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The fire service has been described as paramilitary organization with a leadership organized in a top down fashion. In other words, one person does the thinking, one person directs the organization and one person takes responsibility. Is that right? Is that how your organization operates?

I was stimulated to author this article based on the belief that we can lead and manage better if we involve all of the personnel in your department from the bottom up – invert the leadership pyramid.

As Deputy Chief, I would have firefighters come to me with great ideas and wanted me to develop them. For example, a firefighter suggested that the department needed a high angle/low angle rope rescue team and I should develop one. I smiled and suggested, that if that was such a great idea, the firefighter should develop the team, I would support her and provide some seed money to make it happen. If successful, we would place this into our next year’s budget as a line item. Guess what? The program developed by firefighters, managed by firefighters and staffed with firefighters continues to be a successful program and no one from leadership team interfered with its success.

As government is notoriously slow in change or bringing on new ideas, this bottom-up leadership will provide the agility for an organization to make the necessary change, meeting the challenges of today and not struggle with issues of yesterday.

I was also inspired by a video created to demonstrate leadership by Intent by retired Navy Captain David Marquet based on his book Turn The Ship Around. He knew that the best and brightest in the US Navy serve on nuclear submarines and why not take that talent and use it to run the micro organization of a nuclear submarine? So, being the smart Captain, that is exactly what Captain Marquet did, although he withheld the deadly orders of launching a missile or torpedo to his position only.

Watch this video:

Hiring the smartest and the brightest is the fire service mission as well. Our profession requires this level of “smartness” in order to manage the challenges of today’s fire service. Customer service and technology go hand in hand as well as redefining our organizational culture to include diversity and inclusion. In today's overly complex, ever-changing world, every firefighter at every level of the organization needs to be thinking strategically, looking for new opportunities for the department, as well as for their own career growth. Instead of Fire Chief’s or attorneys attempting to change the organizational culture to be more inclusive, lead the organization by Intent and let the firefighters address these and other sensitive personnel issues.

This way instead of having one leader at the top, why not 137 leaders in the organization? This strategy does not eliminate centralized vision and long term strategy but with 137 (or more) leaders in your organization your end goals are realized more quickly and has better buy in from the organization

One of the big issues in this bottom to top management is adequate and accurate communication. Many times the message is garbled as it runs through many filters. Everyone has a bias, they are indoctrinated as to “this is the way it is” and new firefighters are afraid to speak out until they get some time and experience under their belt. In many cases we suppress thinking at the lowest level. The fire service is hiring new firefighters with high levels of technological skills, those with prior military experience and those seeking a better career. All are motivated. We seek problem solvers arriving at a desire solution to fix the issue or develop sensible solutions. If the firefighters manage the issue and create the solution, based on the intent of the department, it is possible to reduce the number of problems and will make a large impact in program development and success overall. It is actually possible to reduce the number of lawsuits as the problems created and problems solved are by the firefighters themselves.

Based on my experience, this inverted leadership pyramid and Leading by Intent creates an enthusiastic organization that people want to join regardless if career or volunteer. Stimulating community participation is performed mostly by the firefighters themselves touting the successes of an organization to the community they serve.

Not everyone likes this leadership model. Remember firefighters hate two things – change and the way things are. If we can empower these same people, does it make sense they will participate if their words and actions actually matter in this new relationship?

Did we leave the Chief and their staff behind? Not really as there remains the business of running the fire department on a daily basis and succession planning. Yes the Chief is the ultimate responsible party; no it’s not a hands off proposition of inverted Intent Based Leadership and yes there remains a role for the leadership to remain at the helm of the department. The inverted leadership pyramid may provide insight to the Fire Chief as it relates to those high performance firefighters that may become the new leadership of the organization when are working on a succession planning program.

This leadership style is not for everyone. We do have the control freaks as leaders where every decision and facet of the organization goes through their office. I have found that it throttles innovation and creative thought and actually slows the department down when addressing the changing and challenging community we serve.

Read the book, watch the video and give it a shot. It is refreshing and who knows, you may be successful while engaging in this new leadership style for your organization

Turn this Ship Around – David Marquet (Captain, USN Ret)
Animated video -

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