December 17, 2020 | View as webpage

As the sun (finally) sets on 2020, now is the time to consider the leader you are – and the leader you want to be. It’s also time to take inventory of the impact of 2020 on our fire departments. Today’s newsletter tackles both: ► Share this newsletter with your fellow chief officers so we can all head into 2021 with renewed vision for ourselves and our departments.

Chief Marc Bashoor
Executive Editor, Fire Chief, FireRescue1

‘A weakness is a strength carried to an extreme’: A lesson for fire chiefs
By Linda Willing 

All leaders have strengths and weaknesses. Their weaknesses, in particular, may come from two sources – deficits or excesses.

Leadership weaknesses that result from deficits in skills or knowledge can have serious consequences but are also fairly simple to remedy. Training, experience, self-study and other focused interventions can fill the gaps.

Weakness that results from excess is a bit trickier. Someone once said, “A weakness is a strength carried to an extreme.” No one wants their strengths and abilities to work against them, but they certainly can have that impact.

Examples of strengths-turned-weaknesses

For example, one fire chief might be known for being extremely detail-oriented. They can be counted on to notice even small errors in reporting or planning, and is sure to attend to every element of any given project or incident.

This is good, right? But what happens when this attention to detail turns into micromanagement? What if this person can never let go of any aspect of anything they are involved in, and are unable to delegate to others? This is where attention to detail can begin to look like inefficiency at best and distrust at worst.           

Or consider battalion chiefs who make a point of being friendly and accessible with firefighters. The troops feel comfortable with these chiefs and will let down their guard and share confidences with them. These are the kinds of relationships that lead to highly functional teams – unless they go too far.

What happens if battalion chiefs are seen by themselves and others as “just one of the guys”? Will they be able to step in and change the trajectory of inappropriate behavior? Will they even notice it? How effective can they be as disciplinarians if they are perceived to be part of the problem?

Many people make a point of setting high standards for themselves and others. This is good; people need clear goals and tend to rise to meet standards that are set for them. But when taken too far, adhering to arbitrary or impossible standards might kill morale and make a leader seem inflexible and out of touch.

Likewise, honoring tradition is an important part of fire service culture and identity and a source of strength. But taken to an extreme, it can also become a way of resisting change.

How to identify the problem

Weaknesses that result from strengths may be difficult to identify and manage, especially for those in senior ranks. It can be hard for someone to see that they are going too far with one aspect of their leadership style or focus.           

The unfortunate truth is that the higher in rank that people achieve, the less spontaneous and unvarnished feedback they tend to get, especially from those who work directly for them. In most cases, it would be too risky for a company officer to give critical feedback to a deputy chief. Yet that company officer may be the one person who sees something important that the chief needs to hear.

Keeping communications open at all levels is vital for the success of any organization. Those in senior positions need to understand that they are not likely to hear criticism from their subordinates, even if they ask directly for it. Therefore, they need to find other ways to hear what they need to know.

Be creative. Are there ways that members can provide input about organizational effectiveness that doesn’t directly threaten or accuse any individual? How can you make it safe for people to speak up?

Additionally, those in senior positions need to have trusted confidantes with whom they can share concerns, ask questions and seek advice. Professional groups can fill this role, and members of those groups do not need to be exclusive members of the fire service.

Continuing education and professional development at the chief level are also critical. This is one of the best outcomes from attending the National Fire Academy or other national or regional programs – the ability to share experiences with others and seek their insight in a safe environment.

Those who achieve senior leadership positions in the fire service have worked hard to hone their strengths in order to get to that place. It is valuable to engage in self-reflection now and then to be sure that those strengths have not somehow become detriments to effective leadership.

Editor’s note: Can you think of other examples where a fire chief’s “strength” ultimately became – or was seen as – a weakness?

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Chiefs, it’s time to hit the reset button – and look ahead
By Robert Rielage 

If you, like me, are glad to see the sun set on 2020, and are looking forward to the sun rise on 2021, then you may be thinking about to the “reset” button.

I am hopeful that with the newly approved vaccines that will soon be available, not only to our firefighter/paramedics but also to the public in general, we will finally be able to turn the page on COVID-19.

But before we do, perhaps we need to take some time to contemplate the changes that have occurred over the past year, particularly those changes that could impact your department and your personnel.

