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Embracing Grassroots Leaders

Leadership is perhaps one of the most fascinating and controversial topics in today’s fire service; no model fits every department or even every situation.

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.”

One thing is constant; leadership isn’t synonymous with authority. Many of our departments’ true leaders don’t have brass on their collars. Fire chiefs would do well to recognize the importance of grassroots leaders. They’re extremely important: they facilitate change from various levels of an organization, and as we all know, change in today’s fire service must be constant to ensure successful outcomes.

Operating from the bottom up, grassroots leaders are critical because their leadership leads to innovations, sustainability and long-term changes. Their efforts are often unseen from the top; they occur informally around the station, at the kitchen table and in everyday, informal settings.

How important are these leaders to fire chiefs and the other department leaders? Priceless, because they can sell change for the organization’s formal leaders. And they’ll carry it forward for years to come as they challenge the status quo daily and often question the department’s norms and cultures.

These grassroots leaders are instrumental to any fire chief’s success and must be sought out and fostered. It’s important to ensure they use their influence for good and that they don’t use their abilities in a negative manner, which can be dangerous for a chief’s short-term and an organization’s long-term success.

For good or bad, you are the topic at the kitchen table, so make sure the discussion is a positive one. So what can we do to ensure grassroots leaders are using their leadership ability in our favor? Here are a few tips:

Know your personnel, especially the grassroots leaders. No matter how busy you are, it’s important to demonstrate care and compassion towards every member in your organization. Get to know who the grassroots leaders are and where they stand on key issues, their experiences and their passions.

Communicate purpose. It’s important for you to constantly communicate your organization’s direction and purpose so informal leaders can understand processes and allow you to conflict. Though counterintuitive, fostering conflict from good people can be healthy; otherwise, groupthink sets in and your department relies on the way it has always been done.

Allowing conflict in controlled settings allows for buy-in, healthy conversations and support; then, once a decision is made, personnel have voiced their opinions and a united front goes forward.

Do the right thing, always. Fire chiefs sometimes have personal agendas, but remember that grassroots leaders embrace good intentions and, much like children, can see through any façade. Fire chiefs who demonstrate hard work, sacrifice, honesty and courage for the good of their departments, not self, will be embraced by others.

Delegate authority and responsibility. Grassroots leaders lack formal authority and even delegated power. Know that there are more smart people with great ideas in your department than just the fire chief. Give them power and forums where their opinions can be voiced and, more importantly, heard so you can maximize their knowledge and abilities.

Listen without bias. Listening is a key trait for today’s fire service leaders, but listening deafly because of pre-determined bias towards an individual or topic or simply because “that’s not my idea” is all too common.

Sometimes we may not like what we hear, but it’s good to hear for the sake of reality and these leaders will know you have their devotion and loyalty.

There are many other ways to engage these informal leaders, all dependent upon you and your organization. Remember, grassroots leaders play an important role in the direction and change in each of our departments and they must be embraced—because they do exist and they are powerful.

Remember also: these individuals 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.

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