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Leading Through Uncertainty

Since the 1980s, many people have written about leading in times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA for short). Volatility refers to the nature and dynamics of change; Uncertainty is the lack of predictability; Complexity relates to the diverse forces at play and confounding of issues; Ambiguity describes the lack of clarity in any given situation. These concepts have been taught to CEOs and business leaders, at universities, and even at the U.S. Army War College. Reflecting on the events that have unfolded this past year and looking ahead to what is yet to come, the VUCA acronym is more relevant than ever. Our current environment consists of a pandemic, social justice issues, economic uncertainty, as well as political and civil unrest. Innumerable peer-reviewed articles and case studies will undoubtedly be written about leadership during the COVID epoch. However, the following guidelines transcend any particular crisis and can be implemented by leaders, no matter the crisis.

Leaders Need to Show Up

Perhaps the most important thing for leaders to do in times of uncertainty is to show up and be present. This can be difficult, as there are many reasons for us to withdraw back into our offices. Some of the more recent justifications may have been: "Social distancing is important… I need to spend extra time staying current on the latest pandemic news (guidance, test sites, vaccines, CARES Act, etc.) … I still have my normal pre-pandemic job to do… Every time I visit a fire station, I'm bombarded with sensitive and complex social and political opinions… There always seems to be someone who is upset with the latest decision made by city or fire department leadership … After all, don't they know that we're stressed too?" All of this aside, there is no substitute for leaders being present during periods of turmoil. We must take the time to be accessible, foster relationships, and listen to concerns.

Communicate Frequently and Effectively

Let's face it, communication in many organizations could be improved during normal, blue sky operations. This is especially true in the fire service, where different shift schedules and a multilayered chain of command can sometimes serve to slow down and jumble information. In a volatile environment full of misinformation, this just won't suffice. In a time where team members have unhindered access to information with varying degrees of credibility and accuracy, we must find a way to push out facts regularly in a way that can be easily consumed and understood. 

There are many ways to accomplish this, including face-to-face communication, emails, text messages, phone calls, messaging systems such as Everbridge, video conferencing platforms, etc. You can hang posters on the fire stations' walls displaying best practices for COVID-19 prevention measures while on AND off-duty, leverage partner organizations such as labor unions, and even host weekly webinars sharing current information and allowing members to ask questions in real time. Finally, when communicating, never forget to explain the why behind your current initiatives and decisions.

Show Concern and Empathy

With all of the extra demands placed on fire service leaders during times of disaster, it can become easy to get stuck in a rut of just trying to make it through the week or even the day. Frequently, there is little rest between crises. We find it necessary to delegate initiatives, missions, and tasks to members of every rank in the organization just to stay afloat. Meanwhile, some of our departments experienced significant overtime due to COVID-19 infections and quarantines, increasing others' workload. Especially during these times, leaders must show genuine concern and empathy.

First, COVID fatigue is real. It's okay not to be okay—and no member of the organization (from firefighter to fire chief) is immune to stress. Leaders need to be perceptive enough to know when their team members and teammates are having trouble and take a break from the action to reach out to them. Though the fire service is still trying to break the stigma regarding behavioral health, we have come a long way. Resources are available through avenues such as peer support, chaplaincy, and employee assistance programs. This also is an excellent time to find ways to reduce stress for our personnel as many of us are relying upon them to step up and do even more than usual. Recent examples of demands placed on team members might include:

  • Wearing masks around the fire stations
  • Donning an increased level of PPE during calls for service
  • Running vaccination sites

Some suggestions for reprieve could include the temporary loosening of uniform standards, allowing extra time for rest and exercise, or postponing tasks or initiatives that could be done at a less stressful time. If you do have employees who behave uncharacteristically, consider that there could be underlying causes that may need to be addressed with compassion instead of discipline.

