Saturday, August 27, 2011

Leadership under Fire: Rowing with One Oar

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Leadership, like rowing, is done best through good technique rather than brute force
By Joseph L. Krueger and David F. Peterson, Contributors

Web Exclusive included with this article
Posted: Fri, 08/12/2011 - 08:00am
Updated: Fri, 08/12/2011 - 08:00am
Command and control has been the name of the fire service leadership game for decades, maybe even centuries. That is, when it comes to how decisions and directions are given at most fire departments, it is "my way or the highway" and "do as you are told" that flows from the higher ranking people down to the lower ranking people. In essence, this equates to rowing with only one oar in that efforts to move a fire department forward are minimal at best, sometimes things go round and round, and the decision-making process is wholly one-sided (we all know that many chiefs have been accused of only having one oar in the water!). It does not have to be that way and the modern, progressive fire department will find that rowing with two oars is by far easier, much more productive, and many times more empowering for all employees. Leadership is a lot like rowing in that it is done best through good technique rather than brute force. 

The act of rowing a boat is all about power, not as much in the sense of the physical action required as much as it is about motivating the workers who are doing the work. In this sense, "power" refers to the means available to leaders to move or motivate others in order to achieve organizational goals and objectives. Power, then, is all about influence and that goes back to our series definition of leadership. 

The traditional forms of power are called "positional" power and they include legitimate, coercive, and reward power. Legitimate power is found completely in the leader's position or rank in the organization. In other words, I will obey your orders because you are my superior officer. An example of this source of power in use would be when rank is the reason for someone acting on an order. Coercive power is used when a person is in position to inflict some type of harm on another person if a request is not honored. This can come in a number of different forms and actually be transferred both up and down the ranks. For example, a supervisor can administer sanctions such as corrective action or unattractive work assignment. Conversely, a subordinate can use coercive action towards a supervisor by badmouthing him amongst peers. Finally, reward power can also be used by higher-ups to reward a subordinate's behavior some way if an order is completed satisfactory. A payback for doing a task could be a promotion or pay raise. 

The problem with these positional sources of power is that, for the most part, they are all one-sided where the leader subjects the influence on the follower without any input. While the request may get accomplished, the follower, over time, will become resentful and most likely will develop waning loyalty. Positional power is not effective in the long-term and because it is one-sided it is also extremely inefficient as a leadership tool. 

Much more effective forms of power come from "personal" power sources such as expert and referent power. These forms of influence are developed through effective communication and relationship building over time. Expert power is born out of influencing others through personal knowledge and skills in a specific area – in other words, knowing your department and your job. People listen to those who are consistently demonstrating their subject matter expertise. Referent power is the natural attraction that people have to a charismatic leader. It is derived from treating people with respect and dignity and through consistent authentic and sincere relationships. Numerous studies verify that followers engage with leaders whom they like and trust. 

The trust component must not be overlooked! As trust takes time to develop between leaders and followers, it requires consistent attention, effective communication and above all, honesty, to accrue. Trust cannot be rushed and it is best when developed a little at a time. Trust is also a critical component of effective leadership because it is absolute. That is, trust is ether all or nothing. It is not so simple to say you can trust someone a little or even a lot. Trust is an intangible that is black or white: trust is either present in a relationship completely or it is not. And there is no such thing as leadership without trust, but, in the absence of trust, leadership becomes merely authority. 

In reflection of the personal power sources and their effectiveness, the best examples most likely can be found in your own experience. We'll bet that every fire service veteran can recall someone in their career who treated them with respect, took them under their wing, and shared their knowledge in order to serve as a mentor. Most likely fond memories have survived from those caring and trusting relationships. Trust is the secret ingredient of leadership and one component that is commonly ignored by far too many fire service leaders. Indeed, the modern fire service leader does well to foster and nurture trusting relationships through effective use of the personal power sources of expert and referent power. 

Whether a leader is rowing a boat or running a fire department, it is very inefficient to use one oar or rely on the old, staid approach of telling others what to do. Those old forms of position power are simply not effective in today's world at motivating and sustaining the best efforts of followers (quite frankly, even in the "old days," they weren't very effective!). A much better leadership approach is to use two oars by empowering followers to help with the rowing through the use of personal power and the development and nurturing of respectful and trusting relationships!

JOSEPH L. KRUEGER is a 31-year veteran of the fire service who is currently an assistant chief with the McHenry Township Fire Protection District in McHenry, IL. Joe has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Joe also has extensive experience in leadership and management in the private sector and is a principal partner of White Helmet Innovations.
DAVID F. PETERSON is a 31-year veteran of the fire service who is currently an assistant chief with the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department in Milton, WI, and a fire officer with the City of Madison. Dave has a B.S. in fire service management from the University of Southern Illinois and is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Dave is a graduate student in leadership through Grand Canyon University's Ken Blanchard School of Business and is a principal partner of White Helmet Innovations. You can reach Krueger and Peterson by e-mail

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