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Executive Fire Officers: Are You Up to the Task of Leading?

Return to the April 1, 2013 issue of On Scene

The fire service has entered a new dimension that will significantly impact it: While the economy is improving, this improvement is challenging status-quo thinking and rendering some of our archetypical strategies as outdated and no longer relevant.

We’re entering an era of hard truths and tough choices that will force us to solve the obvious problems that we, and others, have ignored. As leaders, being a spectator is unacceptable, and as Ronny Coleman, IAFC president 1988-1989, eloquently stated, "Hope is not a management method."

Developing a truly transformational leadership style with an emphasis on a sustainable positive image is critical to our survival.

When faced with fiscal challenges, the private sector has learned to react and change to guarantee its objectives—primarily profit—are met. On the other hand, during past less-consequential recessions, the public sector has simply waited for the economy to recover and then shifted into its previous comfort mode.

This is great work if you can get it, but it is not a sustainable strategy. We need to position ourselves to be proactive and to equip ourselves with reliable, valid information. We'll use this to counter those who don’t understand, or choose to not understand, the role of public service or why we can’t simply lay a business strategy over a fire service organization and make it better, given each one's distinctive purpose—specifically profit versus community service.

Staffing formulas are being questioned; stations are being closed. The need for what we know as reasonable response times are being downplayed, a total shift in priority from previous years and triggered by the poor economy and misdirected politics. As we work through this process, it’s imperative that we understand we can’t make this journey alone. We need to rely on others, internal and external to our organizations, in order to be successful. Parochial management techniques of the past must be refined and modified. The ability to change our thinking and transform our organizations is critical

Several issues must be addressed if the fire service intends to maintain some semblance of order and respect as one of the most wonderful and respected professions in the nation. Key to this is strong, unparalleled leadership and equally strong commitment to excellence. Marty Linsky, coauthor of the great book Leadership on the Line, has defined leadership as "disappointing others at a rate they can absorb."

This speaks to the tough choices that are needed and the uncomfortable decisions we have to make.

We must be cautious about getting wrapped up in making good decisions all the time, be willing to take some risk and avoid surrounding ourselves with sycophants who agree with every decision we make. We need to concentrate on not allowing external factors to override our common sense. We need to ensure we don't get caught up in catching up.

We need to resist unnecessary programs that represent the next management craze. These cultist-style programs only serve to corrupt your thinking with ideas that aren’t based in reality and waste a tremendous amount of time that would be better spent dealing with pragmatic and constructive issues that can positively impact your organization

As a result of a changing landscape, we’re forced to challenge ourselves and change both our attitudes and our expectations. Are we up to the challenge? Are we truly willing to change our culture?

In doing so, we can create a legacy that honors the tradition that brought us here while at the same time ensuring we leave this place in better condition than when we arrived. The first obstacle with change is to recognize that change is needed. Determining the best way to lead and inspire is like looking down a well—you see only your own reflection.

We know where the problems are. We see it. Now buy it; take ownership. Remember that doing something means doing something—just knowing and talking about something isn’t doing something.

Be willing to change and to maintain our valued traditions that distinguish us from other professions, but be willing to shed those traditions that comprise our position. Doing so will allow you to transform your organization and to leave a legacy we can all be proud of.

Be safe.

William L. Bingham, MS, EFO, CFO, CMO, retired as fire chief from the Boynton Beach Fire Rescue Department in 2011 and is currently a member consultant with the Galena (Ill.) Fire Department. He is immediate past president of the National Society of Executive Fire Officers.

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Darryl Cleveland, April 02, 2013
I absolutely agree with Chief Binghams perspective on leading in our modern fire service. It is all about change, viability and sustainability in the future while still cherishing our past and traditions that brought us to where we are. Kudos to you for this article Chief Bingham.

Darryl Cleveland, BS, LP, CFO
Fire Chief
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