As a deputy chief in the Columbus (Ohio) Fire Division, I’m a shift commander overseeing 7 battalions, 34 fire stations, 100 fire apparatus and over 400 personnel. As you can imagine, we have a variety of leadership styles and theories being tested by some very good company officers.
I also have the fortune of having the run of the city and I respond to every working fire on my shift. This gives me the unique opportunity to evaluate leadership effectiveness on scene. As most of us have experienced, we can have very effective leaders at the fire station who then struggle at the emergency scene—and vice versa.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve had an extraordinary number of working fires on my shift, including a very difficult one that required the rescue of a 4- and 5-year-old; unfortunately, they succumbed to their injuries. I went the next shift and spoke to the crew about their work and our overall performance at the fire. The company officer said, “The crew does what is expected, and we don’t often have to tell them what to do.”
While this may be the case, it didn’t just happen. This crew of rookies and veterans, paramedics and EMTs, young guns and grizzled old-timers didn’t gel just because they’re together there. It took the leadership of the company officers and the follower-ship of the crews. They’ve developed the concept of team leadership to its core.
Team leadership is a concept that has been used in the flatter organizations of the business world to expedite decision-making. Most will conclude that there’s no profession that makes more rapid decisions of a critical nature than that of the American fire service, and I would wholly agree. However, many of us don’t know how we got there.
Team leadership is the distributed leadership among a group of people. The company officers—the formal leaders—aren’t the absolute leader in all situations; they share that authority with the rest of the crew. It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a developing process that involves growth and monitoring. It also takes courage for officers to relinquish authority while retaining responsibility. And it takes courage from the crew to step up and lead when appropriate.
Crews that excel at the team-leadership concept have certain qualities that propel them to success:
- A clear, elevating goal – The team goal must be shared by all and be of such importance that it supersedes all interferences like personality conflicts or daily bickering. When the bells go off, it’s all business.
- A results-driven structure – The NASCAR pit crew is a perfect example. They put the right people in the right location and practice until they achieve their expected results or change the structure.
- Competent team members – The developing team or one that changes members regularly must maintain individual competency. This isn’t only the officer’s responsibility, but also that of the team. Crew members push their peers to maintain competency and grow with the team.
- Unified commitment – They’re in it together for better or worse. They are rewarded as a group and disciplined as a group. They don’t see themselves as individuals when working on the clear, elevating goal.
- Collaborative climate – The fire service is notorious for squelching input from new boots. However, the successful team creates an environment where everyone can collaborate without impunity.
- Standards of excellence – Closely related to the team competency, the standards the team members set for themselves are very high and anything less than 100% success is deemed an opportunity for more work. A stubborn fire will challenge the members in the days afterwards and they’ll create an opportunity for improvement.
- External support and recognition – Successful teams don’t live under a rock. They must have the support of their supervisors and organizations to allow shared leadership to be employed and developed. Company officers who attempt this style of leadership must not be chastised, but supported. They must not be ignored, but given feedback on their successes and setbacks.
- Principled leadership – The team only works if both the formal and informal leaders share a solid set of principles that affect every decision and action.
The crew that handled the double fatal fire had another fire the very next shift. This one, too, appeared to have victims inside. The crews operated flawlessly and didn’t miss a beat. Watching and listening to them function at the scene of a very difficult fire and come back to do it again the very next shift was like watching the performance of that NASCAR pit crew. The difference is these firefighters and officers never saw the same car twice on pit road.
I would encourage you to do some reading on team leadership. It sheds light on the performance of many of the best fire service crews during our 200-year history.
Kelley, R. E. (2008). Rethinking followership. In R. E. Riggio, I. Chaleff, & J. Lipman-Blumen (Eds.), The art of followership: How great followers create great leaders and organizations (pp. 5-15). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Jack Reall is a deputy chief with the Columbus (Ohio) Fire Division. He’s been a member of the IAFC since 2014.