Managing the “Personal” Side of Fire Service Leadership

Managing the “Personal” Side of Fire Service Leadership
Leadership requires people skills to maintain operational readiness
By Marc Revere

“Leadership is horrible! Leadership is lonely!” I’ve come to embrace these words of Tom Peters, an American writer on business management practices who describes leadership as “an exercise in sorting through the mess of human relations, in all their gory details, day after day after day” and “a battle against doubt and dread in which you have only your own judgment about human nature to fall back on.” As co-developer of the Center of Public Safety Excellence’s National Mentoring Program, I often share Peters’ wisdom with protégés and during presentations for those who aspire to become fire chiefs or chief officers.

New officers and chiefs find one of the most daunting issues  is helping employees with personal problems. But this skill is essential because most employees rate such support high on their list of desired job factors. Photo Glen Ellman

Indeed, leadership can be a challenge, particularly when dealing with a group and each of its members, who all have different needs. After reading an article I wrote for FireRescue magazine (“Who’s to Blame,” December 2010), a colleague pointed out to me that in the past couple of years he has experienced a number of firefighters who came to the firehouse with personal issues that would often result in disciplinary action. He reminds us that now more than ever, managers must identify the underlying problems affecting our firefighters and get them the help they need. Our greatest product, he said, is the people we put on the equipment and send out the door to help other people.

Employees Need & Want Help
What’s interesting to note is that almost every employee-motivation survey over the last 30 years has shown that employees, regardless of profession, want “help with personal problems” from their supervisors. These surveys typically have 10 or so factors (money, sense of belonging, promotion, interesting work, security, etc.) that employees rank from least to most important. Surprisingly, money doesn’t usually rank high, and if it does it can be attributed to a company or government agency that is going through financial hardship. Rather, you can overlay most of these surveys with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, which places self-actualization (i.e., the realization of one’s full potential) above a person’s basic, most fundamental needs.   

Fire Chiefs Relate to One Another
Every year I’m invited to attend a fire chief’s forum at the Executive Leadership Institute (ELI), during which four sitting fire chiefs spend three hours sharing their knowledge with a group of newly promoted fire chiefs or seconds-in-command. The goal of the experienced fire chiefs is to paint for them a picture of their future and to help bridge the gap between the known and unknown. These officers usually ask questions that begin with, “How would you handle…?”

After nearly 15 years of facilitating or participating in the ELI, I’ve found that the majority of the questions at the forum deal with personnel issues, both on and off the job, which demonstrates the importance of knowing how to deal with people effectively.

When I speak to retired chiefs, they all agree: They miss the people, not the personnel issues. With people come their problems. And yet, we are in the people business. Our capacity as leaders and tolerance for ambiguity and personnel issues, both internal and external, determines the length of our careers and our success.

Personal Problems Test an Organization
The vast majority of a fire chief’s time is spent dealing with people and their problems, including such major issues as violence in the workplace, substance abuse, DUIs, harassment claims, romance (internal and external), office relations, lawsuits, serious and extended illness and crew/staff discord, to name a few. Other issues include worker’s compensation, attitude, injury, customer service and light duty, as well as performance-related issues. All are time-consumers that distract from our primary role: ensuring operational readiness 24/7 and focusing on and developing future leaders within the organization.

Still, it’s critical to nurture, support and advise, whether directly or through staff, the members you work with. In doing so, your personal values about certain issues (e.g., marital affairs, substance abuse) may bump up against your professional ones. As if in a blended family, you will inherit members who will cause strain and challenges. Your members will judge you by how well you pay attention to this daily drama and your boss will judge you on how well you keep a 50,000-foot view of the future. This can be a no-win situation.  

Fire Chiefs Make a Difference
If Tom Peters is correct, and considering the complexity of human interactions, why become a fire chief? The answer is simple and comes from the heart: the ability to make a positive difference and serve our members and community at a high level. Your tangible legacy may be a residential sprinkler ordinance or building a fire station, but the intangible will be the people you touch and motivate or assist through tough times.

Supporting your members is similar to raising a family. To accomplish positive results, try following these five key principles:

1. Aid orientations. When members focus on what’s wrong, help change their perspective by asking what’s right and what seems to be working—both personally and professionally as well as organizationally.
2. Have faith. It’s worth repeating that treating everyone with dignity and respect engenders trust. If you believe in your members, they’ll believe in themselves.
3. Leave no one behind. Don’t allow members to retire in place, check out or opt out.
4. Stop conflict before it starts. Create and maintain an atmosphere in which shared values and a compelling vision of the future is understood and embraced.
5. Remember Maslow. Provide your members with interesting work and ensure everyone has a sense of belonging, security and safety.

Tom Peters is right. Leadership can be horrible and lonely. And yes, it’s both an exercise and a battle. Leadership can be practiced. Leadership can triumph. But in the end, our success as leaders is not only measured by how well we get things done, but by how well we treat, motivate and care for each other.

Marc Revere is fire chief of the Novato Fire Protection District, an internationally accredited agency in Marin County, Calif. He has 34 years experience in the fire service and is an EFO, CFO and a Harvard Fellow. In 2010, Chief Revere became the first recipient of the Ronny Jack Coleman Leadership and Legacy Award from the Commission on Public Safety Excellence.

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


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