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Clear the Path For Your Firefighters

What stands in the way of your firefighters doing their job? Take a moment and look at your fire department; its operations (policies and procedures), training and facilities. Now look at you, their leader. Do your fire department’s systems — operations, training and facilities — and your leadership provide a clear path for your firefighters to accomplish their goals? How can you, as their leader, remove the obstacles that clutter the path to their goals?

Picture your crew’s workday:

  • A station full of modern technology that can be confusing and sometimes difficult to operate
  • Policies telling them what they can’t do and procedures telling them how to do everything
  • A training division pulling them in different directions (fire, EMS, hazmat, etc.)
  • A fire station and equipment that must be inspected and maintained

And then there’s you, their leader, and your requirements and expectations. There’s more to learn, more to do, and much less time to get it all done. How can you help your firefighters get past all of those obstacles and accomplish their goals?

As their leader, your goal is to enhance your firefighters’ performance and personal satisfaction by focusing on their motivation. Your challenge is to use a leadership style that best meets their motivational needs, one that makes the path to their goals clear and easy to travel through coaching and direction.

Simply put, I believe the role of the leader is to provide the necessary information, support and resources over and above those provided by the fire department to ensure both your firefighters’ personal satisfaction and effective performance. Company leaders must work with their firefighters to define goals, clarify the path to reach those goals, clear the obstacles from that path and then provide the support needed to accomplish the goals.

Company officer leadership defines goals, clarifies the path, removes obstacles and provides support.

Company leaders can help their firefighters along the path to their goals by using specific behaviors that are best suited to fit their needs and the situation they are working in. The following leadership behaviors, used at the appropriate times, can help you clear the path for your firefighters:

1. Directive leadership is behavior toward providing structure to your firefighters — letting them know what they are expected to do, scheduling and coordinating work, giving specific guidance, and clarifying rules, regulations, and procedures.

2. Supportive leadership is behavior that addresses the satisfaction of your firefighters’ needs, displaying concern for their welfare and creating a friendly and supportive environment where they are treated as equals and with respect.

3. Participative leadership is behavior that invites your firefighters to share in decision making — consulting with them, obtaining their ideas and opinions, and integrating their suggestions into the decisions.

4. Achievement-oriented leadership is behavior that challenges your firefighters to perform at their highest level possible — it’s when you are confident that your firefighters are capable of establishing and accomplishing challenging goals.

Unfortunately, one practical outcome of these behaviors is that they treat leadership as a one-way event, where everything the leader does affects the firefighters. This may cause your firefighters to become dependent on you to accomplish their work. It can place a great deal of responsibility on your shoulders, and much less on theirs. This can become counterproductive if it promotes dependency on you or if you fail to recognize the full capabilities of your firefighters.

Based on these leadership behaviors, you should be directive when tasks are complex, and when tasks are dull you should provide support. You should be participative when your firefighters need control, and achievement-oriented when they need to excel. The important thing is that you must carefully assess your firefighters and their tasks and then choose an appropriate leadership style to match.

A firefighter’s day is filled with many obstacles: responding to emergency calls, training requirements, rules and regulations, station and equipment maintenance, new technology, and many other potential hurdles. As their leader, your goal should be to motivate them to be productive and satisfied with their work.

Your team’s effectiveness will depend on the fit between your behavior and the characteristics of your firefighters and their tasks. Clearing the path for your firefighters, by directing, guiding and coaching them along the way, will help you and your firefighters reach your goals.

Fire department company officers can influence every part of fire station life, from culture and motivation to LODD reduction. Learn to lead effectively with Billy Schmidt’s FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘The Company Officer.’
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