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Chiefs of the pandemic: Traditional hierarchical leadership is not what we need

The chief’s most important decisions involve selecting and employing teams of leaders


Spokane firefighters suited up for duty.

Photo/Spokane FD

I study leadership, failure and human nature, sometimes academically, but most often out a drive to learn – and my own curiosity.

As I watched the situation escalate, it became clear to me in late-February that numerous failures in leadership throughout governments worldwide allowed a preventable disease in a single country spin out of control, resulting in widespread loss of life, destruction of social order and sacrificed human dignity.

Most of my colleagues who serve, or have served, as chief officers learned the fundamentals of crisis management through experience and modeling. We watched our predecessors’ careers rise and fall on their ability to lead emergencies (multiple alarm fires, floods, earthquakes, wildland fires) and to navigate politically charged hurdles (tax increases, layoffs, capital programs). We learned how to project pragmatic optimism, how to be decisive, and how to communicate with our members and the public.

Sure, we exercised our departmental resources and incident management teams with Public Health Agencies during the Ebola crisis, the SARS outbreak and the swine-flu crises. But despite all of those experiences, nothing we did was a ready-made template for COVID-19. In our other experiences, we responded in our comfortable, hierarchical leadership environment and took care of business. We were successful, celebrated and eventually placed a three-ring emergency management binder back on the shelf and went to the next fire.

‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste” during the waning times of World War II.

The message should resonate with us as fire chiefs, especially during our most recent outbreak experience. In 2015, when Ebola grew to an epidemic, we watched closely in Spokane because our community is one of only a few special pathogens units in the country that were designed specifically to treat Ebola patients.

The Ebola crisis ramped up quickly and subsided almost as fast, albeit leaving thousands of dead in its wake.

As an emergency community, we ignored the next step – focusing on improvements or significant reforms in the global pathogen context. This failure to act ultimately facilitated the conditions for future crises to persist. In the paraphrased words of our friend Gordon Graham, this condition we are all facing now was predictable – and it should have been preventable.

[Read next: Billy Goldfeder asks, “Why are the history lessons for everyone except us?”]

Fast-forward to 2020. The global healthcare warning system and mitigation efforts failed. The pandemic is widespread in the U.S., and it is rapidly spreading. People in our communities and our organizations are suffering. Many are dying. The situation does not get any more real than when we see our people suffer line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) from a virus that originated across the world.

Leading from the front

Our experience suggests that fire chiefs need to get in the front and lead the community as we face this new risk. Demonstrating that behavior, based solely on what worked last time, is not helpful. I am offering a different perspective based on my experience and reflection thus far.

Fire chiefs have been the community focal point for trusted information and an organized, reliable and professional response. That is what we do. The white helmet, command presence and decisiveness bring calm to complicated problems. Complicated problems may be challenging tactically, but they are addressable with guidelines, policies or algorithms. We can apply those tools inside a system or process (think ICS, Blue Card, budget process, accreditation, etc.), and it is usually successful working inside a hierarchical or command and control structure.

But these solutions hardly ever work with complex problems (e.g., homelessness, blockchain, global economic recovery, pandemics). Complex challenges involve too many variables and too many interrelated determinants to reduce the solution to standard guidelines and processes. Complex systems can be fickle and unpredictable, presenting a wide range of potential outcomes. The type and the number of interactions stop us from making perfect predictions.

A highly contagious global virus is a complex problem. There are no algorithms that illustrate step-by-step how to respond, and the complexity of this pandemic guarantees that variables will inevitably change or disappear between planning and execution.

Leaders must intentionally step back and look at the larger theater. There is myriad data shared on social media, news stories of people dying, and an extremely anxious public and first responder communities. As this pandemic begins to stabilize, fire service organizations will find themselves either in a catastrophic state or in a resilient state. The leader’s primary responsibility is to avoid over-managing and focus on people, risk and resilience.

