The power of relationships: An ongoing evolution for fire service leaders

Even as relationships change throughout our careers, we must always focus on building trust and demonstrating character


Leadership is about relationships. Not just in the classic sense of relationships between leaders and followers but also, and just as importantly, the relationships between leaders and the myriad people they interact with throughout their career.

How are leaders influenced by the variety of relationships they experience over their career? How do those relationships impact our ability be the best leader we can be?

There is a plethora of books, articles, blogs and social media commentary on leadership in the fire service but not much of it looks at leadership from the relationship perspective. That’s what we’ll explore here.

A key element of leadership is the ability to get things done – to engage the team and facilitate change.
A key element of leadership is the ability to get things done – to engage the team and facilitate change. (Photo/Scott Wilkinson)

The relationships evolution

A key element of leadership is the ability to get things done – to engage the team and facilitate change. Much of a leader’s ability to do that is based on the relationships they have developed over time. These relationships occur in a variety of stages and forms throughout a career.

Early days: Early on, we establish relationships with our superiors and our fellow recruits and junior members. Establishing trust and connections at this early stage of career can only help you down the road. On the contrary, a focus on me instead of we and any suggestion that you can’t be trusted will likely follow you for the rest of your career, compromising potential relationship-building.

Informal and formal leadership roles: The next stage involves those relationships developed as you become an informal leader and, later, a formal leader as a supervisor. The key elements of trust and connection are the same, but you must increase your focus on communication and emotional intelligence. Are you the one who makes the effort to stay in touch and connect? Do you engage with empathy and active listening to truly understand another’s point of view? These are the traits that will allow you to connect with, understand and develop your credibility with those you are charged with leading.

Although some level of coaching and mentoring should be present along this entire journey, it is during the early leadership days when you should concentrate even more energy here, working to equip others to carry on at their very best when you are gone. Our primary goal as leaders should always be the performance and well being of our people – and this is where the rubber really hits the road. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” What sticks in your memory the most – the details of how a former leader managed tasks or how they supported you and made you feel? Remember, “The hard things in management are easier when people feel respected and appreciated.”

Chief officer level: As you move up into the realm of manager or chief officer, your skills in emotional intelligence and developing a set of shared values with your team takes on even greater importance. Now is not the time to start building all your relationships; rather, it is time to expand and nurture those relationships already in place while developing new relationships with this new circle of peers. As a card-carrying member of the Gordon Graham fan club (yes, we’re out there!), I think this can be illustrated as a version of Graham’s High Risk/Low Frequency analysis. Although always important, those long-standing and well-developed relationships (ongoing training) can be that which carry you through those unexpected calamities (high-risk incidents) even though you don’t experience them frequently over the proceeding years. Have you developed sufficient trust and credibility with your team for them to follow you in such situations? Have you established mutually supportive and collaborative relationships with your peers, bosses and colleagues so that you can rely on them during such times of trial?

Trust and character

The ability to facilitate change is another major issue for fire service leaders today (and we know how much firefighters love change!). Much of a leader’s success in this comes from the relationships we build and develop. Those same relationships build a bank of trust that can allow us to withdraw when things are challenging due to our many previous deposits. How’s your account balance?

In the end, it's about character. Have you exemplified those attributes that will help you build strong relationships of mutual support that will last? Without trust, selflessness, humility and the many other facets of good character, those relationships will not likely thrive. Some have said that “leadership is the practical application of character.” This is spot-on. As we continue to focus on our team’s performance and wellbeing, we are best served by a “people first” philosophy that values these relationships for the mutual benefit of all.

From early on with our peers and superiors to our colleagues and political bosses, the way in which we communicate and develop these relationships throughout our careers is often the litmus test for our success as leaders. We are many things within them – follower, learner, mentor, collaborator and, hopefully, a true leader based on how well we develop and nurture them. Have you managed to plant, nurture and harvest this crop of mutual support?

It is important to remember that there is no start and end to this journey. You are never an expert, as that suggests that there is no further learning or growth. You must continue to learn and foster those relationships if you want to be able to flourish as a leader. Your legacy is less about specific goals achieved and more about how your relationships with others. I believe that these relationships are the sum of all we know and do as leaders. It’s time to focus a little more on our people and our relationships with them as we strive to be better leaders. What better way to fulfill our primary role of ensuring the performance and well being of those we lead!

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