Excuses, Expectations, and Exhaustion
My perception and frustration of the current fire service leadership dialogue is something I have been trying to articulate unsuccessfully for a little over a year now. Hopefully this attempt will be more successful.
Although I agree with the basic concepts found in the servant leadership dialogue being pushed by the heavy hitters of fire service advice and guidance, I think that message is being twisted, transformed, and ultimately taken out of context more and more every day. There is no doubt that having aggressive, involved, and energetic leadership both in positions of formal authority and informal positions of peer-based direction is crucial to success at both the company and department levels. However, when that conversation mutates into the expectation that a single individual should somehow bear the weight of the entire group, the same rhetoric being used to empower our leaders becomes the recipe of their failure!
The fire service presents an interesting dynamic for leadership that is not always considered in our approaches. Where the rigid chain of command of the past led to the dangers of blind followership, the new era of leadership which calls for a crew resource management style has deviated from encouraging all team members to speak up to environments where constantly challenging (or even ignoring) the formal leader is not only acceptable, but encouraged. In reality, the operational side of our profession requires a firm chain of command while station life lends more towards democratic decision making and shared responsibilities. It is when these concepts bleed over each other that we see problems emerge both on and off the fireground. The same authoritarian style required for successful operational outcomes can often poison the mood of the firehouse just as the failure to command on the fireground can jeopardize the safety of our crews and citizens. The modern fire service leader must find ways to blend these styles at appropriate times or risk the likelihood that their leadership will fail on both fronts.
While I am of the opinion that servant leadership is probably the soundest approach to leading others, without the establishment and enforcement of standards and culture to support it, the resulting lack of buy in can become problematic to the formal chain of command. If there is no foundation of proper followership, servant leadership all too easily creates excuses for the laziness, complacency, and downright insubordination by those who lack the gumption to understand. This results in situations where the more the leader serves, the less the followers will do. And while the leader may still feel in control, slowly but surely the erosion of responsibilities can often find the influence of a servant leader enabling those under their command to find more complacency than they do inspiration.
The expectations being placed on upcoming company officers and chiefs is higher than ever before. In addition to the traditional responsibilities of supervision and management, by associating the name “servant” with leadership, we have taken a concept that has been around for decades and somehow inflated it into the delusion that the leader is the ONLY member of the team that is accountable. They feel the pressure to perform their job functions as well as everyone else’s on a regular basis or they will be considered failures. The focus on servant leadership has made many feel their responsibilities should be on hold until everyone else’s are completed. We are almost shaming our formal leaders into the notion that it is never appropriate to delegate tasks, work separate of the crew, observe instead of participate, or discipline those who do not pull their weight. No, the new leadership approach suggests that any leader who is not 100% hands on at all times is some sort of angry dictator. In addition all failures now seem to be considered a reflection on the leader alone, rather than the reality that sometimes great leaders are given shitty followers.
As the pressure of modern leadership continues to build, even the best leaders will falter. They sacrifice the requirements of their position because they become hyper focused on chipping in and “not forgetting where they came from”. They try to do ALL the jobs in the firehouse instead of realizing there are certain aspects of a typical day that only they can do. What is initially thought to be drive and motivation becomes the assisted suicide of the enthusiasm and passion of those who rose through the ranks for the right reasons. They lose faith in the system, themselves, and ultimately the job. They lose their energy and determination as they trickle down the black hole of servant turned micromanager. They feel because they seem to be the only ones being judged on the outcomes, they must have their hands in everything. Their crews begin to resent them and they being to resent themselves. They fall victim to the tipping point of over-serving and become crippled by the affliction which leadership is becoming.
We mustn’t forget that firefighting is a TEAM sport. While no rank or promotion will ever excuse us from doing whatever needs to be done, we have different positions and job descriptions for a reason. Servant leadership is not always about the physical action of serving, but rather the process of doing what is necessary to help every member of the team thrive and reach their full potential. Sometimes that means pitching in, but more often than not it means backing off and letting others shine as the most important service we can provide is typically recognizing the efforts of those we lead and creating the environment necessary for them to do their work and do it well. Although no chief or officer will ever be too good to scrub a toilet or polish the rig, these tasks should not be their normal responsibilities in most situations. That is not to say someone with formal rank should sit around and watch others in the absence of prior commitments, but rather they should not feel guilty for accomplishing their mandates while others accomplish theirs.
Perhaps these sentiments about leadership are off base. Perhaps they are not the norm. Perhaps it is I that is misinterpreting the concept rather than the fire service itself. However, I am seeing more and more great people slowly being worn down by the unrealistic expectations being assigned to formal leadership in the fire service. Influence can only go so far in the battle against impotence. One person can only do so much. Even the best mentor, role model, and leader will only prove so potent against individuals who lack the motivation and purpose to do this job. There needs to come a point where we recognize that the leader can keep up their end of the bargain, even when their subordinates do not. We must remove the stigma associated with what happens in the absence of the leader as a reflection solely of their leadership with no consideration for what it says about the individuals who are actually present. What is not being seen, heard, or accounted for is what that picture may have looked like WITHOUT the impact of the leader...
As leaders, we must continue to do the right thing regardless of whether those who are supposed to be following choose to do their part. Even the best leaders cannot always work miracles. The goal of servant leadership should not be perfection, but instead leaving everyone we lead better than we found them. Sometimes victories on that front will not be evident to those who only see the product without knowledge of the origin. Sometimes we have to accept that certain people will never rise to the level we hoped they would. Sometimes we have to cut our losses and do as much as we can for those around us without sacrificing our own spirit and careers in the process. At some point we have to judge the leaders based on their efforts and actions just as much as we judge their success based on the same of their followers.
Leadership is not a one-way street; it is a relationship between the leader and his or her followers. Each member of the team has a responsibility to see that relationship through. Before we continue to prematurely label our leaders as failures, let’s consider how well the followers are executing their duties and obligations. While there is undoubtedly plenty of people in leadership positions incapable of leading, there are just as many down the chain that are incapable of following. If we have any hope of salvaging what is left of those clinging to their passion in seas of complacency, we must stop punishing those who do everything right for the failure of those who refuse to keep up their end of the bargain.