People in positions of authority in a fire department, from lieutenant to chief, are often faced with similar challenges but execute different duties and responsibilities. In the fire service, we talk about organization culture to the point of nausea but seem to ignore the precursor to culture, which is organization climate. There are independent variables that impact decision making, which are comprised of the organization’s current climate that must be navigated through with intricate detail and precision. As a fire chief who has had to make critical decisions that impact the climate and culture of a 153-year-old institution, this is not an easy task. For the purposes of the discussion, the fire department’s climate is simply defined as how the members of the department view themselves and the collective organization.
The independent variables that can influence the climate include, but are not limited to, recent significant events that have instigated an emotional response, labor and management relationships, collective bargaining status, and positive events that have occurred that impact the department as well as negative events that may have garnered media coverage.
I define organization culture as “values and beliefs.” Often, we see conflict in an organization when the values and beliefs of the individual conflict with those of the organization. When there is an established culture of accountability, these individuals are counseled or privy to progressive discipline. The million-dollar question is, “How do we manage this conflict?” The answer is simpler than the remedy: Establish an organization of transformational leadership.
Transformational leadership is defined as a style of leadership in which the leader identifies the needed change, creates a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executes the change with the commitment of the members of the group. Industrial psychologist Bernard Bass introduced this leadership “style” in 1985, stating in his academic research that it could propel an organization or team forward through a committed relationship that focused on the mission.
Everything that we do in the fire service should be reflective of our organizational statements. Our mission, vision, and value statements should serve as our foundation for any and everything that we do. If ever there is an initiative that conflicts with the aforementioned, we should forego it and regroup.
To establish organization transformational leadership, first the chief of the department should support and call for free thinking by all members of the organization. Second, it should be consistently communicated that all persons in positions of authority should exercise leadership within their respective scope of responsibilities and challenge the status quo for the sake of the department being progressive, which in turn allows the department to remain relevant to its external stakeholders and elected officials. Bass identified four pillars that are instrumental to the successful implementation of transformational leadership. The four pillars include the following:
Idealized influence: Transformational leaders lead by example. Demonstrating charisma, integrity, intestinal fortitude, and the willingness to take calculated administrative risks invokes followership. Using your legitimate position of authority to influence positive behaviors and desired outcomes encourages mission-oriented decision making.
Inspirational motivation: Communication should be done early and often. The leader’s ability to extract confidence and motivate the team around a common goal is instrumental to the team’s success. Enthusiastic conversations that are optimistic and not pessimistic are key and should be a focal point.
Intellectual stimulation: Find out what your team is good at and exploit it. This will garner short-term wins and build confidence. Allow ideas to be presented by individuals from the team without criticism and second guessing. In this realm, there is an opportunity to coach and mentor and show members how to engage in the critical decision-making process. The big picture cannot be emphasized enough in this pillar.
Individualized consideration: People are motivated by different means, and the leader must find out what is important or motivates each individual. Some are motivated by compensation, promotion, or recognition. Determine what motivates your team and assist them with realizing their tenets by one-on-one conversations and individual development plans.
Culture of Inclusiveness
By taking these imperatives into consideration, the constructs of transformational leadership can be embedded into the organization and a culture of inclusiveness can be established. In today’s fire service, it takes everyone within the organization feeling empowered so that the organizational statements can be reflected in the work that our sworn members execute on a daily basis.
When there is conflict with the values and beliefs of the organization, the individual must adapt and make changes. It should not be expected that the organization change for the individual unless the climate and culture are unhealthy.
Reginald D. Freeman, MS, CFO, FIFireE, is the fire chief/emergency management director for the Hartford (CT) Fire Department. He served as fire chief for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, Texas. Freeman also served as the assistant chief/deputy director of emergency management for Hartford as well as fire chief for Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Georgia (U.S. Air Force Plant 6), where he was named Professional of the Year in 2009. He served in Iraq as a civilian fire chief for the United States Department of Defense and coalition allies from 2004 to 2008, providing all hazards fire and emergency services to forward and continuing operating bases throughout Iraq. Freeman is the chair of the Industrial Fire and Life Safety Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and a previous board member of the Executive Fire Officer Section of the IAFC and Technical Committee member of NFPA 1021 (Fire Officer Professional Qualifications). He is the chair for the Commission on Professional Credentialing via the Center for Public Safety Excellence, Inc. and is also the director of training for the Caribbean Association of Fire Chiefs. Freeman is an accredited Chief Fire Officer through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, Inc. as well as a credentialed “Fellow” with the Institution of Fire Engineers, USA Branch. Freeman has a bachelor’s degree in leadership from Bellevue University and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University and is currently a doctoral student in dissertation phase studying organizational leadership with an emphasis in organizational development. He is a graduate and Fellow of Harvard University’s Senior Executives for State and Local Government program at the Kennedy School of Government. Freeman is an adjunct professor for Anna Maria College, University of Florida, and Franklin University where he lectures in both undergraduate and graduate fire science and master of public administration programs.