How fire officers can out-communicate technology

Reliance on the convenience of digital communication mediums hamstring fire officers' ability to be good communicators

If someone were asked what your greatest attribute was, how would she respond? Many of us would expect to be described as professional, honest, driven, even competent.

But how many would describe you as a great communicator?

One of the greatest traits of leadership is one's communication skills. Think about President Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. It was a short speech, but one of the most memorable because of the way he made people feel.

Dr. Martin Luther King was a catalyst in changing the landscape of civil rights because of his ability to not only communicate with the masses, but to connect the individual with his vision.

Communication goes beyond just historical figures, it applies to everyday interaction in the firehouse and in the home. However, with today's ever-evolving technology, our communication is becoming less skilled. I see this every day and it often leaves me scratching my head.

There is no doubt that technology has created convenience in communicating. But has it reduced the amount of personal contact that we have with people?

Does that have a bearing on our personal relationships, and even more so on the critical relationship between leader and follower?

SMS me
The benefits of technology are bountiful. We can text a message to a mass audience or an individual. We can send an email to a distant party that arrives in seconds versus a letter that would have taken days through the postal service.

Companies can video conference without parties having to meet in person. Social media has allowed us to reconnect with those that we may not have seen in years. I still find it amazing the number of people who tell me how much they love my photos on Facebook.

I am connecting with them in a way that I didn't know. In many cases, there are people I only see and talk to once a year if that, but I am communicating with them.

However, there are pitfalls.

Because we can text a message, we lose personal connection. Remember the days when teenagers were notorious for staying on the phone all the time talking to their friends, boyfriend, or girlfriend? I can tell you that my two boys use more in text messages and data on their cell phone plans than they do in minutes.

And I am no different. I find myself struggling to sometimes answer the phone to talk when I could just text and save time.

Save as draft
Another pitfall is that of immediate response. Our society has become one of immediacy. We want the answer now, and we respond right away. My teaching partner, Ron Dennis, reminds me often of President Lincoln's practice of putting the letter in the drawer.

When Lincoln needed to have that unpleasant communication with somebody via mail, he would write the letter and place it in his desk drawer for a day. He would take the letter back out, read it, and often his words were too harsh because of his passion or anger.

In most cases, he would re-draft the letter or not send it at all. Today, it is too easy to respond in anger via text and email, and that response is immediate by hitting the send button, or in social media circumstances, post or tweet. In that case, everyone sees it.

It's hard to take it back, if you ever can, and too often, the damage is done. I too have been a victim of this convenience. Fortunately, Ron reminds me to "take a breath and put the letter in the drawer."

A leader's superpower
So what does this have to do with leadership? Leaders have powers. Their referent power, the one that is best described as charisma, is about relationships. Communication helps mold those relationships between the leader and followers.

In general, that communication should be in person to generate that trust and connection, not via a text, email or social media post. Furthermore, supportive, participatory, directive, transformational and servant leadership behaviors are all anchored in one's ability to effectively communicate.

It is probably the most critical skill that transcends all styles of leadership and use of ones sources of leadership power.

While I often fall victim to the various pitfalls of communications technology, I've tried very hard to be a good communicator. In fact, the best comment I received was in the form of criticism when I was called an over communicator. As a leader and a boss, there are restrictions of when information should be reserved.

But in general, many bosses withhold too much and create a void between them and the troops. As Chief Dennis Rubin describes, a boss and organization should be open, honest and transparent.

Blocking and tackling
As a fire chief, I met regularly with my department. I shared information that I felt they should know about where our city and department was going. I communicated what my vision and expectations were, but more importantly, I asked what their expectations were.

Whenever there is individual or group conflict, lack of understanding, or misinformation, the underlying cause is almost always a gap in the communications chain. To follow the simple version of the communications model, there is a sender, a message, the medium of how it's communicated, a receiver, and feedback that the message was received and understood.

I used this model and encouraged our department to attend city council meetings to understand what was happening. After each council meeting, I typically went back to the fire station to sit down with the crews to make sure they understood what had occurred. Especially when we were experiencing financial hardships and facing layoffs.

I wanted them to see there was cause and effect of a down-turning economy. I believe in many cases, a leader doesn't need to generate the message, but he or she must be an effective messenger.

Everyone is a stakeholder
I continue this practice today as a vice president at Columbia Southern University. I sit on the President's Council and I am privy to an abundance of information that I am expected to provide input on as a follower to our president, but also to deliver to my team so they can see the vision of where our institution is heading.

Every team member is a stakeholder, and communicating with that stakeholder is essential. As the team grows, the challenge of being able to establish relationships with every team member grows as well. One-on-one communications is harder, but inherently most effective. When this cannot occur, leaders must establish a leadership team in which there is continuity in the message regardless of how many are on the team.

Another effective practice is to simply walk around and talk to people. I like to spend Monday mornings walking around and talking to people and just ask how their weekend was. To cut up and laugh, to be a person, and not a position, can provide you more referent power than legitimate (positional) power ever will in terms of generating trust.

Finally, to be a good communicator is to follow-up. If someone calls you, call him back. If someone emails, email her back. If you tell someone you will find something out, then find out and let that person know. If you don't have the answer, be honest and communicate that.

A convenient excuse
I hear of fire chiefs described as poor communicators; they choose who they will communicate with. This leaves followers frustrated and develops low commitment to the organization and low trust in the leader.

In many cases, the blame doesn't fall on convenience of social media, just a lack of skills in communicating. In some cases, it is self-indulgence of their ego.

Consider this: would the "Gettysburg Address" have been as effective as a text? Would Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech been equally effective as an email?

That's the power of personal communications. Get out of your office, talk to people and build relationships.

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