Handling the “Leadership Absenteeism” Crisis Ahead—a Career Perspective

By Chief Jeffrey D. Johnson, EFO, CFO, MIFireE

The following article focuses on a growing issue in the career fire service: the “leadership absenteeism” created by a generation of leaders retiring. Read a complementary article by Tiger Schmittendorf about this issue’s impact on the volunteer fire service here.

As a generation of fire service leaders retires, many fear that there is a crisis of “leadership absenteeism” ahead—that the incoming youth won’t know how to fill the void left by their predecessors. Photo Andrew Klein

Who remembers the “giant sucking sound” that Ross Perot warned would occur if the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in the early-1990s? The phrase really caught on, and you can see why: It’s a specific threat, yet creepy and vague enough to capture the worst our imagination can bring to bear.

With the natural aging of fire department leaders, changes to the pension system speeding incumbent retirements, and the job crisis forcing many volunteers to spend less time at the firehouse, I can’t help but think of a giant sucking sound bearing down on the fire and emergency service. There is an impending leadership vacuum: a specific threat that’s creepy and vague enough to capture the worst our imagination can bring to bear.

Fortunately, the fire and emergency service is very good at facing vague challenges, breaking down the facts and finding solutions. Like any other challenge we face, we can beat it with knowledge, planning and the proper tools. In my article “Planning Today for Tomorrow’s Leaders” in the August 2010 issue of FireRescue magazine, I urged both current and emerging leaders to turn their attention to this issue.

Now let’s look at some specific strategies to help avoid this vacuum at the top.

Start Early
Today, being a fire chief doesn’t just require being an excellent commander during emergencies. In fact, in many cases, our emergency skills don’t translate well to being a modern fire service leader, which is why the most successful leaders started getting ready for top leadership jobs early in their careers. And to clarify, “starting early” ideally means beginning work on the first chief officer job at least two years in advance. Clearly, each subsequent promotion can be equally challenging, but the first often requires a unique emotional and attitudinal adjustment. One exception: Moving into the fire chief’s office will be the most demanding adjustment one can expect.

None of the recommendations that follow are quick fixes; they require an investment of your time and energy, but these investments provide great rewards.

Mentor & Encourage
Nearly every successful leader can point to a mentor who made a personal investment in their success. Great mentors are honest about the good and bad they’ve learned from their careers. They can help emerging leaders spot the tank-traps, and are always handy with just the right question to help fill in the blanks. Although mentoring is a one-on-one activity, an environment that supports building such relationships can create a culture of leadership. Chiefs should model mentorship and make it clear to all department leaders that mentorship and developing the next generation is part of the job.

Although a more formal mentoring structure provides great results, chiefs should not overlook the more informal ways to support up-and-coming leaders, such as creating regular opportunities to simply tell people what you see in them. We all get bogged down in our jobs and have little perspective on our own potential. Fix that by simply getting out of your office and paying a visit to your top people at every level. Tell them candidly the potential and the qualities you see in them. Getting a lieutenant to see their future early helps provide focus to their educational and career development goals and indicates to them how much the organization needs them at the next level. More often than not, some of your best people “just aren’t interested right now”—until you plant and cultivate the seed.

Address Administrative Barriers
Be prepared to change your promotion and civil service rules to facilitate a leadership transition. Sometimes this means shortening or lengthening how long “the list” is valid. Or, it could mean you need to change eligibility requirements to meet current needs or to add “banding,” which allows all candidates in a “band” to be equal for purposes of selection. (Note: Banding doesn’t place candidates 1 through 5 and force the chief to promote in order; it allows, for example, the top 5 candidates to be equal and the chief has the ability to choose any one within the band.)

This path should be taken cautiously and with the help of the appropriate stakeholders, such as the staff responsible for training and education, labor issues and human resources, as a host of issues will need to be evaluated. For example, administrative changes could involve reevaluating what your career path or educational criteria should be, ensuring tests are current and reflective of the current environment, and/or ensuring tests are evaluated to ensure racial and gender neutrality. So while I urge caution here, I see this as an important undertaking that should not be overlooked or dismissed.

Support Professional Development
Education and career development is important at all levels of a department, but at the higher ranks, education is essential. Develop and fund educational plans for all your perspective leaders that place an emphasis on the education and career skills that they will need at the next level. Programs like the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program are free to the local jurisdiction and not only prepare future leaders with a traditional education model, but also create an incredible web of colleagues who will provide coaching and a safe place to test your ideas outside the department.

Allow Co-Pilots to Drive
Consider that you’re on a plane where the pilot becomes suddenly ill, but the co-pilot’s only experience is reading charts and flipping some switches. However mission-critical those charts and switches are, they would not inspire confidence when the co-pilot takes the controls mid-flight.