Be Inclusive

There was once a time when leaders were expected to know everything. Thankfully, times have changed, and it is becoming more acceptable to invite input from others, regardless of their rank or tenure. There are several reasons to have a culture of inclusivity and ask others for input when making decisions. First, people are more accepting of decisions when their input has been regarded. Reasonable people don't always need to get their way, but they do want to be heard. Second, leaders don't know everything, and gaining insight and perspective from others helps ensure the best decision possible, especially in a dynamic environment. Early in the pandemic, we were forced to decide on mask mandates, how many firefighters could go inside the grocery store while on duty, eating arrangements, outside employment, travel restrictions, and (more recently) vaccines. Proactive consultation with the groups who will be most impacted and before a decision has been made often leads to resolutions that are more informed and palatable.

Be Both Decisive and Agile

Especially during times of uncertainty, decisiveness is a virtue. Though inclusivity is essential, not all matters can be solved by a committee, and eventually, a decision must be made. There are seemingly countless decision-making models and techniques you can use, including cost/benefit analyses, if/then scenarios, heuristics, pro/con techniques, decision-making trees, paired comparison analyses, etc. It is crucial to have a decision-making model or models that work for you. After gathering all the data and consulting the stakeholders, try not to get too mired in the "what if" doom loop. As Theodore Roosevelt stated, "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."

Conversely, when a leader changes their decision, it can sometimes appear as though they are indecisive, unsure, and wishy-washy. However, in times of ambiguity, information can change quickly. Even with the world's top scientists working around the clock to better understand how COVID-19 spreads, how it attacks the body, and how it could be treated or prevented, information has been in a constant state of flux. Therefore, it stands to reason that operational decisions that were made using what are now obsolete assumptions need to be revisited and revised. While no leader wants to continuously amend findings, in an unsettled environment, it is sometimes necessary. When course correction needs to be made, it is important to be forthright, transparent, and (as previously stated) always explain the why.

Maintain a Positive Attitude

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." So how do you maintain a positive attitude amid calamity? First, it is imperative that everyone in the fire service practice self-care, and this certainly includes the leadership team. There are many components to self-care, they range from the simple (blocking your calendar for 15 minutes twice a day to ensure you have time to take a breath) to the complex (a weeklong, technology-free sabbatical). Other essential components to self-care include:

  • Eating right
  • Maintaining a belief system
  • Having an exercise routine
  • Finding time to unplug

Many of these should be sacred and not just practiced if you have time. I recommend making them a priority by incorporating them into your daily schedule where applicable. For instance, blocking my calendar and exercising during lunch provides me with something to look forward to and helps break up a stressful day filled with meetings. Bringing lunch to work helps ensure I eat healthy (most of the time) and that I don't have to worry about where I'm going to find a meal.

Additionally, leaders must retain the proper perspective. "Perspective is powerful and can have both positive and negative effects on our well-being" (Ken Zweig, MD). Yes, this is where we discuss the proverbial glass half full/half empty analogy. I'll assume that you have enough glass half empty advocates at your organization, and you've probably seen the impact they can have on others. As fire service leaders, I am suggesting that we continually practice having an attitude of gratitude and work to show others what is positive and good. This doesn't mean that we won't continue to identify and address our challenges, but it does mean that we won't be pessimistic, defeatist, or disproportionately focus on what is wrong. The Mayo Clinic maintains that some of the health benefits of positive thinking include increased life span, lower rates of depression, more excellent resistance to illness, better psychological and physical well-being, better cardiovascular health, and better coping skills during hardships and times of stress (a.k.a. VUCA).

Leading in times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity isn't for the fainthearted. Decisions often have to be made quickly and with incomplete information. The preceding year has required us to deal with trials, tribulations, and a myriad of disasters of varying scales. Some of these have far eclipsed and outlasted any fire, earthquake, or hurricane we have ever had to manage. Hopefully, the recommendations above, coupled with the lessons learned during recent events, will help you become more resilient during future times of uncertainty. Remember, one of the most important things we can do during times of hardship is to be present and take care of ourselves and our team.


Dr. Joe Pennino, DPA, EFO, CFO, MIFirE, is the Deputy Fire Chief for Largo (Florida) Fire Rescue and teaches fire service leadership and public administration. He has been a member of the IAFC since 2014 and is a member of the Executive Fire Officer's Section.


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