Sunday, April 24, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (4 of ?) Leadership

This is part 4 of a multi-part series. You should have read the preceding parts: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three before moving onto this one.
 Good Leaders run good teams, there is no doubt about it. Poor or weak leaders can still run pretty good teams if they know they are poor leaders and rely on those within their team to carry part of the burden and those people are capable.
 Leadership in the Fire Service is such a vast topic that many books have been written on the subject and any Department leader, line Officers candidates and above should be studying these regularly. I can't even attack the tip of the iceberg in one post and I'm not going to try. For an excellent blog reference on this subject, I would direct all my readers over to Firehouse Zen for consistently good stuff. I wrote this post last year and it provides a good lead in for the post you are reading now.
 In the Volunteer Service we all have choices and the biggest of those is whether we want to be here or not. A poor leader can usually help us make that choice. A strong Leader, who is predictable and a pleasure to work for, can also, make it fun and enjoyable to volunteer. How many times do you need to come home from a meeting, drill, or a call, all pissed off, before you decide to do something else with your time? Conversely, aren't you more likely to attend these same events if you are likely to return home with a smile on your face and a good feeling? I know I am, and so, whenever I 'lead' something, whether it's a drill, meeting, or work party, my primary goal is to make sure the people involved know that they accomplished something and their time was well spent and appreciated.
 We expect a lot of our Leaders in the Volunteer Service, in many cases we expect too much. If you have not carried the burden of Leadership it is easy to lose sight of just how hard it can be, especially in matters of life safety. So when the Lt. yells at you for not paying attention when footing a ladder, you think he's pissed off at you. He, in turn, is thinking about what will happen if that ladder kicks out while you are distracted. Two very different points of view, are they not? Being perfect is a difficult task even for the experienced Leader, how can we expect that perfection from a person who is only on the job a few hours a week? Most folks are very quick to judge what a Leader "Should have done", without taking the time to think about what is required to 'do that'.
 Now if we turn back to my original approach of observing best practices in the volunteer service, here are some things I have seen that work for the Departments using them.
 Don't push your younger members into leadership positions before they are 'ready'. Getting them started early will most likely overload them when they find out what is required and begin to get hammered by the members when they miss something. This can ruin them for a position that might be well suited for a little later on.
 Give your new leaders support by way of mentor-ship, providing them with documentation that they can use to 'fill in the blanks' and get going. Don't make them re-invent the wheel when they take Office.
 Make sure they have a clear understanding of EXACTLY what their responsibilities are and it MUST be in writing (remember your communications skills).
 Remind the rank and file folks of how difficult the job can be and encourage them to support their leaders.
 Have a clear structure they can work within.
 If a leader is not 'working out' for whatever reason, have a non-punitive mechanism for replacing them, so that they can try again later when they are better prepared.
 One of the key things I have noted in the Volunteer side of things is the practice of rotating Leaders on a fairly regular basis. Don't burn out your strong leaders, let them take a year or two off and give somebody else a chance. This deepens the pool and it allows those rotating out to pursue other things, such as instructing or gaining advanced training outside the Department. In the meantime, these Leaders are available to help the new ones get their legs.
 On the other hand, our leaders have the responsibility to carry themselves in a predictable manner. The leader needs to maintain the department operations as designed, give their members what they need to get their jobs done properly and safely, and carry any issues up the chain of command as required. A good leader stands up for his people when they are in the right, and he corrects them when they are in the wrong. Varying from this, even in the slightest, creates confusion and only undermines the Leader's credibility.
 Make sure your new leaders are recognized when they do well. We often forget that a long time, proven member is 'starting fresh' when they step up, and they need that 'pat on the back' to remind them they are on the right course. Their confidence may be starting over from the bottom as they take on the new job. This type of recognition can come directly from the crew and does not always have to be from above. So if you are a front-line member, remember to thank the Lt. when he does a good job. Don't assume he knows it.
 A phenomenon that has always fascinated me in the VFD is that no matter what a person does for a living, when they put on that White Helmet, we expect them to be the perfect leader, right out of the box. It just doesn't work that way. Leaders are MADE, not born.
 So to sum it up, if we don't start with good leadership, the chances of having a good Department are limited. I used to work at a company where the unofficial motto was "Around here we don't believe in miracles, we RELY on them." Well, if you don't have a way to train your leaders and support them, then you too, are relying on miracles. The good news is, we can create good leaders if we all work together, cut some slack when needed, and pitch in when that is needed.
 This is already longer than I wanted it to be, but here is a quick story: Just a few days ago I was at a Department dinner and was talking with an Assistant Chief from a neighboring Department about an new Assistant Chief in a third Department. This new Chief was a front line Captain, top notch, always at the front of the fight and had no problem leading an interior attack crew and making good decisions. But at a recent structure fire this Assistant Chief found himself in command. As my conversation partner told it: "He was standing on the front lawn with his airpack on trying to do a risk assessment, a 360, coordinate crews, pick an attack plan, and make entry. I told him to take off the airpack and give it to a jake that could use it, HE was in charge and needed to stay put and make decisions, WE would carry out his decisions, just make the call. He looked really 'conflicted' and told me to grab 'those 3 guys and hit the front door'. Well, when I got into the living room, I turned around and he was standing next to me. We're gonna have to work together to train this guy up. He just can't let a crew go in without him. He doesn't get it yet that when he goes in, he is abandoning the incident leadership."
 Now we both know this guy and love him. We also know he will make a great leader, but we need to invest some time in him and get him through this next level. Both of us know he can do it, and we also know it is going to be hard for him, but he WILL be able to do this well. It just takes some time and patience.
NEXT UP: TRAINING (My favorite subject!)

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