Everybody doesn’t need to be a pilot

Effective fire chiefs and officers reflect on the past to validate the present and chart the future


Leadership is a multi-dimensional discipline, requiring adaptive style and function. What would it be like, if everybody was a pilot, flying their own plane with no crew or passengers? Or if every fire chief was a visionary, driving a fire engine with no crew?

Visionary Leadership is a series exploring how to balance the past, present and future, collaborating with fire officers and crew members to carry out a successful vision for the fire service based on my experiences throughout 37 years in emergency services. Read the next part of the series: 5 Steps to organizational progress in the fire service

The concept of visionary leadership is often misunderstood. Successful progressive organizations are marked by leaders that can envision the future and strive to bring that future to the organization – as opposed to trying to bring the organization to the future.

Yet successful organizations are also marked by managers who operate in the reality of today, and those who constantly reach to the past, looking through a database of past experience and lessons learned to either explain why something can’t be done, validate their point or help mold change. Those managers may not be visionary, but they are necessary.

Leaders who will help the organization succeed have the ability to operate effectively in the present, while balancing their past history and the organizational push towards the future.

Successful progressive organizations are marked by leaders that can envision the future and strive to bring that future to the organization. (Photo/USAF)
Successful progressive organizations are marked by leaders that can envision the future and strive to bring that future to the organization. (Photo/USAF)

The 20,000 feet view

Compare your organization’s leadership to an airplane. Pilots sit in the cockpit at the plane’s nose, directing forward progress. The fuselage carries the bulk of the passengers, who don’t see much beyond their immediate area, though some window dwellers stand out with their 360-degree view.  

In your organization, visionaries seek out the next latest/greatest piece of the future to bring back to the department. Most members are comfortably challenged to get things done. And some look to where you’ve been, the past history of your organization.

The leaders stuck in the past (nothing is ever possible, no change is good, and the future is fraught with failure) are always fighting progress.

Leaders stuck in the middle, who never look forward or back, refusing to learn from the past or reach for the future, will only be successful for a short period of time. Either the past or future will squash them like a steam roller.

And leaders who spend all their time in the future will only succeed for so long, before they’re swept off the cockpit windshield like a bug.

Avoid progress for the sake of progress

It’s important to recognize that not every latest/greatest innovation is right for every organization. The dilemmas of finance, politics, personal agendas, staffing levels, and so on will influence what works for your agency. The concept of visionary leadership, however, will challenge every one of those dilemmas. Visionaries will always see a way forward, even if it’s years away. The dilemma for the visionary leader is figuring out how to balance the organization’s reality with the needs/desires that intertwine in the future.

Effective leaders must be able to take people where they need to be, which may not be where they want to go. That said, a future achieved by brute force rarely succeeds. The “where we need to be” future is always easier to accept with a massaged message as opposed to a punch to the face. Success will also be measured by visionary leaders’ abilities to exercise the art of participative leadership with other managers and employees, including subordinates in goal setting, problem solving and team building.

Much like the captain occasionally walks through the fuselage to check on passengers, visionary leaders must ensure they’re regularly checking in with the officers on the wings and tail (or the street, in our case) to get that reality-check and to ensure the organizational vision is both valid and understood. The slippery slope of speed for the sake of speed can become an avalanche of failure without street-level validation.

While you’ll occasionally see those visionaries walking through the fuselage of your organization, neither the Captain nor the visionary spend much time at the tail – they always come back to the nose.

We need visionary leaders who are able to grab relevant pieces of the future and bring them back to the realities of the organization. While those leaders operate in this period of reality, they need to engage organizational members to understand their goals and mold the future.

It is important to reach into those organizational file cabinets housing past history to validate your new path forward. Let’s face it though, a lot of what’s in those file cabinets is out of date, and, frankly, should be shredded.

While the past is the future’s nemesis, successful managers are comfortable with the past, the present and the future. A plane without a nose, wings and a tail will eventually crash, and an organization that doesn’t reflect on it’s past to validate the present and chart the future will eventually fail.

More in the Visionary Leadership series

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