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Leadership in Tough Times

Leadership is easy when times are good. But when things get tough, leadership can fall by the wayside. The current crisis with the coronavirus, while scary, doesn’t mean we should abandon our usual leadership practices. It means quite the opposite. We should double down on our efforts.

My jurisdiction is in one of the six San Francisco Bay area counties to get a mandatory order to shelter-in-place before the state followed suit. Along with that came an order to close most businesses and severely alter the way the remaining businesses operate. This meant that our Community Risk Reduction Division’s work would have to change immediately. We sent our workforce to work from home. The inspections we would typically be doing were all canceled, and our workloads changed overnight. It would be easy to get lost in the uncertainty. After some contemplation, it occurred to me that things didn’t have to be that different, even though the rules of engagement had been altered. Three things I needed to do as a leader immediately came to mind.

Communicate: I had a few hours of advanced warning as to what the Shelter-in-Place Order was going to look like. While I didn’t know all of the details, I knew the gist and was able to plan our next steps with the rest of the executive leadership team. When the staff came to work, I had a meeting with them and told them the situation. I also relayed how their work would change, what work I expected from them, and gave them additional ideas of things to do, such as training, or studying for an additional certification. I also spoke to them about uncertainty and reinforced the idea that we were still a team though we’d be working apart. I was also honest with them. We don’t know much about how this is going to play out, and so I addressed their fears, and tempered expectations with reality.

Remember the Mission: This is a tougher one because it involves refining the mission with new constraints. How do we accomplish inspections without going to a site physically? How will we handle complaints? While most businesses are closed, many still operate. Restaurants still make food for pick up. Construction on much-needed housing continues. The hospital needs tents to provide additional patient care and each of those things needs to be looked at, as there is still a level of safety to be maintained. Innovation is key here. Utilizing our technology to do inspections remotely, talking with the customers via phones and video conferencing, and being available to answer all manner of questions now become the order of the day.

Be Flexible: This is probably the most important quality, because any disaster moves quickly, even a pandemic. While the rates of infection have lessened with the isolation orders, the speed at which planning occurs has not slowed things down. Demands are changing hourly in some cases. As the disaster unfolds before us, we may be asked to take on additional duties or scale back plans. You may start down one plan of action, only to realize that a different course is needed. And in the case of disease outbreak, you may have staff contract the disease, and you need to address those challenges. On the first day of the order, I needed to adjust my plans five times. We needed to staff an EOC and meet with our collaboration partners such as police, building departments, schools and fire protection companies. We needed to meet as an executive leadership team and find our way to our normal. All of this comes with the territory in a disaster, though this has been unlike any disaster we had envisioned.

While not part of the initial three things I knew I needed to do, there was a fourth thing. Remember that we are human. It is okay to be apprehensive and even scared. Fear of the unknown is natural. That said, if we remember to communicate, stay focused on the mission and remain flexible, we can accomplish great things and come out on the other side better than we went into it. Our organizations will grow as a result.

Robert Marshall is fire marshal for the San Mateo Consolidated Fire Department in San Mateo, California. He has been in the fire service for 29 years and currently serves as secretary-treasurer for the Fire & Life Safety Section.


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