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Effective leadership: Balancing accountability and authority

Like the relationship between freedom and responsibility; effective accountability needs empowerment

Fire officers understand accountability. They know that when they go on a fire or other emergency scene, they are responsible for their crews. Span of control and crew integrity are concepts that most firefighters grasp early in their careers.

Why then do some company officers seem to ignore that accountability when it comes to responsibilities away from the emergency scene?

There have been too many examples in recent years: crews that have been drinking together on duty, sexual activity in the firehouse, incidents of harassment, hazing and violence. All of these things occurred when the company officer knew or should have known what was going on, but did little or nothing about the situation.

Why is this?

To talk about accountability in this regard, one must also talk about empowerment. I believe this is the missing link in some of these cases.

The missing link
Some officers don't feel empowered to really take a stand with interpersonal issues in the station. Without this sense of empowerment, the sense of accountability is also diminished.

Accountability and empowerment are two sides of the same coin, like freedom and responsibility. If you're going to hold someone accountable for something, you have to give that person power over the outcome.

This often doesn't happen in the fire service.

I frequently teach classes on harassment, discrimination and conflict resolution among firefighters. A frequent response I get from students in my classes is, "You're saying that we should take direct action if we witness an incident that could be harassment. But we're not allowed to take action on our own. We're strictly required to pass it up to higher authority."

The in-between ground
This makes no sense. By definition, harassment (unless extremely severe) is a pattern of inappropriate behavior. If an officer can catch that behavior early and correct it effectively, there is no harassment. Why on earth would an organization create policies that would enable people to shirk responsibilities in this area?

This type of thinking leads to the all-or-nothing approach that some fire departments take in the area of human relations. Something either isn't a problem at all or it's a crisis, and there is nothing in between.

But it is this in-between ground where company officers can have real influence.

Organizations are fearful of liability. They know they are liable if harassment continues, so they create so-called zero-tolerance policies. Don't get me wrong — there should be zero tolerance for harassment in the workplace.

But not all bad behavior rises (or sinks) to the level of illegal harassment. If a zero-tolerance policy means zero empowerment for officers in charge, then you will have a crisis on your hands sooner or later.

What to do
The solution is to teach accountability and empowerment together as one package deal. If you want the authority and the power, you have to take the responsibility as well. Then give officers real skills to meet these challenges.

Teach them how to communicate even in difficult conversations. Teach them skills of coaching and counseling. Teach them to mediate disputes. Teach them how to do effective discipline. Teach them how to do effective documentation.

Make sure the systems in place are reasonable for all these things, and that all officers understand exactly what their responsibilities are within the systems.

Then let officers do their jobs. 

In most cases, supervisors are not hanging over their shoulders on every emergency call they run. These are incidents where the outcome may be life or death.

Officers are trusted in these circumstances. Why aren't they trusted in all ways, and allowed to do the job they are hired to do?

Officer accountability depends on clarity about the scope and expectations of the position. Individuals must be taught the skills they need to succeed, and be provided with mentoring and support.

But officers must also be empowered to make decisions and use their judgment when leading in all aspects of the job, not just on the emergency scene.

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