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Fire service leadership: How to effectively use power

A deeper understanding of how to use the different types of power will make fire officers better leaders

My last column, “6 Levels of Power for Fire Service Leaders,” discussed the various types and levels of power that a fire service officer may possess. We examined some of the opportunities and pitfalls that leaders may experience during their journey.

Formal power, often referred to as legitimate power, comes naturally with the position we hold in an organization. It could be the fire chief, training officer, company officer, or even veteran firefighter.

The use of other powers that may be associated with formal power such as reward and coercive (discipline), depending on the level of formal power you possess, are further useful because your position will seldom give you all that you need to be successful.

There is no doubt that referent power, or your charisma and how much people like you, makes things much easier.

Remarkable referent power
I recall my first career fire department in 1990. I was a 19-year-old kid coming into a profession of which I knew little about. I was assigned to B-shift. My lieutenant was a veteran nicknamed “Soup.”

Soup had a remarkable way of using his referent power to get us to accomplish everything needed. He possessed the most natural charismatic qualities I had ever encountered.

Our shift accomplished more than the other two just because Soup asked us to. And, because he liked to have fun, most of what we accomplished probably wasn’t in the best interest of our health, safety and the law, but what the hell … we were with Soup.

Soup empowered us through his referent power. We didn’t worry about doing things or not doing them because we would get praise or in trouble, and not even because he was a lieutenant. Heck, we had a captain above him that we would have to deal with if we failed. We did it because we didn’t want to let Soup down.

Individuals with this much referent power in leadership positions unfortunately are not in abundance. There are many great leaders out there who have great referent power qualities, but in most cases it’s a combination of powers.

While Soup may be one end of the spectrum, in many cases, it can be far worst. Two other areas merit digging into a little deeper: the ineffective use of formal power and informational power.

Ineffective formal power
Many of us have encountered individuals in leadership positions who possess formal power but are totally inept and ineffective. While they may be very experienced and educated individuals, the position in which they serve doesn’t fit them, or they may have served in the position longer than they should have.

Whether it be through preparation, or ego, something happens. There is a distinct difference between confidence and ego. When ego creeps into the use of formal power, disaster can occur.

When individuals possess an ego and are unable to manage their self-confidence, they can become resistant to change as well. It’s “their way or the highway.”

Despite all of the external information that may be presented to them, they are stuck in their own belief and value system because they’ve existed there and are comfortable, and are willing to die on the sword as uncompromising. Changing their position may make them look weak and they may feel uncomfortable.

You will also see these individuals criticizing and spreading false information about new trends and information so they can hold onto their own comfort zone. This has lead me to an interesting observation, many who advocate and promote change, are often the very ones who are reluctant to implement change because their egos want allow it.

Inept followers
Far worse than the inept leader is when followers are afraid to challenge the inept leader or the position, and will go along, despite the fact there may be others who have a better perspective or idea but choose not to speak up for fear. An excellent book on this is “The Abilene Paradox and Other Mediations of Management” by Jerry Harvey, a professor of management science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

A worse situation is when those followers begin conducting themselves in the same negative manner as the leader of which they are following.

Professor Harvey describes the many reasons why we may follow a leader or an idea simply because we are afraid to speak up. In the fire service, we are very guilty of this because we tend to create fire-service gods and legends.

Whether the information or direction the fire service leader presents is accurate, we follow simply because of who they are. There are legends that we should follow, but we must examine the information they disseminate as to whether it represents best practices or out-dated trends.

We have also developed a culture of “never question authority.” Whether it be in the firehouse, the classroom, the boardroom or on the fire ground, there are appropriate times when we should question individuals.

Otherwise, we are on the “Road to Abilene” with Professor Harvey, or worse case, putting another name at the National Fallen Firefighters memorial in Emmitsburg. A good leader will take the time to explain and share, a bad leader will say, “because I said so” or “do you know who I am?”

Informational power
Many of us have experienced individuals in leadership positions who possess informational power, or expert power, but refuse to share it. In many cases, once they share the information, they no longer have the upper hand. They want to maintain control and everything is shared on an “as needed” basis.

This too can make the fire company dysfunctional. Without sharing information, much of the information they possess can be outdated or false.

Think about the information that has evolved over the years in suppression tactics or EMS patient care that was once contrary to what we know now. What if we still operated now based only on the information we knew then?

Good leaders use their formal power to build their team, or move a body of people toward a common goal and desired positive outcome. Whatever information they may possess, within boundaries and confidentiality of course, they are eager to share. They are mentors and teachers.

Soup certainly made a mistake or two and even lead us down a bumpy road that landed him in the chief’s office. But he knew how to use his referent power to get us as a shift to do our job, and he took the blame if he was wrong.

Admitting when you are wrong is a critical behavior in the exercise of good leadership. He used his position of authority when it was necessary, but more often than not, he was one of us.

He used information that he possessed to make us better as firefighters and paramedics. His agenda was to have the best and most dependable shift in the department.

Were we seen as the goof-offs? You bet! Could we run circles around the others? No doubt!

Fire service leaders must look into the mirror to see if they are holding others back because of what they don’t know, are afraid to learn, or are afraid to change.

Be safe!

Billy D. Hayes retired as fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 2020. He previously served as the fire marshal for the University of South Alabama, vice president of university relations for Columbia Southern University, the director of community affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Riverdale, Georgia. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a certificate in local government management from the University of Georgia. Hayes is a past president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and past chairman of the board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. He authored the Public Fire and Life Safety Education chapter of “The Fire Chief’s Handbook” (7th Edition). Hayes is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Hayes on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.