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If I Am the Leader, Where are My Followers?

Issue 8 and Volume 12.

I, for one, am getting a little tired of all the rhetoric about leadership. You can hardly pick up a single fire-related magazine without there being someone articulating a new idea about what leadership is, how to perform it, or what to do if your boss fails in providing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against someone exercising leadership, I’m just against all the rhetoric without action to back it up. A few years ago, Harvard Business School published a review of leadership development in which it basically threw its hands in the air and said that nobody really knows much about leadership. It is what it is. Some people get it and some people don’t.

I will admit that I’ve read a lot of books on leadership. I’ve met many authors who have written books on leadership. I have attended college courses to learn about leadership, and yet it remains nebulous. I’ve tried to provide a certain amount of influence over things I want to see change myself, and yet I sit here today in sort of a quandary. Are we really being led in a direction bringing about significant improvements in fire protection, or are we following the traditional path of more is better?

Challenging Thoughts

I was recently given a book, Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results by Roger Connors and Tom Smith, that challenged my thoughts on this process. The book caused me to have more questions than answers, and it also provided me with an approach that I think might be worthy of some review. If we admit that we are a tradition-bound organization and if we admit that challenging the status quo can result in the loss of our followership, then perhaps we can wrestle with the idea that the word change is a force to be reckoned with in our profession.

I’m going to guarantee you something about this book before you even look at it – it may cause you some mental anguish. The reason is because it’s all about change. Contrary to public opinion, we, the fire service, really don’t like change. We like stability. We follow mostly leaders who provide us with a sense that it’s okay to be traditional.

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher best known for his wisdom on the subject of change, was once quoted, “You could not step twice into the same river.” I wonder what he would say if he were alive today? Seemingly we live in a world of constant change, and simultaneously we seem to resist it. It often appears that the river is flowing in two directions, or the river is either dry or flooding. Getting people to follow you on any given path is becoming much more difficult. The favorite position on most issues is s 50/50 split. Support for almost all initiatives is swayed by the very small number of the middle-of-the-road people who finally lean one way or the other.

Accountability and Culture

One of the words that I have found a lot of in the leadership literature lately is accountability. That word doesn’t sound like much of a definition of leadership, but it does sort of focus on the possibility of punishment if things don’t go well. Another word I often hear associated with leadership is culture. Boy, do we have a culture. We take a great deal of pride in the fact that we have this long line of traditions that supposedly make us a value to our communities but I find that that’s changing too. In fact, our culture may well be one of our greatest limitations.

What business can survive today by refusing to accept what is going on around it? One example that comes to mind is the demise of the video store. Remember Blockbuster? It went out of business because it no longer met the need of the communities it served. What is going on today with RadioShack is similar. Change is palpable, but it is also frightening.

So, let’s do a little analysis of what we think leadership is all about. If you are a captain, battalion chief, division chief, deputy chief, or chief, you probably already assume that you’re a leader. Go to the textbook and you’ll see someone put in writing what is called positional leadership. It’s not a bad type of leadership style but is highly dependent on another factor and that is followership. If you are one of those officers, can you honestly say that your people are following you because they believe in you? Or is it because they must? Does everyone who has a positional leadership spot actually exercise leadership?

I wish I could say so, but I can’t. Much of what we call leadership in the fire service is based on some faulty assumptions that people in power are going to take us somewhere. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes leaders will take us where they want to go regardless of whether it’s in our best interest.

Leadership Test

I’ve also heard that leadership is an acquired skill: go to college + get a degree = be a leader! Or, you can take a course and get a certificate. But what is the true test of whether you are a leader?

Let me start with a simple set of three questions:

  1. Do people support what you want to do?
  2. Do you get things done in a timely fashion?
  3. Do the things that you and your people do move the organization in a specific direction?

If your answer to all three of those is “Yes,” then you are probably exercising some level of leadership. If the answer to any of them is “No,” then you might be fulfilling a position but you are certainly not providing leadership to the organization.

Now let’s go back to the book by Connors and Smith. They suggest that unless we change the culture of an organization and adopt a culture of accountability, the entire organization is limited in its ability to influence anything. They suggest behaviors that are somewhat akin to my three questions. They suggest there are four steps to being a leader, including the following:

  1. See it.
  2. Own it.
  3. Solve it.
  4. Do it.

In their world, the only thing that really counts is results.

I found it interesting in that their example of results was based on the story of Little Round Top from the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. If you’re familiar with that story, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of the 20th Maine Infantry, was told to hold his position at all costs, but the final decision as to how he was to do it remained his. As a last resort, when he ran out of ammunition and manpower, he called for a bayonet charge.

Beyond the Label

The challenge we have today in the fire service is to be courageous enough to lead a bayonet charge against policies and practices that are antiquated, somewhat irrelevant, and no longer producing the results that our communities want. Leadership is not about our badge, or a white helmet, or the type of staff car we are given to drive around town in. It’s more about us providing the highest and best service that we can generate for our communities. It is likely going to mean that to clear the logjam we must break away from some of our traditions. It is likely going to mean that if there needs to be a change of belief among our followers it is extremely likely that we’re going to find ourselves moving in a direction that our grandparents would not recognize.

But, that’s what leadership is all about. This is not a parade. This is not about us. It’s all about community safety. Talking about the fact that we burned down a lot of buildings does not make us a leader in fire protection. Ignoring and even discounting the development of fire prevention concepts to make accidental fire a remote and infrequent consequence in our community does not make us look like leaders who care.

I’m sure there are those reading this article who will decide that I’m all wrong and there is no reason to change. So be it. On the other hand, there might be some of you out there who are asking a really good question: Can we do a better job? If so, let’s get on with making the necessary changes.

I would like to hope that there is some of the latter present in leadership roles.

Resources

1. Connors, Roger, and Tom Smith, Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results, Penguin, New York, 1999, 2011.

2. Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Harvard Business Review, January 26, 2010.