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Safety & Health: Grassroots Leadership

Leadership. Ask a roomful of people to identify a leader and responses will range from very recognizable icons to the very obscure. The word leadership stirs perceptions and images that vary widely for each of us.

Quite frankly, we can't always define leadership, but we know it when we see it.

For fire service leaders, acknowledging this observation forms the core of how we should be building our leadership development programs. A concept of grassroots leadership can provide an invaluable development tool to keep your department fluid and progressive.

Arguably, the most influential leader in the fire service is the company officer. The position is one all senior officers migrated through on their way up the chain of command and the first introduction many of us had to fire service hierarchy. The company officer is that first level of action in the beehive we call the fire and emergency services.

Company officers supervise working groups (e.g., companies), develop personnel, ensure order is maintained at the basic organizational level and serve as the first representative the community often meets when their house is on fire. The company officer is the cog that is constantly turning in reaction to the external forces applied to a fire and emergency service (i.e., emergency calls, non-emergency calls, public appearances, etc.) and internal forces (i.e., staffing changes, new policy initiatives, organizational shifts, changes in practice, etc.).

From this perspective, it's imperative that fire and emergency service organizations recognize the importance of development at the first level of supervision.

A grassroots leadership approach will upset a rigid chain of command. However, just as those of us in executive positions chafed under certain elements of command and leadership during our careers, those behind us are doing the same.

Reconsidering how we develop leaders is essential if the fire and emergency service is to continue to evolve as a service-oriented entity. Under grassroots leadership, we let go of some traditional approaches to leadership. Focus on these two points as you build—or rebuild—your leadership training.

Clearly Communicate the Mission

Everyone in the organization has to understand what the purpose of the fire and emergency service is. The it's all about me philosophy that permeates society is destructive to the fire and emergency service.

The mission is simple and direct; serve others. Others include the people we protect as well as the people who make up our teams.

Instilling the concept of serving others is critical to the success of grassroots leadership. Introduced at the entry level, firefighters indoctrinated to the serving-others concept will end up as leaders who serve others above self.

The result is twofold: fulfillment of the fire and emergency service's core mission and the documented personal satisfaction realized from helping others.

Confirm Competence before Continuing

Grassroots leadership involves instilling the internal drive to master a position before promoting to the next level. In essence, this can be accomplished by introducing leadership opportunities and training before your organization's members test.

This point can be thorny for organizations in a state of high turnover or progress, but it's essential to organizational survival. An organization devoid of evolution is doomed to extinction or subject to revolution.

Leaders in the fire and emergency service, particularly the company officers, come from within the ranks. Introducing opportunities for personnel to develop leadership skills through a combination of institutionalized training, simulated situations and real life occurrences affirms that when formal leadership opportunities arise, there will be competent people to step in and take the reins.

Grassroots leadership requires innovative thinking, a degree of calculated risk-taking, an investment of adequate resources, a constant review of actions applied and a cautiously optimistic view of outcomes. If these thoughts remind you of how we successfully manage an incident scene, then you're already on your way to developing a successful grassroots leadership concept for your department.

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