5 steps to organizational progress in the fire service

Challenge the file cabinets of past history in your fire department to achieve a visionary 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 first part of the series: Everybody doesn't need to be a pilot.

In the first article in this series on visionary leadership, we introduced the metaphoric comparison of pilots and their aircraft to visionary leaders and their organizations. The visionary leader sits in the cockpit, leading the way to the future. The fuselage houses the crew and constituents, where people are being taken care of and business is being conducted, while the tail of the plane represents the file cabinets of history, where you’ve already been – the past.

Within every organization, there are basically four types of people:

  1. Leaders
  2. Managers
  4. Slugs
Managers need to periodically reach back to the files cabinets of history to validate change and ideas, essentially to ask, answer and explain the why.
Managers need to periodically reach back to the files cabinets of history to validate change and ideas, essentially to ask, answer and explain the why. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Managers are responsible for implementing the leader’s vision, while the followers get it done. When you look at this leadership target, managers are the what, followers are the how, and hopefully, the leaders have explained it well enough for everyone to understand the why. I say hopefully, because the pilot will never know whether everything is going according to plan, unless he/she checks in with the crew occasionally.

The slugs, now, they’re creating drag on the tail, slowing you down or challenging you to explain the why. They’re usually in the back of the plane … it’s no mistake that the toilets are back there!

Managers need to periodically reach back to the files cabinets of history to validate change and ideas, essentially to ask, answer and explain the why. As painful as this process may be for some (including myself), most slugs, when faced with a legitimate understanding and explanation of the why, will come around to be followers. While it’s possible the slug needs to be flushed, it’s more likely that they are salvageable, although the 80/20 rule does come to mind.

Adapting and evolving

The main vulnerability in this file cabinet exercise is that validating ideas can easily become a slug-manager’s chance to explain why something can’t be done. If the leader has done a good job, those chances will be nothing more than a reality check for the manager. However, every once in a while, leaders are wrong. Managers digging through the file cabinets of history are usually the ones who point that out, sometimes at the most inopportune time, or sometimes with an agenda or axe to grind. If a leader isn’t firmly in control, this exercise can conjure a “tail-wagging-the-dog” situation.

Few model organizations exist that don’t adapt and change with the times. Whether it’s a new NFPA standard, an emerging industry protocol, changes in certification or credentialing, or politically-related change, it is incumbent on the leader to see the vision, be the vision and bring the future to their organization.

Leadership Target
Leadership Target

Managing the file cabinets of history and overcoming excuses is the real challenge; “this is the way we’ve always done it,” “administration won’t allow that,” “fires burn differently here,” “the volunteers or union won’t accept that,” “there’s no political appetite for that here,” “those are big-city ideas,” etc., etc.

Let’s understand that just because there may be some factual basis to some of these excuses, doesn’t mean a vision of change is unachievable ... it may just be just a little more difficult. I’ve been fortunate to work in the urban Washington, D.C. area (Prince George’s County, Md.) as well as in rural Mineral County, W.Va., and now in comparatively semi-rural Highlands County, Fla. I can attest that successful organizations adapt and evolve.

I can reflect on countless adaptations and changes over my 37 year career that have seen technology and practices go by the wayside:

  • Three-quarter boots
  • Back-step riding
  • Driver-only responses
  • Un-insulated leather helmets
  • 30-minute air cylinders
  • Pagers

Recognizing many departments around the country still use older paging technologies and wear some 30-minute cylinders, there will come a day when we’re all going to be able to say they’re gone. These changes and adaptations didn’t merely happen because the chief came in and said, “I say, so ye shall do.” Think about all those things I mentioned and how the fight played out within your organization, and the excuses you heard.

Provide a basis for progress

We need chiefs with vision, managers who understand and believe in the vision, and staff who implement the vision – the leaders, managers and followers. So how do you manage the past, while implementing the future? Use these tips to help sort through your file cabinets to hopefully provide a basis for progress.

  1. Always acknowledge the past – those who automatically dismiss the past wholly as a series of mistakes or errors in leadership judgement have damned their justification for change before they begin. Not all of the past is bad.
  2. Make sure managers are empowered to use the past and the present to question change – managers aren’t blind sheep, they’re human beings who need to get to why so they can wholeheartedly support the what and how.
  3. Provide a basis for routine examination and evaluation of the file cabinets of the past. Just because something made the drawer five years ago, surely doesn’t provide the only basis for its validity today. Make sure you have a strategic look at your programs, operations and administration. A regularly scheduled review by work groups or relevant internal constituents provides the opportunity to validate change, the need for change, and/or the need to purge the file cabinet.
  4. Make sure the file cabinets have a gate keeper. Unguarded file cabinets of the past become easy targets for intrusion and manipulation. Protecting the records of your past are just as important as acknowledging or rejecting them.
  5. Much like a flight attendant prioritizes safety and service, prioritize material/functionality of and access to the file cabinets of the past into these five categories:
    • Legal basis
    • Core mission
    • Political
    • Convenience
    • What not to do

I challenge you to prioritize what’s in your file cabinets of the past. I also challenge you to, well, challenge the past. “That’s the way it’s always been done” is one of the sorriest excuses I’ve heard to avoid progress and change. Blind dismissiveness of change because the file cabinet says so, is a reflection of mediocrity in action.

Like the toilets on that trans-continental flight, your file cabinets are likely full of history preserved for historical knowledge, self-preservation, a legal basis, and for providing the why that many may have forgotten. You don’t have to flush everything from the file cabinets of the past, yet if you’re going to succeed, you can’t and don’t need to hoard everything. What’s in your file cabinets? Send me an email at Marc.Bashoor@firerescue1.com or share your comment below.

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