Leadership in today's fire service is constantly challenged at a variety of levels. Leaders in fire and rescue departments everywhere are being challenged by supervisors and subordinates alike. The topic of leadership is also being challenged as everyone has a different slant or version on what true leaders are, how organizations should be run and what the effects of failing leadership will be.
A common definition of leadership embodies the keys to success in our departments: "Leadership is influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization."
Leadership is perhaps one of the most fascinating and controversial topics in today's fire service because there's no model that fits every department or every situation. However, one thing is constant: leadership is not synonymous with authority. Many of our department's true leaders don't have brass on their collars and effective fire chiefs recognize the importance of grassroots leadership.
Grassroot leaders are extremely important to departments: they facilitate change from various levels, and as we all know, change should be constant to ensure successful outcomes. Grassroot leaders operate from the bottom up and are needed because it's their leadership that leads to innovations and, more importantly, sustainability and long-term change.
The efforts of grassroots leaders are often unseen from the top and occur informally around the station, at the kitchen table and in everyday, informal settings. How important are these grassroots leaders to formal department leadership?
They're priceless—they're the ones who are selling change and they'll carry it forward for years to come as they challenge the status quo daily. Challenging the status quo for these individuals can be difficult, because they often question the department's norms and cultures.
These grassroots leaders are instrumental to any fire chief's success. They must be sought out and fostered to make sure they're using their leadership ability for the power of good; they can be dangerous if they use their influence in a negative way. This can be dangerous for an organization's long-term success as well as a fire chief's short-term success.
So what can we do to ensure grassroots leaders are using their leadership ability to benefit our fire departments? Here are five tips to support a leader's positive influence:
- Know your personnel, especially the grassroots leaders – Get to know who the grassroots leaders are and where they stand on key issues, their experiences and their passions. This can be critical to your success and the department's in the future.
- Communicate purpose – It's important for formal leaders to constantly communicate the organization's directions and purpose so informal leaders understand processes and the importance of healthy conflict. Fostering conflict from good people is healthy; failing to do so can create an environment where groupthink sets in and the department begins to rely on how things have always been done. Allowing conflict in controlled settings provides an opportunity for healthy conversations, support and buy-in. Once a decision is made, personnel have voiced their opinions and a united front goes forward.
- Do the right thing—always – Fire chiefs may sometimes have personal agendas, but remember that grassroots leaders who embrace good intentions may see through a façade. Fire chiefs who demonstrate hard work, sacrifice, honesty and courage for the good of their department, not self, will be embraced by others.
- Delegate authority and responsibility – Grassroots leaders lack formal authority and often delegated power. There are more smart people with great ideas in your department that just the fire chief. Give them power and forums where their opinions can be voiced and heard so you can maximize their knowledge and abilities.
- Listen without bias – Listening is a key trait for today's fire service leaders. Listening without really hearing because of a predetermined bias towards someone or some topic—or simply because it's not your idea—is all too common. Sometimes we may not like what we hear, but it's good to hear it and listening will encourage these leaders to give you their loyalty.
There are many other ways to engage grassroots leaders. They play an important role in the direction of all our departments and they must be embraced because they are there and they are powerful.
They can be powerful allies or dangerous enemies, and they're critical in affecting change from the bottom up, which is critical to your future success.