Recruitment and retention have become a constant struggle for fire departments (and most employers) nationwide. At a time when departments are offering sign-on bonuses and actively recruiting for lateral hires from other departments, it’s surprising to see that some administrations still lead their entire department via authoritarian control. The “keep your mouth shut and just do what you’re told” mentality is sometimes warranted, but generally reserved for probationary firefighters who are still learning the ropes or a few perpetually poor performers. When applied to an entire department as a whole, it results in an immediate crash in morale and an exodus of good employees.
Servant leadership is a more effective approach that creates pride and ownership in the organization, while developing future leaders throughout the department. The administration need only instill a positive culture and citizen first mindset, like the “lines on the side of the road” and the direction it’s heading. Once the mission is understood, the administration can trust their subordinates to make sound decisions. Chiefs should push decisions as far down the chain as possible. A good rule of thumb is: if the decision won’t affect the way that you do your job, then you shouldn’t be making it. Pass the decision down to a committee of line chiefs, company officers, and firefighters. The command staff should guide them by providing insight on budget and long-term plans that they may not be aware of, but leave the choice up to them. The Chief still has final say, but if the department has a shared mindset, the committee’s decision will probably be similar to the one the Chief would’ve made anyway.
This approach has several positive side effects. Firstly, it eliminates the “them vs. us” atmosphere that plagues authoritarian departments. The line personnel made the decision, so there is no “them”, it is only “us”.
Secondly, it exposes those personnel to all of the factors involved in making the decision. This transparency and context is often missing from decisions that cause unrest in the ranks. Many administrators dislike hearing the question “why” from their subordinates. However, it is typically not a case of questioning the validity of the leader’s decision. Most often, subordinates are simply trying to understand why the leader made that decision, so that they can learn from their thought process.
Lastly, it provides subordinates with command-level decision making experience, preparing them to rise through the ranks. This is imperative, unless your command staff plans on working for 100 years. Eventually the Chief will retire, and if they’ve made every single decision for their department, then it’s unlikely that any of their subordinates will be adequately prepared to take over. A storm of disorganization and unnecessary mistakes will be left in their wake.
Shared ownership, transparency, and communication are pathways to a successful department culture. A lack of those traits, or the deliberate removal of them, will lead to low morale and high turnover. Department administrators may run their organization however they see fit as long as they’re in charge. However, departments that ascribe to the “do what you were hired to do and shut your mouth” mentality should at least add that mission statement to their job announcements. It would save good candidates the trouble of wasting years of their career at a toxic department with poor leadership, and there are plenty of good departments who would be glad to have them.