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During an interview, Gen. Colin Powell was asked what the one thing that makes leadership possible is. Without hesitation, and displaying absolute conviction he replied, “Trust”.

Do you feel that you can trust all of the people in your organization to always go out, do the right thing, and make good decisions while doing the job? If not, why? People in positions of authority in the fire service (notice I didn’t say leaders, because leadership is choice, not a position or rank), often feel that they must make sure their personnel know what to do, in every situation they might face. This is why we end up with thousands of pages of procedures, rules, policies and orders, creating policy-based organizations and people. In these organizations, people and the organization as a whole, become more focused on what the policies say, rather than what is the right thing to do in a particular situation. Opportunities to create excellent outcomes for the people we serve, civilians and our own people alike, are lost because, “Well, we can’t do that because it violates our policies”. In those situations where the policies/procedures don’t address the particular situation or decision our people are currently facing, they don’t know what to do. It becomes more important to follow the policy or not make a decision until the “big boss” tells us what he/she wants us to do, in order to not get in trouble, rather than to do the right thing.

So how do we get to the point where we are relying less on stacks of written policies/procedures, and more on trusting our people to do the right thing for everyone involved? That’s a scary thought for some people in authority, but it’s the only way organizations will really reach their true potential of fulfilling their mission to serve. It’s scary, because it feels like a loss of control, but it doesn’t have to be.

It starts with organizations figuring out what they believe in. Roy Disney said, “It’s easy to make decisions when you know what your values are”. Good decisions are based on what we truly believe in, our core values. If our organization has never figured out what it really believes in, then how are our people going to make those good decisions? Core values like duty, honor and courage drive good decisions. They have to be not only identified, and talked about, but more importantly they have to be displayed in the actions of the people in charge and the decisions the organization makes every day. Actions speak louder than words, especially when we are talking about firefighters. This will create a values-based organization that uses values-based decision-making rather than policy-based decisions.

Next, we have to start recruiting and hiring people who believe what the organization believes. The people we hire, or bring into the organization, will probably be here for the next 30 years, so why are we hiring them based solely on certifications, a test score, or on who they know or who they are related to? Perhaps we should start focusing on recruiting people with the right character, the right values, whose beliefs match what the organization believes in. Those are the people we will be able to trust to go out and make good decisions for the next 30 years. We will trust them because we know what they believe in, and it’s what we, and everyone else in the organization believes in.

Hiring the right people, based on character and values, is easy to say, but doing so takes intent, purpose and dedication on the part of everyone in the organization. For more on how to do that read, "Never Out of the Fight: Hiring for Values"

The people in charge can’t be everywhere making all the decisions, and you can’t write everything down in a policy for every situation and decision, so in order to transform from “the person in charge” to a leader, and in order to transition from a policy-based organization to a values-based one, we have to trust those people who are out there in the street every day to make good decisions in order to fulfill the organization’s mission and create excellent outcomes.

Trust, however, is a two-way street. Leaders have to trust their people to make good decisions (trust going down the chain of command) but the people in the street, who will be making those decisions need to be able to trust the leaders to support those decisions (trust going up the chain of command). That will be the focus in Part 2 of TRUST Makes Leadership Possible.


CHRIS LANGLOIS, is a Captain with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department and a 28-year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments. He has been with the Omaha Fire Department for the last 15 years, including over 5 years with the OFD Training Division. He currently serves as the captain of an engine company and is a plans team manager with the Nebraska Task Force 1 US&R Team. He was the 2014 Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors- Instructor of the Year and was an FDIC instructor in 2013 and 2014. His national certifications include firefighter II, instructor II, officer II, driver/operator, incident safety officer, and NREMT-paramedic. He holds an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in public fire administration, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership and is pursuing his EFO certification.

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