6 levels of power for fire service leaders

Effective leaders need to possess all six levels of power, but some are more important than others

I was recently a presenter during motivational and leadership training for our university; we were using John Maxwell's series on the "Five Levels of Leadership." Our focus was on the fourth level of people development.

Maxwell's series is applicable to both fire department and fire ground leadership.

As a leader in an organization, people should look up to you. Just by the position you hold, you have various levels and forms of power. Legitimate, or formal power, exists merely by the position and title that you hold.

Closely related to formal power is reward power, which is your ability to give something to an individual; coercive power is your ability to discipline or take away. Expert power comes from the experience, expertise, and knowledge that you possess.

And finally, referent power is described as how much people like you and are willing to follow or perform based on that relationship. All are effective when properly used if they exist in a leader's toolbox.

Fire officers should have high levels of all of these types of power.

Power sharing
Another form of power that successful leaders should possess is the ability to share their power. This is scary for many leaders. As humans, we are sometimes selfish and insecure about giving what we have to others because it may get in the way of that dreadful fire service monster that we call egos.

As I told the group, it is incumbent upon a leader to develop his or her team members to the level of which they themselves serve. That means developing them through the use of the power you possess and sharing that power with them.

My good friend Ron Dennis refers to this through visual analogy he calls the empowerment chain. Ron uses two sticks bound together by a chain. At first, a leader may allow the follower only one to two chain-links away from him or her because trust and assurance may not have been demonstrated or developed.

Eventually through increased trust, the leader will add more and more chain links between the two, which leads to true empowerment. When a leader develops and empowers his or her subordinates and shares the power, great things can happen. Production, confidence, job satisfaction and team harmony evolves and the work unit, and organization, will flourish.

In the fire service, this plays out when senior officers allow junior officers more responsibility and decision-making authority. However, this must be closely monitored on the fire ground as there is a difference between firehouse and fireground urgency. While this can be seen as firefighters having greater authority to do their job, they must stay within the constructs of incident command.

As with other organizations, this will allow the fire department to flourish — or in other words, become more effective at emergency response.

Pitfalls of leadership
However, leaders may encounter pitfalls if they don't have sound situational awareness of their power. Some pitfalls arise if leaders don't have two of the important tools: managed confidence and managed vulnerability.

Leaders should possess self-confidence. Depending on the levels of the different forms of power, the level of confidence will vary. Ego can create a pitfall. Ego evolves when managed confidence doesn't exist.

It is healthy and good for a leader to have self-confidence, but there is a difference between this and ego. Followers want their leaders to be confident in their ability to lead, but not cocky because of the position they hold.

Given the high number of Type A personalities in fire service leadership roles, controlling ego is a very important factor.

If confidence isn't managed, it can get out of control and destroy the morale of the team. And, the empowerment chain may be handed back to the leader as followers will find somebody else to follow.

Managing vulnerability
Managed vulnerability is a little more challenging. While fire department leaders must demonstrate strong confidence in their leadership presence, they must also have a human side and admit their mistakes.

This lets their followers know they are not immune to errors. I once had a colleague who was directly under me in the organizational structure tell me that I shouldn't apologize; it's a sign of weakness. I'm just glad I don't work in the fire department in his battalion.

If you don't get my sarcasm, I totally disagree with his philosophy. There is managed vulnerability when you can gain followers' trust and confidence by being human in admitting to a mistake and showing your opportunity for improvement. I've received much more positive feedback by demonstrating managed vulnerability than I have somebody telling me I'm weak for apologizing.

However, there is merit to unmanaged vulnerability and weakness. If leaders have no confidence, rely on others to make decisions for them, and spend more time covering up their mistakes than owning up to them, the result will be the same as a venomous ego. Followers will turn in their stick on the empowerment chain and find others to follow, or worse, take over.

This disturbs team effectiveness and leads to chaos. Weak leadership in the firehouse can have the same results to weak leadership on the fireground — out of control fires.

Keeping contact
A final pitfall demonstrates my managed confidence and managed vulnerability. I have a great team of directors that run each respective division within my department; I have confidence as a leader that I have put the right spokes in the wheel.

I also recognize that I have a habit of losing contact. This is my managed vulnerability. Because I have a strong team and have extended the empowerment chain out to these talented individuals, I allow them to get things done without a great deal of direction and day-to-day interference by me. However, that can be unhealthy.

By me empowering my leaders/followers under me, I take on more tasks. Or at times, a single project may consume an extraordinary amount of time, and I focus on that. Meanwhile, the team under me begins to feel that I am too busy for them, or by asking for my input on issue, they are adding more on me.

As a result, there is less communication between us, which can harm our relationship, or the empowerment chain breaks because they wandered out so far. I catch myself doing this and have met with my team openly and told them this, and asked them to seek my input to force communications.

Two of my directors told me that they were glad I said that because they were doing exactly what I feared, they weren't seeking my input because they didn't want to bother. By me managing my vulnerability of admitting where I had an opportunity to improve, I also managed my confidence of being a better leader and of making the change to support them more.

Know what power you possess as a leader, know how to share your power with your team, manage your confidence and vulnerability, don't lose contact with your team just because they are doing their job, and never underestimate your influence on people everyday.

Finally, be safe!

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