never intended to receive any credence.
Yet another efficiency-depleting folly is the failure to resist the allure of popularity. This grievous failure of leadership doesn’t merely invite disaster by opening the perilous shaft by which unqualified and substandard “yes men” so often rise. But it exposes an organization that is intrinsically reliant on resiliency and stability to the pathogens of timidity and malleability.
However, the gravitational pull of popularity isn’t limited to an intra-organizational quest for likeability, a seemingly innocent desire to be a friend to all, or even frailty in the face of innovation. It can also be brought about by the unbridled ambition of achieving and maintaining power, which commonly comes at the price of organizational health. This particular failure of leadership may be exercised through internal political maneuvering. A form of maneuvering that may take the shape of a leader sowing division between individuals—or cultivating the rise of factions—all in an effort to ensure increased dependence on oneself.
The pursuit of power may also be aimed outward, toward the elected and unelected officials who provide oversight. It may be seen as a departmental leader consistently working to curry the favor of external arbiters. And while this sort of lobbying, the countless hours spent hobnobbing with governmental leadership figures, may be marketed as beneficial to the organization, the outcome is seldom what was advertised. Often, the responsibility to unflinchingly represent one’s department is supplanted by the drive to safeguard one’s own personal standing. And in the blink of an eye—when advocacy subordinates to schmoozing and diplomacy falls to silence—one of the fire service’s most valuable resources, genuine leadership, devolves into something that’s truly productivity-crushing, management.
Now some might be inclined to view the strains of ineffective leadership as a mere annoyance, or as a reality of human nature that is all but inescapable. Unfortunately, ineffective leadership can, and does, adversely affect fire departments. It robs firefighters of passion, amplifies individual stress, and tosses organizational morale into a tailspin. From there, technical proficiency rots, and with it, the level of service provided.
There are undoubtedly those that might be suspicious of such seemingly despondent claims. However, let’s remember that scholars have long been aware of the connection between worker happiness and increased levels of productivity. For example, recent research produced by the Social Market Foundation and the University of Warwick’s Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy found that happy employees were up to 20 percent more productive than their unhappy colleagues. Now bear in mind that firefighting is an activity beholden to productivity. It’s a profession that can unfairly see on-scene outcomes—life or death, preservation or loss—judged by the amount of sweat expended.
At first, those in a position to effect change might have difficulty determining whether or not ineffective leadership is poisoning the organization that is ultimately trusted to their care. But thankfully, there are actually a number of statistically observable conditions which can do well to indicate the presence of corrosive leadership. The first set would be high or increasing: response times, staff turnover rates, and accident or injury rates. The second set would be low or decreasing: call attendance rates and collective completed training hours.
Now, unsavory as it might be, the harsh reality is that ferreting-out ineffective leadership in afflicted organizations is likely only possible for external actors. The bitter truth is that the insiders who stand in opposition to the aforementioned follies, those dedicated to the virtues represented by the industry’s symbol, the Maltese Cross, are often drummed-out or sidelined. Their loyalty to the principles long enshrined within the fire service is instead labeled as a toxic form of defiance. As such, an internal organic change capable of righting the ship may be impossible. There’s a distinct likelihood that the smoothest applicable solution is to forcibly usher-in a changing of the guard by relieving the upper echelons of leadership.
However, another avenue of corrective—and preventative—action exists for organizations suffering from severe impairment. That avenue being the addition of a new level of paramount leadership, a new organizational chief executive officer, a fire commissioner. Used by numerous agencies, the results-driven fire commissioner post is capable of providing a much-needed level of civilian in-house oversight. If the fire commissioner post is paired with a forward-thinking former firefighter—someone intimately familiar with the fire service, but whose only allegiance rests with the completion of the organization’s mission—the results could be spectacular.
With a single hire, stability and efficiency can be restored. Detrimental biases can be voided. Morale can be rebuilt. Contentiousness can be replaced by cooperation. Simultaneously, hallowed traditions can be honored and innovation can be embraced. Tunnel vision can be overthrown by cognitive diversity. Staff can be meaningfully shielded from the dangerous influences posed by both internal and external actors, and firefighters can fixate solely on performing their sacred duty. With one substantive change, an organization tasked with safeguarding the public can escape the perilous dominion of near-kleptocracy, and reenter the life-saving realm of meritocracy.
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