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We’ve all been there, working in an organization that seems to be leaderless as you rarely see the Chief or members of his or her immediate staff and you respond to a series of Directives or Policies that make you scratch your head.

I have worked for Chief’s that bury themselves in seemingly meaningless activates, sitting in their offices emerging only when there is a major crisis or attending a Board or Council meeting and are seriously out of touch with their surroundings. Similar to the absent Chief, leaderless firefighters will do enough to get through the shift as well, while not contributing to the improvement of the Department, showing up and going home. Under a leaderless organization, the organization survives but doesn’t thrive.

The reason why leadership is necessary in the fire service is because there is a degree of incompleteness in the fire department paramilitary organizational design. Fire Department organizations cannot be designed to operate like a computer, which are simply turned on and allowed to run untouched. Effective leadership provides meaning and purpose to an organization by creating a vision of where the organization is going. There is also an organic component within the organization creating growth, life and social order making the organization grow and survive.

Leaders are needed to structure the tasks, decide who should do what, and delegate work assignments.  Leaders help the people they lead to accomplish their collective goals and that of the department. Fire service leadership is necessary because the organization exists in a changing environment and as the external environment changes, leaders are needed to identify the strategic mission of the organization and help it adapt to its changing environment.

Fire departments as highly structured organizations have relatively clear lines of authority, stated objectives, and momentum to carry them to success regardless if they are career or volunteer. For managers to be effective, they need to be good leaders. However, not all leaders are good managers. Leadership more nar­rowly defined refers to influencing the behavior of others. Not all acts of influence, however, are necessarily acts of leadership. Although leaders may use force or coercion to influence the behavior of followers, leaders by my definition use their ability to induce voluntary commitment. By this definition, anyone in the organization can be a leader, whether or not that individual is formally identified as such.

Therefore, informal leaders are extremely important to the effectiveness of most organizations. In the absence of such leadership however, leaders from below will emerge to take control of this leaderless enterprise and make things happen, wanting to create a thriving organization, not satisfied with status quo, will be self-motivated to “do something” to improve the current status of the organization and to actually improve the delivery system, services and image of the organization in the community.

These supposedly “leaderless” groups actually perform very well within the confines of their organization and success will spread to other groups or shifts within the organization. The question here is, can anyone step up to the plate and make a difference? The answer is yes, but unfortunately you must have some credibility within the organization to make “things happen” or otherwise your efforts may be wasted.

It is important that you recognize the situation that you are currently facing. The picture of inactivity and lack of progress may be presented differently. If you have this inactive Chief, it could be similar to the frog in water – slowly turning up the heat creates a sense of security and the frog eventually is boiled to death; however, placing the frog in boiling water, the frog will jump out. Recognize that strong action to the change the direction of your fire department has an element of risk for not only you but your supporters.

Some tools to consider when facing a leaderless environment:

Analyze the situation. It is a fool’s journey to buck the system and if you decide to take on this role as informal leader, it is imperative to analyze the needs. Can you make a difference and who can you enlist to help you? This analysis will include prioritizing the issues, large to small, making the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time. You will need to collaborate with others in the organization, create a plan and communicate that plan to others in the organization.

Recognize your environment and be willing to talk to the Chief about the issues and lack of leadership. This will be the toughest thing to do as there is a feeling on the part of the Chief that you are challenging his/her leadership style. Understand that this person may not be well versed in the role of a leader and instead of stepping up to lead the organization they retreat to their comfort zone. You have to be willing to go the elected leadership and express your concern to that group related to the lack of leadership activities. This is a dangerous move on your part as there may be blowback as the elected leadership chose this person and reflects on their choice of the Chief. There may be a tendency to “kill the messenger”.

Be prepared to assume a leadership role. This action takes a strong personality to make this decision. In the absence of leadership direction, there appears to be a subset of leadership that will ensure the department survives and thrives. You and your firefighters are a part of that subset of leaders and in the absence of leadership, there will be a natural leader stepping into the gap. This natural leader will set the direction, gather the team to create and complete the work and move the department forward. It seems like a “friendly” takeover of the organization and surprisingly it will work to improve your department’s performance and function.

Be prepared for the absent leader to take credit for your successes. This is problematic for the team or natural leader. We all appreciate being recognized for our accomplishments and stealing that recognition irritates all of us. Be aware the absent leader is looking for accomplishments to ensure their survivability. There will a point in time that stealing your accomplishments will have an adverse effect on the absent chief, especially if the elected officials are made aware of who did the work. Again, this may not be welcome news to this group and they may actually tell you to stop making the Chief look good.

Be prepared for other individuals to resist your efforts to move the department forward. As the fire service is loaded with strong personalities and each of those personalities think they can do it better, it is incumbent on the natural leader to meet with those known strong personalities and get them to participate in the efforts. I have found that providing them with a particular project or function, assists in that assimilation of the team to accomplish the goals and reduces the resistance from the firefighters. At times, the mid-level staff, Lieutenants or Captains may be the most beneficial resources to smooth the way to success. Incorporate all possible assets in this improvement project for the department.

Be prepared to work with others on changing the leadership. This decision to lead the organization from a position below the formal rank structure takes a lot of planning and organization. At times, you can start out simply by taking on a simple or single project to demonstrate success. It can be as simple as re-organizing your supply or quartermaster system to providing specifications for a new apparatus. You have to have superb organizational skills and the hutzpah to make it happen. Let others share in the success of these projects and soon you will have a following.

No one likes to working in an organization where the leadership is “retired in place” or is ineffective. If the elected or appointed officials are unwilling or unable to make the change at the top you must be willing step into the gap for the improvement of the department with its inherent risks and benefits.

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