Ideally, each newly promoted executive should have a period to sit at the controls of the plane while the salty old pilot sits in the co-pilot seat. There’s no substitute to actually flying the plane yourself. Although this process can test the emotions and patience of the outgoing officer, it’s a valuable part of the transition of power. Clearly it helps the incoming officer settle in, but it also helps the outgoing officer learn how to disengage themselves from key decisions on a more graduated pace rather than going cold-turkey upon retirement.

Involve Labor
For those organizations that have a labor group, it’s important to share your plan to transition the leadership of your organization: Lay out your plan and be a good listener. After all, responders’ jobs and the health of the organization are on the line if we all don’t do this correctly. Although labor doesn’t typically control how the chief promotes the next generation any more than chiefs control who’s elected to their executive board, labor organizations are a key stakeholder and deserve your attentive ear.

Consider the Bigger Picture
Considering the issue more broadly can help you think outside the box and avoid short-term fixes that may create long-term problems. For example, filling a key leadership position with the “next in line”—when the next in line may be preparing to retire in the next 18 months—may not be in the best interest of the organization. In today’s environment, you may need to go down into the organization more than one rank for key replacements.

Perhaps the most important piece of “big picture” thinking is the role of the officer itself. Selecting the next fire and emergency service leader is much more than just selecting the next head of department or division. You need to give specific thought to the leadership role they will play in your community. For example, if you’re planning for the succession of the fire chief, be sure to gain the involvement of the city manager or your elected officials. Ensuring that you’re developing the education and skills that they’ll value is critical to your credibility and success.

Further, any successful and modern organization needs to ensure that their leadership is representative of your community, so work to create a leadership environment that provides opportunity and is inclusive of diverse perspectives. This is important to sound decision-making and ensuring the success and wellbeing of your department and community.

Not Easy, But Worth It
Preparing for leadership transitions is not an easy undertaking, but it’s one that’s essential if we wish to call ourselves leaders. Although you’ll undoubtedly hear cries of “rigging the process” and “hand-picking the next generation,” only you have the unique perspective of having “been there” and knowing what it takes. Our final—and perhaps even greatest—responsibility as a fire chief is to ensure that we leave our department even better than how we found it, and on a smooth trajectory that will take it and our communities even higher. What’s more: We have a responsibility to the fire service—our family past, present and future—which have given us such a rewarding calling and made us part of something so much larger than ourselves.

There is an alarm ringing: the giant sucking sound of a leadership vacuum is threatening our departments, our communities and the future of the fire service itself. So we need to get out there, acknowledge it and silence the sound.

Jeff Johnson is the chief executive officer (CEO) for the Western Fire Chiefs Association. He is past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and retired as fire chief and CEO of Oregon’s Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue (TVF&R), following a 32-year fire service career. Johnson is a member of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association and various IAFC sections. He is the IAFC’s alternate representative to the SAFECOM Executive Committee and a member of the USA Delegation to the Comité Technique International De Prevention Et D’Extinction Du Feu (CTIF), also known as the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services. Johnson advocates for cooperative initiatives and other business practices that achieve efficiencies and demonstrate smart government while maximizing the value of services provided to the citizens. He has authored two fire service books and is a featured guest lecturer across the nation. In the corporate environment, Johnson sits as chairman of the board of two private companies: Informed Publishing Inc. and Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCi). He also is on the Editorial Board of FireRescue Magazine. By gubernatorial appointment, Johnson is the chair of Oregon’s State Interoperability Executive Council, as well as a member of the Oregon Homeland Security Council and the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council. He is past president of both the Western Fire Chiefs Association and the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association (OFCA), the past chair of the Oregon Governor’s Fire Service Policy Council, and a charter member of Oregon’s Meritorious Service Committee. Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in business and an associate’s degrees in fire science and criminal justice administration.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Michael Teague on June 18, 2011 at 5:08am
Recent review of the firefighters in my department shows that we are a graying work force. 70% of our personnel are over 40 with 23% being over 50. The turnover in our department in the 5-7 years is likely to be close to 50%. There is difficulty getting people to move up the ladder. Most senior leaders in the department only spend a couple of years at the top before retiring. Succession planning is a must right now but I am not sure that departments see this.
Comment by Bryan Lafleur on April 15, 2011 at 12:11pm
One trend I really hate seeing is that most leadership training I've seen in the fire service, especially in IFSTA and Fire Officer, is based on corporate management, which seems more interested in labels. I really think the fire service would be much better served by looking at military leadership models, which is completely misunderstood by the civilian community. It is much more focused on character development than on what corporate America refers to as "authoritative style", at least it was in the Marine Corps.

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