Leadership styles change – and that’s a good thing

Lessons in volunteer fire service leadership highlight teamwork, self-awareness and embracing the unique skills of members

I was 30 years old when I became fire chief of the Vienna (Virginia) Volunteer Fire Department, in my opinion, too young by any measure. But, like many volunteer fire departments, the bench of available leadership wasn’t very deep. And, like many people in volunteer leadership, I had no formal leadership training.

I came in as a brash, “everyone should be a superstar,” “everyone needs to go above and beyond”-style leader whose only metric that mattered was the volume of staffed shifts. However, I quickly learned that staffed shifts are not the only measure of a successful volunteer organization.

As my life experiences have continued to evolve, so has my leadership style. Whether it’s through the experience of becoming a father, the volatility of the pandemic or just age – and maybe even a touch of wisdom – I’ve softened my hardline leadership approach and, to this day, continue to strive to improve my emotional quotient (EQ) or emotional intelligence.

"Growth and evolution are a good thing for you, your department and, ultimately, the community you serve and should be embraced and applauded," writes Morrison. (Photo/Getty Images)

Here’s what I’ve learned throughout my career as a volunteer fire chief, navigating various member motivations and personal leadership styles along the way.

Building a team

The fireground is a place for command and control, while the people management and leadership team of your volunteer fire department should strive for collaboration and consensus building. Building a team that’s comfortable with challenging your way of thinking, and ensuring that they feel comfortable questioning the why, is central to a successful organization.

Respectful dissent from members of all ranks, and especially those in leadership positions, is crucial to success and encourages both diversity of thought and an opportunity to pivot when the wrong decision is about to be made. But when the chief ultimately makes a decision, all members of leadership need to be on board. Those who are not on board should not dissent publicly, as that can rapidly poison an organization. As new leaders join my team, I have found that watching the scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where Captain Miller explains that “Gripes go up” helps reiterate the chain of command and that when a decision is made, they need to support publicly, and express any dissent privately to me.

To this day, I still catch myself occasionally jumping back to my hardline leadership style and applying fireground strategy to management decisions, but I now know that it behooves me to validate my approach and reasoning through my deputy chief, who tends to be more deliberate than me. This leadership pairing has lasted for over a decade and plays a large part in the strength of our department. A fire chief who manages their organization as a dictatorship will find themselves leading an organization of one.

Embracing all volunteers

I have found that people who join volunteer fire departments have something they want to give back to the community. Figuring out how to play up their strengths will provide a diverse set of volunteers who strengthen your department. You might have a firefighter who rides all the time and contributes to staffing many operational shifts, or you might have the administrative volunteer who can only provide a few hours a month to help out with fundraising. Either way, both people provide critical hours to the department that create a synergy to aid in the success of the overall organization.

In my department, our operational leadership team meets at least quarterly to review participation of each operational member. We know that each member’s availability and life circumstances ebb and flow, and for those whose participation does not meet required standards, a simple conversation detailing a path forward usually suffices to get them back on track.

Having self-awareness

As Captain D. Michael Abrashoff stated best in “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy,” “Leaders need to understand how profoundly they affect people, how their optimism and pessimism are equally infectious, how directly they set the tone and spirit of everyone around them.”

I often have other things to do beyond being at the station dealing with administrative or personnel matters. However, after being a volunteer fire chief for 13 years, I better understand how this aspect of the role is required in order to run a smooth department.

Thinking back to when I joined the department at the age of 16, I thought being a volunteer fire chief meant that you just ride in the fire SUV all the time and tell people what to do. What I have come to realize is that riding a unit is only a quarter of the role. The rest is about effecting change within the department, mentoring and motivating members, and as the old adage goes, helping the department “keep the main thing the main thing.” Professionalism and attitude are key to the success of a volunteer fire chief.

Welcoming change and growth

Leadership styles change as we mature, gain experience and, yes, even make mistakes. You aren’t growing if you don’t make mistakes. Growth and evolution are a good thing for you, your department and, ultimately, the community you serve and should be embraced and applauded.

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