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Transforming the Fire Service Through Collective Leadership

The fire service has evolved into all-risk preparedness and response organizations focused on community service. But currently, our profession is in danger of being redefined by economic influences outside our control. Our fire service leaders' efforts to educate the public on our value are failing to influence decision-makers faced with massive budget deficits.

A wider voice is needed for us to be active participants in shaping our future. While our leaders continue to act strategically with our external influencers, they should also focus on nurturing an internal culture of collective leadership through transparency, inclusion and process.

It's important to draw a distinction between leader and leadership. Leader is a position; however, the position doesn't guarantee leadership, which is an act that can be conducted by anyone regardless of position within an organization.

Leadership from the bottom is a phrase that can be used to describe how transformational change can be initiated by any member of the organization. Effective leaders recognize when to lead and when to step into a supportive role that allows the organization to move forward.

To accomplish collective leadership, it must be defined by the organization as a group dynamic. William Rosenbach has become renowned for his focus on followership presenting multiple perspectives on the leader-follower relationships. In Contemporary Issues in Leadership, he states:

"Leadership Is Everyone's Business … In classes and workshops we regularly ask people to share a story about a leader … whose direction they would willingly follow … From this exercise we hope they will discover for themselves what it takes to have an influence on others … [We] want them to discover the power that lies within each of us to make a difference."

Our organizations consist of members who have diverse knowledge, skills and abilities, but we have a common mission. When employees' emotional and intellectual worth are valued and their expertise becomes an integral part of our organizational processes, a synergistic effective can happen. They are likely to become champions for the organization and may become key influencers within our communities.

Putting Theory into Practice

Here's a four-step process that can be used to transform a department with no centralized training into a department that demonstrates capability driven by those with organizational respect.

Establish baseline expectations – Referencing recognized standards, a small group demonstrates what should be considered smart practices. Consensus is gained and a training cycle is developed and implemented where all members perform a specific function, such as fire attack or search and rescue. Comments are captured from all participants and a summation of how we do it is documented into a playbook.

Nurture talent – Members with organizational respect—who demonstrate passion and expertise—are at the core of the process. They come together to offer their expertise in developing and implementing specific playbooks. These members become the champions of the processes that define how we should play when performing many of our high-risk, low-frequency emergency responses.

Motivate the rank and file – A transparent process is used to get buy in. Everyone in Operations is required to participate in scenario-based training where expectations are preestablished, distributed and explained before the hands-on training. They are asked to "show us a better way" and then tell us "what we missed" before the playbook is finalized. This results in greater acceptance because they were active participants in the results.

"What gets measured gets done, what gets measured and feedback gets done well, what gets rewarded gets repeated."
– John E. Jones

Assess capability – Comprehensive exercises are used to institutionalize the components of the playbook. Crews participate in an exercise that demonstrates multiple components contained within the playbook. Since they don't know what specific component they'll be assigned, crews are motivated to be proficient at all aspects being measured. The 360-degree assessments document our capability in performing critical emergency responses.

Active facilitation is at the core of any process. The participants are guided through the journey—with established ground rules—with benchmarks to meet. Since they were active participants in the outcome, they become champions looking for additional opportunities to change "how we play."

Abraham Maslow's research on basic human needs provides leaders incentive to build inclusive processes into the organization. The importance of leadership within teams is captured in his text Maslow on Management:

"The more influence and power you give to someone else in the team situation, the more you have for yourself."

Fire service organizations can experience transformational change by building transparent, inclusive processes with clearly defined goals and measurable objectives. Whether selecting apparatus, designing a health and safety program or developing standard operating procedures, it's all about the process.

Leaders often fail not because of what we do, but how we do it. Fire service leaders should embrace opportunities to build these processes where our combined talents are leveraged. This combined with collective leadership will result in resilient organizations able to more effectively influence the direction of the fire service through a broader voice.

Dave Matthew provided this article.

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