Henry Mintzberg is not a fan of the “American” style of leadership.

In the July-August 2009 edition of Harvard Business Review, writing in Rebuilding Companies as Communities, Mintzberg asserts:

"They sat in their offices and announced the goals they want others to attain, instead of getting on the ground and helping improve performance. Executives did not know what was going on, and employees didn’t care what went on. What a monumental failure of leadership."

Sound familiar? Mintzberg is the John Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal. His writing and research is focused on managerial work, strategy formation, and forms of organizing. His 2004 book Managers not MBAs, asserts that conventional MBA classrooms overemphasize the science of management while ignoring its art and denigrating its craft, leaving a distorted impression of its practice.

Mintzberg describes a very different approach to management education, which encourages practicing mangers to learn from their own experience. No one can create a manager in a classroom. But existing managers can significantly improve their practice in a thoughtful classroom that makes use of that experience.


The American Fire Service has embraced the heroic leader at the expense of management. The deployment of power in a civil war based command-and-control organization isolates people in leadership positions. This isolation facilitates the Idiot Replacement Theory (here) and creates a gap between the 55 year chief and the 30 year old company officer.

The tremendous stress created by the recession amplifies leadership isolation and sets up a “I got mine, screw you” perception as the younger members face demotion or layoffs while senior members protect their positions.


Mintzberg suggests a different approach, leadership that intervenes when appropriate while encouraging people in the organization to get on with things. He looks to small groups of managers to lead the change to create a feeling of “communityship” from the middle of the organization.

The success of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s fund drive (here) depends on the informal leaders and first line supervisor in each fire company to get the crews out on the street. The fire chief can encourage by cancelling all other non-emergency activities during the collection days, the battalion chief can offer to cook dinner for the company that collects the most money, but it is the work at the company level that gets the boots on the street. IAFF firefighters have been “Filling the Boot” since 1954.


Four conditions exist in fire departments that faciltate the effort to develop communityship and just enough leadership:

THE REMNANTS OF A COMMUNITY. Minzberg looks to middle managers in large corporations that are deeply committed to the organization and want to promote survival. Each fire department has a rich history and committment to its members and the community. Captains and battalion chiefs, along with senior informal leaders, are the keepers of the flame.

AN ATMOSPHERE THAT PROMOTES TRUST. The most fragile of the four foundations. Trust between the rookie (or senior) firefighter and the fire chief is difficult. Trust between the firefighter and the company officer is vital. It is the basis for the Phoenix “Be Nice” efforts in taking care of the internal customer (more info here).

A ROBUST CULTURE. The career American Fire Service has about 150 years of history, a major participant in the community with a rich collection of experiences and stories.

LEADERSHIP AT THE CENTER. Mintzberg looks to the middle managers. “Community leaders see themselves as being in the center, reaching out rather than down. They facilitate change, recognizing that much of it must be driven by others.”


Mintzberg describes a five step evolution to communityship that requires just enough leadership:

1) Community building in an organization may best begin with small groups of committed managers.

2) The sense of community takes root as the managers in these groups reflect on the experiences they have shared in the organization.

3) The insights generated by these reflections naturally trigger small initiatives that can grow into big strategies.

4) As these initial teams promote change, they become examples for other groups that spread communityship throughout the organization.

5) An organization knows that communityship is firmly established when its members reach out in socially active, responsible, and mutually beneficial ways to the broader community.

The strain created by the recession makes it important that we start with the internal community of firefighters. Let us begin with company officers agreeing on how the department handles emergency responses with smaller crews. Then expanding to supporting the members that are laid off. The IAFF reported in June that 900 members lost their jobs.

Mike “FossilMedic” Ward
Urban Commander Series
go to Firegeezer.com to follow this series

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Comment by Mike Ward on September 9, 2009 at 5:26pm
Hi Billy, thanks for your comments.

I appreciate that you mentioned The Starfish and the Spider, link to website HERE.

Whether it is leaderless groups, self-directed work teams (flashback to a grad school assignment) or just enough leadership, the changes we need to make happen will come from the street. From the leaders and managers on the front line.

Comment by Billy Schmidt on September 8, 2009 at 5:16pm
Change is never driven from the top....it's the people at the point of delivery that know best what needs to change and to make that change happen. Small groups of managers to lead the change follows what authors Brafman and Beckstrom say in their book, The Starfish and the Spider, managers are empowered to make critical decisions while the executive team takes on more of a "catalyst" role. Just enough leadership is right on.
Comment by Mike Ward on September 8, 2009 at 4:54pm
Chris, your statement

"Maybe within volunteer departments there needs to be small groups led by command personnel to encourage participation, lead and foster future developments within the department itself."

makes a lot of sense.

Comment by Chris Tomlinson on September 8, 2009 at 11:55am
I too agree that smaller groups within the department can be key to a bigger goal being accomplished.

Maybe within volunteer departments there needs to be small groups led by command personnel to encourage participation, lead and foster future developments within the department itself.

Right now a lot of us need to look 'within' so that we can be 'out there' in better form and fashion in the future.
Comment by Mike Ward on September 7, 2009 at 8:51am
Thanks Tiger ... I like the "sharers of the flame" image.

Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on September 6, 2009 at 10:21pm
Thanks for the Cliff Notes on the book Mike. Sounds like a great read - and study.

It certainly reinforces the power of the informal leader. I've often said that I can get so much more done without the burden or emotional overhead of a title. Grassroots efforts within any organization tend to be much more successful and sustainable, the reason being that its their idea.

My eyes and mind focused on the repeated reference to sharing experiences and story telling. As in my blogs: "Dig In" and "Fortune Tellers" we are, as you say, "keepers of the flame." However, our survival and success relies on our ability to be "sharers of the flame" and passers of the torch to our eventual replacements.

Great review. Great blog. Thanks for sharing.

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