(Photo by Robert Howarth.)
The culture in the fire service is changing. The view of “be seen and not heard” is no longer considered the best practice among leaders and, while there is a place for autocratic leadership or making decisions without input, it doesn’t apply to every aspect of the job such as during training or in the station.
Constantly using a top-down approach doesn’t allow others to work through the decision-making process. Fast forward several years, and today’s rookies are now station-level supervisors. They will likely struggle with decision-making skills because they lack practice. The problem is not in the newly promoted but in the leadership style taught through experiential learning from day one.
Company officers eventually become chiefs who will carry these same poor lessons into newer generations. Most fire departments are paramilitary, so a breakdown in communication from the chain of command can be damaging to the mission as well as overall morale. Just like performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) has evolved, leadership is evolving by nourishing the “team approach.” When we changed our approach to cardiac arrest management from each person independently performing tasks to a team approach based on communication, our survival rates soared!
So how do we revive our leadership? Well, just as in changing the approach to CPR, we must educate our supervisors in the best practices and gain buy in. Through experience and education, I found a way to gain trust from my crew and effectively work to achieve both departmental and personal goals. I use a leadership C.P.R. approach: courtesy, professionalism, and responsibility.
Courtesy is a great place to start when developing your team. As a true leader, you wouldn’t ask your crew to do anything that you wouldn’t, so why would this be any different? By allowing input and treating them as a part of the team and with respect, they will feel empowered and exceed expectations.
Many firefighters have experience outside of the fire service. Firefighters with backgrounds such as electrician, welder, builder, and other skills are the norm. I had a call for smoke in a concession room. While investigating, we had an “electrical” smell. There was something wrong with either the soda machine or the wall outlet, but it was difficult to diagnose. At this point, I needed an electrician, not a firefighter. If I kept my rookies from speaking and failed to capitalize on their backgrounds or talents, I would not have been able to easily diagnose the problem. In this case, it was the machine, allowing us to isolate the problem while keeping the electricity turned on to the room.
With a job so dynamic, we should use the team’s entire knowledge to the fullest extent. If we foster a “don’t speak” environment, your firefighters may be able to easily fix a problem but choose to not because of fear of repercussions. A true leader knows the assets of the team and uses their talents to achieve goals. Show your crew courtesy, and they will support your visions and return respect.
Professionalism is imperative to success. The best motivation is leading by example. If you don’t follow policy and complain about procedures, your crew will follow suit. You must be the example of the job and expectations you want from your subordinates.
Leadership cannot be achieved without understanding and practicing followership. Some view followership as “drinking the Kool-Aid®.” This is not the case. How do you expect your crew to effectively follow you if you choose to not follow procedures yourself? Professionalism is vital to both your team’s success and your success as a leader.
Responsibility is the highest mark of great leaders. Embracing power while shunning responsibility will create a toxic environment for your team. Accepting criticism allows for improvement and making amends in wrongdoing. I once changed the apparatus rotation matrix. I had good intention, but it didn’t include everyone fairly. Once brought to my attention, I apologized and corrected it to ensure fairness. Ultimately, you are responsible for activities and decisions made by yourself and your crew. By blaming others for your shortcomings, you will lose respect as well as appear arrogant and unapproachable. In addition, responsibility is giving credit to those who deserve that acclaim. Humble leaders are secure with the ability to accept their weaknesses while nourishing the talents of others. Being responsible is a transparent process, and this builds trust in your team.
By focusing on leadership C.P.R., you can help build an effective team while shaping the leadership style of those who will surely replace you one day. Be humble and approachable so you are not limiting your team to the best that you can be but the best that the team as a whole can be. By doing the right thing for the right reasons, you can break the cycle of producing unprepared leaders and at the same time make it out of any personnel challenge “alive.”
Jamie Howarth is a 15-year veteran of emergency services and a lieutenant with the Anne Arundel County (MD) Fire Department. She is a nationally registered paramedic, has national certification as a fire officer, and has a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration from University of Maryland University College.