SIMILAR TO MILITARY OFFICERS, FIRE OFFICERS ARE CALLED UPON
TO SEND PEOPLE INTO HARM’S WAY. IN ADDITION TO TRUSTING OUR
TACTICAL AND TECHNICAL PROFICIENCY, OUR SUBORDINATES MUST BE ABLE
TO TRUST OUR DECISION-MAKING ABILITY.
and the supervisor/subordinate relationships
will be adversarial at best.
Fire officers begin to establish trust during the
earliest days of their fire fighting career. From day
one of the recruit academy, our peers, as well as
the current officers, are assessing our abilities,
including our ability to lead. The way we conduct
ourselves as fire fighters has a profound impact
on our trustworthiness as fire officers. If the only
thing we can be trusted to do is goof off, we will
never be trusted as a leader.
Similar to military officers, fire officers are called
upon to send people into harm’s way. In addition
to trusting our tactical and technical proficiency,
our subordinates must be able to trust our decision-making ability. When a fire fighter is assigned a dangerous task, he or she must trust us enough to know
that the decision, although it may have been made
quickly, was not frivolous or hasty.
Having said that, the majority of the decisions
we make are far more mundane and much less life
threatening but just as significant to building trust.
Our decision-making ability and behavior during station management, planned events and training exercises shape the mindset of those we lead. We must
be able to maintain our composure in these types of
situations. An officer who can’t control his or her
temper when no one’s life is in danger will quickly
erode any trust the fire fighters have in that person.
Trust is a two-way street. In order for our fire
fighters to trust us, we must first trust them. Once
again, those mundane, daily decisions are the key to
providing insight to an individual’s decision-making
ability. Officers must be able to trust their fire fighters
to make sound decisions. Empowering junior officers
and fire fighters by developing and leading training
evolutions, for example, not only gives them a sense
of ownership but also provides a relatively safe environment for a more senior officer to guide or assist in
the decision-making process.
In order to be a truly effective leader, we need
to inspire those around us to give their maximum
effort. That inspiration comes from trust and from
understanding the kind of work environment in
which each individual thrives. When our person-
nel trust us and feel that they also are trusted,
great things will happen.
One of the most important aspects of leadership
is the ability to develop a relationship of mutual
respect with our co-workers. Yet some of our fire
service traditions run counter to the notion of
mutual respect. For example, the fire service has
a long history of what might be called “
quasi-military” practice — we operate in hierarchical
fashion and demand unquestioned obedience to our
orders. While such practices may be appropriate
in situations of uncertainty and danger on the
fireground, we argue that this is not the case for most
of what we do. Further, we suggest that to develop
and foster a culture of respect, we must move to
more employee-centered management techniques.
Specifically, by building on the tenets of the the-ories of participatory management, we can encourage our subordinates to take an active part in the
future direction of our organizations. Allowing
junior officers and fire fighters the opportunity to
provide input in all aspects of our operation —
and we are not referring to “lip service” that some
chiefs give to this concept — shows them that their
ideas are highly valued. In short, giving people the
ability to participate in a meaningful way helps to
build and maintain mutual respect.
We can agree that on the fireground our people
are at their best. This is proven by how seldom, if
ever, we hear the words, “Chief, we can’t do that.”
No, at the fire scene our personnel will often surmount seemingly impossible odds to get the job
done. We applaud their efforts. We marvel at their
ability to come up with innovative and unconventional solutions to unusual problems. We give
them the full measure of our respect.
Yet, we suggest that our personnel also must be
permitted to have the same type of input when it
comes to the day-to-day operation of our fire service agencies. The value of their ideas transcends
the emergency scene. It is time to unleash the
same creativity and problem-solving potential in
the non-emergency aspects of our service. Fire pre-