Why fire departments won't rise above their chiefs

Bad leadership is a death sentence to fire departments as it cuts short others' attempts at leadership

I ride my bicycle to town past a church with a signboard out by the road. They change the message on this board frequently and it is often biblical and almost always religious in nature.

But today there was a different type of message there. It said simply, "No organization is able to rise above its leaders."

Of course this message can apply to religious entities, but the depth of the truth in it goes much further than that. No organization is able to rise above its leaders.

It may seem obvious. But many organizations ignore the importance of this message.

Two truths
There are two important aspects to this simple statement. The first involves defining leadership. Some people want to broaden the definition of who is a leader.

I am among those who want people to see leadership as a function of influence — anyone with influence is therefore in a leadership position. And since all firefighters have influence in some context, whether it is in the station, on an emergency scene, in the community, or just doing a preschool fire safety program, all firefighters are therefore leaders.

That said, it is also worth looking at the power component of leadership. The bugles on your collar do matter in terms of how much power you have to make decisions, spend money and establish priorities.

Fire chiefs create organizational standards and norms for their departments. They do this through the development of formal policies and procedures and also through their own behavior. What is desirable, what is tolerated, what is out of bounds — ultimately these norms are transferred from the top down.

Fire chiefs not only have the power to establish these standards and norms, but they also have the power to enforce them. What fire chiefs choose to enforce and what they choose to ignore creates a clear standard of what is valued in the department.

What is 'rising'
The second important concept in this simple statement is that of rising above. What does this really mean?

Does it mean that bad leadership is a death sentence for an organization and that those members with better motives and skills are helpless in the face of it?

Does it let individuals off the hook for needing to make ethical decisions if the leadership of the organization is less than ethical itself?

I believe that individuals are responsible for themselves and their decisions, regardless of the quality of the leaders above them. For example, if given the choice of whether to falsify expense reports to get additional compensation, any ethical person should refuse to do it. To say "I only did it because someone in a higher rank did it" is a copout.

When bad is normal
Yet this reasoning may often prevail. In a recent case where dozens of firefighters falsified expense reports and were disciplined as a result, it was found during arbitration that the practice of falsifying those reports was "so deep, long-standing and pervasive that it went beyond condonation to rise to the level of becoming almost a work rule."

When bad practice becomes an unwritten rule, an individual can still stand up against it. Unfortunately, making that stand may result in that individual being marginalized or directly attacked.

The individual may retain personal integrity, but the organization does not change. In many cases, individuals who try to stand up to consistently poor leadership find it necessary to leave the organization.

And this is what I think is meant by the statement on the church signboard.

Individuals may rise above their leadership, sometimes creating outlier communities of high ethics and cooperation and best practice as company officers or fire marshals or shift commanders. But if the overall leadership of the organization is flawed from the top down, on some level it is a death sentence for that organization.

Empower vs. control
The pattern often seen in organizations where defining leadership is flawed or absent is dispersed leadership of widely varying standards. Company officers will start developing their own standards for fire scene management and fire station culture, and behavior will not be predictable or at all consistent from station to station.

On some level this decentralization is inevitable, even among the best run fire departments. If you have eight stations and three shifts, as a chief you'll always have at least 24 fire departments to manage.

To a point, it is good to empower crews to solve problems at their own level and to address issues unique to their crew or district or assignment — but only to a point.

There have to be organizing principles that guide the department as a whole, against which all action is measured. This is what the best mission statements do — define those essential principles that are embraced and lived by all members.

At its core, the most important aspect of leadership is defining and demonstrating those core principles in every action, word, and decision. When such principles are in place, mistakes will still happen but can be forgiven and learned from. But when those principles are absent or corrupted, performance cannot be predicted or managed.

Some individuals will make good decisions and some will make terrible ones, and the latter group will ultimately come to define the organization. This is the ultimate truth of the statement that organizations can never rise above their leaders.

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