It is easy to focus on leadership from a top down perspective, especially in a paramilitary organization like a fire department. Yet, good fire chiefs know that their ability to lead is as much due to the power vested in them from those holding lesser rank as it is from those higher up.
In his blog, “Learning from Subordinates” leadership expert and founder of Partners in Excellence Dave Brock writes that listening to subordinates is an excellent way for leaders to learn what’s going on in the world and within the organization.
And just as important to the fire chief or chief officer, is the ability to learn what others know and don’t know. Brock writes that a seemingly naïve question is a wake up call that not everyone knows what you know. This assumption of knowledge is an easy mistake to make.
The questions can also show that the leader is blind to what’s going on, a very human condition, Broke writes.
The importance of getting information from the bottom up cannot be overstated. Leadership Coach Dan Rockwell goes so far as to recommend subordinates be given the power to conduct formal job appraisals for their supervisors. For Rockwell, the goal is to flatten the organization by converting subordinates to colleagues.
To get quality communication flowing up the org chart, fire chiefs can implement processes like one-on-one meetings and anonymous suggestion boxes. Most importantly, the chief needs to create a culture where firefighters can speak truth to power without fear of retribution.
To further this discussion and give fire chiefs insight into what the rank and file need from a leader, we posed the question to them on Facebook. We also conducted an unscientific poll asking readers: “What level of confidence do you have in your fire chief.” Here are the results:
- 75 to 100 percent confidence: 45 percent
- 50 to 75 percent confidence: 16 percent
- 25 to 50 percent confidence: 16 percent
- 0 to 25 percent confidence: 23 percent
Many of our Facebook responders said they want a fire chief to lead by example. Here’s a look at eight of the more insightful and representative comments.
- “Knowledgeable at their trade but still actively learning, a good communicator and better listener. Knows how to delegate, is firm but fair. Puts the safety of his crew first.” — Jesse Clifton
- “Someone that isn’t afraid to change some things in the department for the better.” — Adam Gannaway
- “Remember where you came from. Don’t lose touch with the guys in the field. Lead by example and don’t ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.” — Michael Frost
- “Don’t hire friends and don’t allow bullies to run your station. Stand up for your underlings or you will have dysfunction breeding dysfunction.” — Tam Johnson Ganci
- “Ability to balance service to the community and what’s best for your troops. It’s an art form.” — Jeff Armstrong
- “Lead by example and be trustworthy.” — Dann Gracia
- “A great chief will help and watch his personnel surpass his knowledge and abilities.” — Lee Martin
- “Being able to talk to someone, listen and understand.” — Tom Hayman