FRI 2019 Quick Take: The fire chief’s role as an inspirational politician
Bashoor underscores the need for fire chiefs to be more politically astute in order to best serve the community
ATLANTA — Fire chiefs wear many hats, most obviously serving as the fire department’s top leader, driving the mission and vision of the department, and acting as the public face of the department. One critical role that is wrapped into these leadership responsibilities is that of inspirational politician. But what does that mean exactly? FireRescue1 Executive Editor Marc Bashoor, fire chief in Highlands County, Florida, sought to answer that question in his Fire-Rescue International session, “The fire chief’s role as an inspirational politician,” underscoring that a fire chief who fails to navigate politics is a fire chief destined to fail.
Bashoor introduced attendees to the concept of Grandma Jones and the 10 chairs to emphasize the fire chief’s responsibility to the community and the fire department. Grandma Jones represents the community – the people served – and the 10 chairs represent people lost. More specifically, eight of the 10 chairs represent the citizen who dies in a fire every three hours in this country, and the final two chairs represent the two firefighters who die every three days in the American fire service – one of whom dies by suicide.
Bashoor reinforced that thinking about Grandma Jones and those people lost, whether to fire or suicide, helps fire chiefs focus on their mission to the community – a mission that can ultimately only be achieved by being an inspirational politician. This means working with local politicians, city councils, boards and commissions, and listening to what your firefighters need to do their jobs.
Following are a few memorable quotes from Bashoor’s session on being an inspirational politician:
“Most of my success in this business has been based in politics – and never once have I run for office.”
“You can’t do this alone. At the end of the day, I have to go back to that elected body to fashion something that works for the department.”
“If you don’t understand what makes your politicians tick and what’s important to your community, you’re not going to inspire anybody.”
“If all I do is sit in my ivory tower all day, I’m not going to know what my firefighters need. If I don’t listen, I’m going to be out of touch pretty quickly.”
Here are five key takeaways from the session:
1. Elected vs. cultural politics: Bashoor explained that when people think of politics, they often automatically think of activities within an organization that are aimed at improving someone’s status or position and are typically considered to be devious or divisive. But when it comes to being a political fire chief, what he means is focusing on cultural politics – the assumptions or principles relating to, or inherent in, a sphere, theory or thing especially, when concerned with power and status in society. In other words, “It’s about understanding the culture and what it takes for you to be successful in that political environment,” he said.
2. The fire chief as a politician: This comes down to several factors:
- Overcoming the seemingly unnavigable
- The art of compromise
- There’s always a solution
Bashoor reminded that at the end of the day, fire chiefs must be willing to make difficult decisions and work cooperatively with others in order to find solutions for the department and the community.
3. Put yourself in position: Bashoor reminded that the fire chief must position themselves to make a difference. This means listening to staff, fellow firefighters, community members and government officials, because at the end of the day, the fire chief is the one who has to bring solutions to the table. And to those who say that the what the fire chief says, goes – and it’s OK to be the bull in the china shop, Bashoor simply notes that this isn’t how it’s done: “That’s not the way you win.”
4. Fire chief roles and responsibilities: Bashoor outlined the key roles and responsibilities of the fire chief to show who they relate to the political side of the job:
- Cheerleader – it’s important to inspire others
- Financial guru – you better get yourself to a point where you’re comfortable with the budget, so you can articulate your points to the commission
- Operational wizard – the nuts and bolts of the job
- Magician – there’s some magic in making it all come together
- PIO – many chiefs don’t have a dedicated PIO so they need to serve in this role as well
5. Chief inspiration: Bashoor concluded with a reminder that you need be a chief who people have faith in. “If people don’t have faith in you, it’s not a job you’ll have for long – or will be successful in,” he said. He asked attendees to consider who they are inspiring, what they are inspiring them to do, and who they are inspiring them to be, as all of this ties back to Grandma Jones and the 10 chairs. “Your job is about inspiring people to be something bigger, to do what’s right for Grandma Jones and the 10 chairs. If we don’t make a difference for these people, then what are we doing?”