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Company Officer Leadership: Culture Change Through Grassroots Leadership

When applied to common areas in the fire service, grassroots leadership can take on a powerful form and gain momentum. Specifically, it can address some common issues in today’s fire service, especially in how we introduce new members to the fire service and through eliminating groupthink behavior.

Changing deep-seated routine and updating common practice will take a monumental effort by everyone within the service and can be initiated from any level.

Today’s fire service asks firefighters to accomplish more, expand the traditional knowledge base and tackle some unconventional problems within the community. We can support them by training new members in critical thinking, problem solving and accountability rather than blind conformance. Encouraging, developing and strengthening an equal balance between obedience and performance begin with changing how we introduce and train new members.

A culture change within the fire service has opened the door for grassroots leadership to evolve and grow. Beginning with safety and accountability, individual members are encouraged to take an active role in ensuring the safety and accountability of all members.

Each of the Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, in some form or another, requires leadership be encouraged and protected at all levels of the organization, including at the entry level. Initiative #4, Empowerment, specifically states that every member must possess the ability and be empowered to stop unsafe practices. If members are trained to simply follow a predetermined course rather than developing critical thinking skills and contributing to problem-solving efforts, they won't feel empowered to speak up, and as a result, mistakes may be made.

As company officers, we must be careful about how we introduce new members to the fire service. If we focus on establishing dominance and forcing compliance, we may miss opportunities to develop the critical thinking skills individuals need in today’s fire service.

Grassroots leadership is also a rival to groupthink mentality. With groupthink, younger members are exposed to the powerful beliefs of senior members and officers. Often, these newer members lack the courage or platform to express themselves or counter these beliefs freely. So they may adopt these same beliefs rather than working toward finding new beliefs and working towards solutions together.

Sometimes disguised as roundtable or normal station discussion, groupthink mentality is easily identified when opposing views are aggressively halted by peer pressure or retaliatory behavior of senior members. While opposing views are sometimes inevitable within a group, stifling opportunities to ask questions or express opposing opinions indicate a problem within the group.

As company officers, it's important that we remember what effect we can have on a group as well. New members may affiliate themselves with the beliefs of an officer even when they don't entirely understand the issue or hold the same viewpoint.

The frustrations of probationary employees evolve around the learning curve of the job, honing skills and developing a strong foundation to build upon. Protecting newer members from a groupthink environment takes a collaborative, grassroots effort by all crew members.

Finally, grassroots leadership should evolve around the idea of making each other better, focusing on identifying opportunities to build strength among the crew and supporting the organization. Changing fire service culture to include identifying and managing risk by all members and controlling groupthink mentality benefits the entire crew and begins with a true grassroots effort.

When members begin to involve, incorporate and encourage each other to take responsibility for driving a cultural change, the reward will be an equal balance between performance and respect. Senior members won't be left scratching their heads and wondering why younger members ask so many questions. Rather, we'll find the value of these questions in making the fire service a better place to work.

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