Leadership at its purest: Create a culture that allows your members to flourish
Be intentional in your focus on personal, organizational and political areas of growth
You’ve undoubtedly heard or been part of the myriad discussions about how to lead – from the front, picking up the rear, from the floor, tip of the spear, etc. The truth is there is no single right way to lead. After all, leadership isn’t simply a position, location, rank or title. Leadership in its purest sense is about creating and fostering a culture that allows others to flourish.
As such, let’s think of culture as three interconnected circles – your personal circle, your work/organizational circle and a political circle that affects both.
Personal: Setting the example
The single most effective way to establish this type of culture is to set the example in both your personal and professional life.
Whether it’s in your personal life (your ethical standards, moral focus, exercise and nutrition habits) or in your professional life (how you manage operational/training functionalities, community connectivity, political acumen, educational tract), YOU should be setting the standard for your members. We are public officials, whether we like it or not, which means that your life is, to an extent, an open book. Make choices as if anyone could read that book any time.
Organizational: Elevating your values
Your organizational culture has likely evolved over many years. You may be adopting this culture by virtue of your appointment, or you may be developing this culture in the establishment of a new organization. Either way, the culture of today doesn’t have to be the culture of tomorrow. YOU are responsible to lead the culture, not just follow it. With this in mind, let’s consider these four elements that should help you succeed in the cultivation of culture.
1. Right and wrong: Critical to developing a culture where anyone can flourish is understanding – and living – the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. You can’t build a culture that you don’t understand yourself.
2. Mission, vision, values: While I already said YOU need to set the example, EVERYONE needs to understand the mission, vision and values of your organization. You don’t need wordy paragraphs of prose to fill space on a wall. You can establish clear mission, vision and values in just four words (OK, two of the words are an acronym).
- Mission: Service
- Value statement: THE PROMISE
- Vision statement: Service through THE PROMISE
Read more about THE PROMISE acronym here, which details core values and leadership traits that can be applied to any department and leader. If you want to expand on that a bit, go for it; this gives you a place to start where everyone is on the same page.
3. Inclusiveness: Ensure that everyone within your sphere has the opportunity to contribute. There are many ways to establish an atmosphere of contribution, but it really begins with communication. While we have a lot of work to do to ensure that our organizations are as representative of the communities we serve as possible, we must also ensure that our leadership culture is, at a minimum, representative of our entire organization. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is paramount. Ensuring that every group within your organization has equal opportunity to be included, that they have the real opportunity to interact, and that the opinion matters will go a long way to building the flourishing culture.
4. Communication: The most common complaint I hear from people about their organizations is, “They don’t tell us anything.” I fully recognize the truth is likely something less damning; however, if you have developed that open and inclusive culture, it will be nearly impossible for someone to use this as an excuse for a variety of issues. “Creating a paper trail” isn’t simply a function of discipline but a matter of creating that culture that everyone can access. Acknowledging the paramilitary chain of command in public safety, for your communication to be effective, there must be a culture that empowers two-way communication, encourages feedback up and down, and provides for transparency where appropriate.
Political: Working with the community
Politics can be such a divisive topic when taken out of context, so let’s be clear: Here we are talking about how the politics of your community can impact your fire department budget and, frankly, your career longevity. After all, the political element of the job has a huge impact on a chief’s job satisfaction and ability to make a difference.
I have referred to the fire chief as an “inspirational politician,” and I believe it is critical for the chief to understand and accept this role. In the simplest of terms, this means understanding what makes your politicians and your community tick – and what makes them sick. Avoiding the things that make them sick and accentuating or focusing on the things that make them tick will go a long way toward garnering community support when you need it the most. With a strong inspirational leader at the helm, the personal and organizational elements are better positioned to flourish.
I refuse to believe that any culture can’t eventually develop into one where anyone can flourish, but it will take work. After all, culture does not create itself. How would you describe your fire department culture – and would it allow all members to flourish?