Focus on people

Although extremely difficult, chiefs must resist centralizing control to this pandemic. The conventional placement for the chief during a complicated crisis is at the center of activity. Usually, that is what is expected, and what we do, even though for us to be successful, it is precisely the opposite action needed.

Interdisciplinary teams of people are the most capable of solving even the worst problems. Thus, the leader’s most important decisions involve selecting and employing teams of leaders.

Teams cannot be empowered or remotely successful if there is any uncertainty in direction or priority. A formal doctrine in the form of a leader’s intent is crucial when developing teams. The leader’s intent is an explicit, concise statement about what the team must do to succeed in their duties.

The doctrine should include three essential components:

  1. Task – The what. Explain the objective of the team’s assignment.
  2. Purpose – The why. Explain a clear connection to the broader mission.
  3. End state – The How. Explain how the situation should look when the team’s assignment is successful.

Greater detail to the formal leader’s intent adds the clarity of purpose, establishes long- and short-term priorities, and enable teams to be fully empowered. Fully empowered teams will allow the leader to ensure that people are making the right decisions with the most on-the-ground information – that is key. Highly reliable teams operate with a great deal of autonomy. Be careful; autonomy does not mean the team works in isolation. Communication inside the team is as important to its leadership and collaborators.

Focus on risk and resilience

Chiefs operate in systems every day. We work in political, socioeconomic, budgetary and hierarchical systems that are very black and white. In most of those systems, we are contributors, not architects.

How leaders establish the framework for teams is critical, and most of the focus should be on creating a system that plans for big-picture risk.

PACE planning is an acronym used in the military for contingency planning and can help manage risk while developing a plan to improve resilience:

  • P: Primary Operational Plan is designed to best meet the protection objectives considering the probability of success and acceptable level of risk. (Shift incident action plans, EOC mitigation plans, existing public health plans, etc.).
  • A: Alternate Operational Plan is the identified fall back should the primary plan be compromised. The alternative plan is based on the next best direction for success while meeting objectives (alternative care centers, staffing changes, deployment, etc.).
  • C: Contingency Plan is identified for the activity that quickly exceeds the viability of the Alternate Plan due to disease movement or resource availability. (med-surge, field triaging, hospitals, etc.)
  • E: Emergency Plan is for the worst-case scenario. Triggers based on risk have been pre-identified (military involvement, medical-ethical triggers, evacuations, extreme laws limiting movement, etc.).

Even though PACE methodology was devised to build a communication contingency plan for the military, the principles are relevant for every high-risk situation, including the pandemic.

Remember that failing to plan is planning to fail, and failure is not an option.

Future leaders emerge

Leading teams of leaders in this complex, time-compressed and ever-changing COVID-19 environment is nothing less than stressful and demanding to navigate. Moments of crisis like this can reveal a great deal about your teams and colleagues.

As our communities work to flatten the curve and make progress at preventing deaths from the virus, we should spend deliberate time on reflection. Besides the standard after-action reviews and expected political rhetoric, take time to reflect on those in your organization who rose to the occasion, those who struggled, and look deeply to understand why.

When considering succession planning for leadership, those people in the organization who rose to the occasion and were successful, regardless of rank, are likely future leaders in the organization that will bring with them an exceptional experience.

Navigate a course ahead

As a nation and as a fire service, we are entering a new phase of understanding. From a narrow mindset perspective, some will call it a “new normal.” From the viewpoint of a growth mindset, the post-crisis phase is an opportunity.

As we face the inevitable economic crisis in the coming months and likely years, chiefs right now should be building resilience for their people and communities, and navigating a course to the future.

Brian Schaeffer serves as the fire chief of the Spokane (Washington) Fire Department. His professional life has spanned over 30 years, serving in fire departments in the Midwest and Northwest. Schaeffer serves on numerous local, state and national public safety and health-related committees. In addition, he frequently lectures on innovation, leadership and contemporary urban issues such as the unhoused, social determinants of health, and multicultural communities.