Leadership has always played an important played role in the fire service. Leaders are responsible for everything their firefighters do, or fail to do. Everything we do in the delivery of our service is about leadership; it’s who we are and it’s what makes us different from most organizations. Leadership is our lifeblood.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the leadership required for the future fire service. During his keynote address at the Fire-Rescue International 2012 conference in Denver, astronaut Mike Mullance described how leaders must set lofty goals, accept the unchangeable, make mid-course corrections around obstacles, and tenaciously remain focused on the goal. In other words, leaders need to be self-aware and adaptable. Specifically, fire service leaders must be able to use their situational awareness to adapt to changing conditions and not get stuck in a static command mindset. In other words, they must be able to master transitions in the chaos of 21st-century fire service operations.
Being adaptable allows leaders to successfully handle unexpected situations, providing them with something that author and leadership pioneer Warren Bennis calls a “crucible experience.” A crucible experience is a defining moment for leaders that unleashes abilities, sharpens focus and forces critical decisions. It’s a moment or event where a leader finds out who they really are. Bennis believes that adaptive capacity is the critical quality that determines how a leader will fare in a crucible experience. Adaptive capacity allows leaders to observe and orient themselves with the right information, and then make decisions and respond quickly and intelligently to constant change.
The Core Assumptions of Adaptive Leadership
There are two core assumptions of adaptive leadership. The first is that leadership is about skills and can be learned by anyone. The second is that the capacity of fire departments to adapt to new realities depends on whether the culture expects leadership throughout the organization or just from the top-ranking officers. Let’s now explore the two core assumptions in greater detail.
Leadership can be learned: The issue of whether leadership can be taught or learned has long been debated. I personally believe that leadership is learned more than it is taught. Leadership, in my mind, is not just a theory to follow or a particular set of words to use, especially during complex and dangerous situations. Real leadership is adaptive to each situation; it must be innovative and mentally agile. In today’s dynamic environment, leaders must be more creative and confident as they learn to handle the complexities of an uncertain world. Leadership isn’t developed through the teaching of theories in the classroom; it is accomplished through the individual desire to learn how to lead—something that builds skill and enhances education. Leadership isn’t something that someone can teach in a class; it can’t be broken down into basic steps that people must follow to become leaders. Rather, leadership is learned over time and through experience.
Where does the leadership reside? An organization’s capacity to adapt to new realities depends on whether the culture expects leadership throughout the organization or just from the top-ranking officers. We should have realized by now that, in rapidly changing situations where firefighters on the fireground must constantly adapt to new and unanticipated realities, the creativity and judgment that are elements of leadership must come from everyone in the organization. Leadership is needed at every level, in every situation, all the time.
“Adaptability” should become a buzzword throughout the fire service because of the new way we do business. This is the fire service’s introduction to the next generation of firefighting. In order to move toward becoming “learning organizations” where leaders practice adaptability, the fire service must change its culture—especially the way it develops leaders. It’s a tall challenge, but the future looks good.
So, how is the leadership in your organization? Where does the responsibility lie for developing leadership—in the classroom or with the individual? Do your firefighters have the necessary skills to adapt and survive in the accelerated dynamics and uncertainty of the fireground? These questions are a good place to start.