If we were to ask fire and EMS chiefs to identify the five most important skills they must bring to the table in order to serve their communities most effectively, the ability to navigate political environments would surely be on that list.
Yet if asked to assess their level of expertise for each skill set, most would report that political acumen is the one they're least adept at or feel comfortable with.
During the panel discussion at the FRI 2014 general session, one of the panelists said about himself and all fire chiefs, "We're all politicians now."
Respectfully, we disagree that this must—or even should—be the case. In this series of articles, we'll provide four sets of proven suggestions and tips that will help you hone your ability to be political without being a politician.
The suggestions are categorized into four areas: planning and mindset, building and maintaining relationships, gaining buy-in, and working with elected officials.
Note the heavy emphasis on planning. Think of the size-ups you do in the field: there are several steps you take before you act, even in an emergency situation; you don't just charge in and do something. Approaching a political environment or interaction should be treated the same way.
Planning and Mindset
- Politics is a process, not an event or a task to be completed and checked off. It never ends.
- Embrace the political aspects of the fire chief's job. Your community's safety, health and economic viability depend on how proficient you are in addressing them.
- Engage in relentless preparation for the political aspects of your environment.
- Build the necessary time into your schedule to engage in creating and maintaining relationships and to reaching consensus among stakeholders. Investing that time yields stakeholders who are inclined to be supportive rather than resistant.
- Educate your employees about the governance process so they understand how things really get done. In addition to being able to make their own informed decisions, they can have a multiplier effect in terms of educating the public and decision-makers.
- The fire chief must be the face of the organization. This role cannot be delegated.
- Be yourself. People appreciate your honesty when you show them who you are.
- Remember that you're an expert in the fire and rescue arena. Others rely on you to educate them. Be honest with them, especially about what you can and can't do to keep your community safe, healthy and economically viable with a given level of resources. Though people may not like the message you communicate, they'll respect your honesty.
- Remember that fire chiefs work for the communities they serve. Embrace community participation. Be patient: although you hear the same questions hundreds of times, the people asking them have never heard the answers.
Whether you love, hate, tolerate or just wish the political aspects of the fire chief's job would go away, the good news is that the skills and competencies that comprise political acumen can be learned. With practice, you can improve them greatly.
Even better, you can choose to view the political side of your job as an opportunity rather than a millstone around your neck. Think of it this way: acquiring some solid political skills will go a long way in helping you ensure your community is safe, healthy and economically viable. And you don't have to become a politician to obtain that outcome.