Chiefs, don’t forget: YOU are a politician!
It’s time to find your platform, build your fire chief political agenda, and lead your people and your organization through the maze
How many times have you heard a fire chief bemoan the politicians they have to deal with? Come on, you know you’ve done it, as have I.
The reality is that we may as well be talking about ourselves. In my 38 years of service, people-watching has become all but a course credit in my education and development. I’ve lost count of the number of chiefs who refuse to accept the notion that they are themselves politicians.
Like it or not, a fire chief IS a politician. The challenge is finding a way to become a fire-chief-politician who takes care of all the dynamics and who people don’t bemoan.
It is no secret that dealing with people takes a lot of a leader’s time. Keeping a mission-focused mindset and recognizing that not everybody is an adversary should get you through most of those personnel struggles. Remember, if everybody’s an adversary, there are no allies!
Looking at the definition of politics helps focus this discussion: “1a: the art or science of government; 1b: the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy; 1c: the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.”
While some may take the power/control approach, I’ll talk about politics here in terms of “guiding or influencing” a government,” which, by my definition, will include your community.
Fire chief influence on the community
There are certain aspects of “power” that come into play with a fire chief’s position, particularly with respect to code development and enforcement, scene control and hiring/firing decisions. But the moments of power are less developmental than they are building blocks in time.
The responsibility and the ability to influence is the fire chief’s art of politics. Lawmakers, community members, your own membership, and businesses need to become allies for the mission for the chief to be successful. The fire chief needs to plant seeds and grow roots in the community, not only providing fire safety and protection but also ensuring the integrity of the department is intact.
Community relationships need to be cultivated, mission/vison needs to be focused, working conditions need to be professional, education needs to be provided, and economic/community development needs to be considered.
An always-confrontational, on-top-of-the-world fire chief is destined to fail in the politics of being a fire chief. It’s OK to “be you” as long as “being you” is effective, productive and forward-moving.
Fire chief political agendas
Educating your elected and community officials should be a crucial part of the fire chief political agenda. Mind you, education needs to be presented honestly, with transparency, and cannot include embellishment or lies.
I have found that the best way for the uninitiated to understand what the fire and EMS mission involves is to observe and participate. Programs like the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Fire Ops 101 provide a good basis for nurturing that education. You don’t have to be an IAFF organization to pull off such an event; you just need to be a fire chief-politician.
While these are generic observations, it is clear to me that most of us (especially elected officials) like to be right. Elected officials also like to be “the one” who makes things happen and gets things done – sound familiar, chief? For elected officials, being right and getting things done helps create their popularity (for reelection) and builds their base. Building that base is exactly how the fire chief begins to succeed.
Similarly, no one likes to have their failures thrown in their face any more than they like failing in the first place. People typically embrace their successes and distance themselves from their failures. The successful chief or politician won’t distance themselves from their failures. They’ll embrace their failures, learn from their mistakes, and chart a better course moving forward.
Time to lead
Finding balance in politics is difficult and absolutely an art. You can stick your head in the sand and pitch your stake if you want, or you can learn how to become the fire chief-politician you need to be.
Find your balance, find your platform, build your agenda, and lead your people and your organization through the maze of government, and remember, you ARE a politician.