Today, it seems everyone has a spin on what leadership is. Some ideas are theory-based, some cliché-based, some are aligned with models of application, and some define leadership, while others do not. Leadership is represented through perspectives of historical figures and mythological personas, and some leadership lessons are taught through cartoon characters and animals. Regardless of the perspective or the marketing approach of the latest and greatest book on leadership, it all comes down to a person choosing to make a decision.
When the decision basis is to avoid taking a risk or making oneself open to critique in order to self-protect, then leadership, in the concept of serving others, is null and void.
Making decisions is a conscience action. