The High Cost of Low-Fidelity Leadership

They may talk the talk, but do they walk the walk?

There’s another type of 360 size-up you need to do. (Andrew Gaines/Unsplash)

By Kristopher T. Blume

The word in the title that deserves defining is fidelity. Moreover, what is fidelity’s relationship to leadership? Fidelity, for this discussion, relates to one’s faithfulness to an organization’s leadership ethos. Ethos forms the guiding principles of the fire service, which in turn, build the organizational culture that guides the department in its behavior. Therefore, ethos resides within the person, while ethics are displayed in that person’s actions, attitudes, and behaviors–all of which creates a state of fidelity within a fire department. Organizational culture will trump strategic vision. Always. Poor organizational leadership–low-fidelity leadership–attempts to learn through focused attention at failures instead of building on successes. Failure has very low information content. High-fidelity leadership focuses on how things get done right. Success stories are very high in informational content. Let’s take a look at the high cost of low-fidelity leadership and what we can do about it.

Fidelity can easily be sought as a virtue. So, where do we start? We start at the top. Regardless of rank and position within the traditional hierarchical structure of the fire service, high-fidelity leaders are the custodians of organizational culture. Pragmatic leadership solutions are often required. That application should occur dynamically across the rank structures embodying a collaborative process for leaders, line personnel, and organizational membership. In many cases, it requires blunt personal or organizational analysis to determine the root causes of low-fidelity leadership.

Careful consideration must be given to the chaos that befalls struggling organizations. An even more focused examination of the upper echelon of organizational leadership will reveal an amplified view of the challenges but, even more importantly, the opportunities to address those challenges. Simply replacing a few low-fidelity leaders might cause a short-term spike in perceived transformational change. However, these mitigation attempts will not produce a long-term metamorphosis unless complete organizational salvage and overhaul is performed. There is no such thing as a clean slate. Past performances of employees three days, three months, or three years ago are good long-term predictions for who employees will be three days, three months, and three years from now. The clean-slate theory is insulting to high-fidelity leaders and gives new life to low-tier performers. You cannot make a fundamental cultural change until you identify and remove–or retrain–those low-fidelity leaders affiliated with poor past performance and leadership.

Let’s apply the fireground size-up algorithm to our organizations. We want to assess what we have, where it’s going, and what’s in its way. Isn’t that the basic idea of an on-scene fireground size-up? In the same way we assess an emergency situation, organizational assessment is critical to long-term outcomes. Bad leaders cannot act alone. Low-fidelity leaders need colluders and co-conspirators to permeate the executive ranks. Observing, talking with, and listening to the line personnel of an organization will tell you more about organizational health than weeks of executive feedback sessions. Talk to the backbone of the organization, those who carry the weight, not those distributing the burden. Now, back to our fireground analogy; it’s time to get a 360. Getting to know your organizational culture requires you to talk to the line personnel, custodians, support, and administrative staff. They will show you where the fire is and where it has been. With a little prodding, these people will show you your exposures.

To recognize these low-fidelity organizational qualities, we should be on the lookout for the following:

1. Weaponizing communications–using communications as a means of obscuring, obfuscating, and distorting messages.

2. Gossip and administrative office politics fueling frustrations.

3. Strained relationships with union/labor and organizational management.

4. Harassment or hostile working environments.

5. Blame.

6. Condoning dishonest behaviors through rationalization.

7. Excessive leave use and abuse.

8. Talent leaving the organization.

9. Rampant behavioral and discipline problems.

It is only through recognizing these insidious factors that we are able to confront the root causes and propose a new vision and strategy to move our organizations forward.

The Megaphone and Microscope

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson

As leaders maneuver through the ranks, they become increasingly subject to scrutiny, and rightly so. Let’s revisit that term fidelity again. In the audiophile’s world, fidelity is defined as the degree to which an electronic device (such as an iPhone, computer, or TV) accurately reproduces its effect (such as sound or picture). In our leadership roles, we can simply change a few terms and describe high-fidelity leaders as those who accurately reproduce and support the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Low-fidelity leadership is amplified the higher you go in an organization. Those in executive leadership and managerial ranks have a megaphone. What they say and do is amplified throughout the organization, and they have the expectation to be heard and their edicts to be acted on. However, the louder the megaphone, the more distorted the message can become.

This is tempered and balanced by the microscope. Who the leader proclaims to be is carefully analyzed. They may talk the talk, but do they walk the walk? Seniority that is often associated with those in leadership positions should not be given a pass for substandard performance, nor should it be mistaken for highly developed skill sets. Under the microscope, the organization will determine a leader’s credibility and fidelity. Neither low- nor high-fidelity leaders can escape the microscope; however, high-fidelity leaders embrace it. They recognize they are always under the microscope and appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate transparency.

Fidelity in leadership roles is not perfect; it is practiced. These aptitudes are formed over the years in the crucible of the firehouse and fireground alike. High-fidelity leadership is a transformational process, which requires constant evaluation and evolution. The synergistic combination of attitude and aptitude produce a vision-casting mindset and an ability to sustain a values-based culture.

Personal Minimums

Hierarchical structures of organizations, such as the fire service, produce superior/subordinate relationships. Managers are guaranteed subordinates. Leaders earn followers. High-fidelity leaders recognize this transactional process and look for ways of improving the organization. Ask yourself this question: If your authority was taken away, would people still follow you? High-fidelity leaders know the answer, and they earn the title of a leader every day. Algorithms and charts can be helpful, maybe. It may, however, be more beneficial to apply a set of personal minimums for achieving high-fidelity outcomes.

In the aviation community, personal minimums are used to ensure a safe flight. They are a pilot’s set of procedures, rules, criteria, and guidelines that help the pilot decide whether, and under what conditions, to operate or continue operating an aircraft. As set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration,[1] examples of personal minimums include the following:

  1. Personal minimums cannot be developed just before takeoff. They need to be established well in advance of the flight.
  2. Personal minimums should be regularly reviewed.
  3. Once they are developed, write them down and keep them in a place where they can be easily accessed.
  4. Finally—refer to them often. Personal minimums save lives and the lives of passengers.

In our personal quest to develop ourselves as high-fidelity leaders, let’s determine our exact leadership location to best diagnose or plan how we move forward. This is the critical first step in managing an organization suffering from low-fidelity leadership. This list of items represents desired states for personal minimums in our high-fidelity leadership ethos:

Trust.  If you could only be one thing, be trustworthy. Organizations live and die on their ability to demonstrate trust. An organization’s trust in its leadership has no equal. Distrust is gasoline on a fire.

Transparency. What you see is what you get. If there is a footnote to trust, it is transparency. The two support one another. The more transparent, the more trust is imparted to organizational culture. A critical aspect of leadership is access to information. A critical aspect of high-fidelity leadership is transparently and responsibly providing information as a conduit to organizational membership. Being transparent requires emotional intelligence and allowing oneself to be vulnerable. Transparency is the most powerful attribute contributing to personal and professional growth.

Courage to abandon the past. The appeal that “We’ve always done it that way” is the last gasps of an organization with low fidelity and is entrenched in low productivity and failed initiatives. In 1519, when Hernán Cortés landed in what was then called the New World, he is said to have given the order to burn the ships that carried them across the ocean. The ships represented an escape, the opportunity to return to the past. When faced with the option to cling to the past as a safety net, we fail to be honest with ourselves about the opportunities to be successful with future endeavors. Removing the option to return to past practices or, in Cortes’ case, his ships forces us to move forward and act decisively.

Accountability. Accountable to whom? It’s a reasonable question. High-fidelity leadership is defined by culture. Establishing a culture of accountability begins with you. Your desire to be credible must be supported by your desire to accept personal accountability for your words and actions. Accountability cannot be delegated. Accountability is the “X” factor in determining success and failure of leadership.

Vision. Set your eyes on the horizon. Where are you trying to go? Having a vision provides a purpose. Clearly articulating the vision imparts trust and transparency, allowing others to see where you intend to take them. Further, acting on your vision is an outward demonstration to those around you of your dedication to inspire enthusiasm and generate fidelity. Vision creates credibility. Leaders with strong visions attract subordinates who want to share in the manifestation of the long-term outlook.

Service. This concept is based on the philosophy of “servant leadership,” a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf to define a leader who is a servant first and leader second. The process of leading should be viewed as a service to others. In our case, the fire service needs to ensure our actions are serving the community and men and women of the profession first. High-fidelity leadership can be seen in service to the organization and others.

Can you hear me? Communication is often the weak link. Whether on the fireground or in the firehouse, being able to send and receive clear messages is critical. Ask yourself, am I talking with people or to them? You need to speak with clarity and share the airwaves. Actively listen and encourage input. Good communication also implies you are available to listen. Put the digital device down and participate in the conversation by demonstrating active listening. It’s not only what you say; your body language, behaviors, and actions also communicate more than words ever can.

Development. Personal development includes developing your subordinates. This requires stewardship and mentorship. You should aspire to have your subordinates surpass you; their success becomes your success and legacy. High-fidelity leaders do not feel threatened by others’ success but rather celebrate it. Leave the organization better than you found it. Develop your people to be equipped to handle the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.

Getting that 360° view. One of the most valuable tools for a high-fidelity leader to use in personal development is the 360 evaluation. This tool can provide invaluable insight into personal performance as well as perceived strengths and weaknesses. The 360 evaluation requires the leader to bear responsibility for past actions with a desire to improve. Though many models of this process exist, the one that has enduring value consists of three simple questions: What am I doing right? What do I need to start doing? What do I need to stop doing? These are best administered using an anonymous third-party software provider like This process demonstrates a leader’s ability to exhibit emotional intelligence. Be receptive and responsive to the information you receive.

Providing a compelling vision for the organization’s future is vital. The high cost of low-fidelity leadership is unacceptable but not insurmountable. Burn the boats and take the megaphone. Cast a long hard look at where you and your organization are and where you want to be. Make no mistake, the challenge before you is sizable; however, low-fidelity leadership is antithetical to the fire service, and you’re not that kind of leader.


1.To learn more about the FAA’s Personal Minimums:

Kristopher T. Blume is a battalion chief and a 19-year veteran of the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department. He is an author, a lecturer, and an independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program through the National Fire Academy and an alumnus of the University of Arizona and has several undergraduate and graduate degrees. Blume is focused on values-driven, mission-focused leadership for the fire service.

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