Community changes

It may take the sociologists several years to figure out the reach, but almost every community has changed to some degree. This may be an increase or decrease in population or a change in identity related to time-honored features that made your community unique. For example, perhaps a major business that had been located in your community for decades has closed, impacting other suppliers in your area, and resulting over time in a change to your tax base.

Let’s consider some of these possible factors.

Population: Low interest rates drove a flurry of first-time home-buying, especially in the suburbs and rural areas, in 2020. The movement away from the downtown areas of large cities may continue for several reasons:

  • Work from home: In addition to the lower mortgage rate opportunities, some people are leaving metropolitan areas amid the realization that the work-from-home model will likely continue, allowing employees in some businesses to eliminate their commute, or at least the frequency of traveling to a central office. There have also been reports of people leaving areas due to the uptick in civil unrest during 2020. Regardless of the reason, populations appear to be changing away from larger cities and shifting to many smaller communities – as long they have high-speed internet.
  • Identity: Every community has an identity. Whether they like what it is or not, there are perceptions by others that can be good or bad about an area in which we live. This can be based on income, schools, recreation, or essential services, including fire, EMS and police.

When my wife and I first moved into our home several decades ago, the fire and BLS service was provided by very community-based volunteer fire departments. Families that had grown up in these neighborhoods knew the service was provided by volunteers, and that tradition was carried on from one generation to another.

Over time, our community grew from mostly rural to suburban, and then with a mix of businesses, shopping malls and light industry, into a mostly urban community with a central business district. With the increase in call volume, the fire and EMS department evolved as well, from several volunteer departments to a single combination department and from combination to career. We now cover over 45 square miles, but our community has a single identity that is the same as the name of its fire and EMS department covering over 60,000 residents.

Tax base

The effects of COVID-19 may take a toll on the tax base you use for your department’s revenue stream. Whether you rely on an income tax, a property tax or a combination of both, what will either the influx or outflow of your population mean to your department’s anticipated revenue? Will an increase in residential property values offset the cost of the increase demand for services, including new station locations and the corresponding equipment and personnel needed to adequately respond to their needs?

What will be the effect if your shopping mall or business district loses a major anchor store to online shopping or if the mall itself just folds? Is there a community re-development as well as a community development plan in your community and is your department represented on either or both?

Get ahead of the issues

Here is where you, the chief, need to get ahead of these potential issues by hitting the reset button – and asking some questions:

  • What are the potential issues (i.e., growth and development, or stagnation and reduction)?
  • How will the anticipated influx or outflow of the population affect you?
  • What effect will the closure of an anchor store, upscale restaurant, business, big box store or major industry have on your community and subsequently on your department?

Asking these “what if” questions aren’t the same as saying the sky is falling, but it is realizing that the pandemic had serious consequences on almost every local economy, and potentially an effect on the capability of your department.

New residents = new opportunities

The pandemic may have a positive effect on some communities. For example, with more work-from-home residents, could it be a modern-day version of a time when volunteers left their businesses to answer a call?

People are social animals, and most of us seek social interaction with friends and coworkers. Workplace socializing may be almost eliminated for some who have begun working from home, and people may seek out new groups with which to interact. If so, the time is now to begin to inform the newcomers to your area of opportunities with your department. Perhaps these newcomers will become an integral part of their new community by becoming a firefighter, medic, EMT or CRR resource in their local department.

So there it is, chief. It’s time to hit the reset button and decide if and how you will be proactive for the future of your department.

Stay safe!

spacer.gif Tweet of the Week: Congrats to the new chief of DC’s Bravest!

spacer.gif 3 and out …
3. The year in review: While we may not be eager to reflect on 2020 as a whole, there were, in fact, bright moments amid the challenges. Take a moment to embrace the heartwarming moments of the year, read about the tech trends hitting the fire service, and consider words of encouragement from fire service leaders. Check out the full 2020: Year in Review.

2. COVID-19 vaccine distribution readiness: As the reality of COVID-19 vaccinations draws near, fire departments and EMS agencies need to be aware of important planning and response considerations. The USFA offers vaccine planning resources to help.

1. NVFC focuses on positivity: Join NVFC and fire service leaders for a Facebook Live discussion on Friday, Dec. 18, as part of a 2020 wrap-up and look-ahead to 2021. The conversation will focus on messages of hope, positivity, resilience and camaraderie for volunteer firefighters preparing to celebrate the holidays and begin 2021. Learn more.
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