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Overcoming Suppressive Leardership in the Fire Service

"The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are, to where they have not been." Henry Kissinger

I can imagine that all of us have seen the movie Forrest Gump. One of my favorite parts in the movie is when Private Gump's internal monologue is discussing the types of rain experienced while in the Vietnam jungle. That scene ends with an incredible gun battle as Forrest and his brothers are ambushed.

If you can remember from that scene, the ambush created chaos. Soldiers shot, soldiers yelling, and soldiers ultimately running for their lives. Now, where the hell am am I going with this? I am going to tie this scene into a leadership style we all have faced in the fire service, and one we need to embrace and overcome.

The Vietnamese forces used suppressive fire to drive the enemy away. Suppressive fire is defined as, "fire that degrades the performance of an enemy force below the level needed to fulfill its mission." Suppressive fire is intended to make the enemy so worried about getting shot, that they are unable to return fire and retreat. Now let's move around some words to make it relevant to the article on leadership.

Suppressive Leadership - leadership that degrades the performance of a subordinate below the level needed to fulfill the mission."

In the fire service, this leadership style is widely used and because of its degrading nature, is a number one killer in career succession planning. It causes chaos, and a large amount of indecision. This style isn't just an executive level problem for Chiefs, but a core problem with station officers. This can be as simple as discouraging classes or pursuit of higher education , dismissal of new ideas for tactical problems, or even criticism for past performances on the fire ground. As leaders we should foster the culture, that progress is essential to our profession and future.

So how do we overcome this suppressive style of leadership.

1.Become solution oriented vs. a problem finder (complainer). Everyone can identify where improvement can take place, but it takes a true innovator and leader to provide realistic solutions. When addressing a suppressive leader, sell your idea so that it is impossible to say no. The solution or idea must be supported by facts and data to justify the idea, while leaving the leader without a choice but to agree and implement. Don't give up!

2. Communicate - As an individual climbs any ladder in a career, especially public services, communication slowly becomes a barrier. Think about it, the firefighters on any shift across the world, can handle 100 years of firefighting pitfalls with a wooden table and industrial sized coffee maker. However, a committee and congressional hearing must be conducted to decide on department patch designs by administrators. Communicate the need, create buy-in from your co-workers and develop a sense of urgency for your issues and ideas.

3. Have multiple Plans of attack - Just like in the movie, the soldiers would have regrouped and engaged the enemy eventually. Typically, and according to military science, this would be accomplished with a flanking maneuver; or in layman terms, attack from a different angle. By no means is this the ok to backdoor your superiors in an attempt to succeed. However, keep returning "fire" until your voice is heard. Eventually, your offensive will break thru the barrier and the solution will be applicable. There is no better feeling than a great idea becoming reality.

In conclusions, suppressive leadership is nothing new, and will never go away. Ultimately, leaders and follows bring the same talent to the table, and for successful progression must rely on each other's ideas. If you have even been "suppressed" in your career, do not let it define your mission and provide a reason to quit. Use your voice. There will be haters along the way, and critics galore; let them talk. In return, leave the department better than you found it. You are making a difference.

Live motivated, keep learning, stay vigilant........

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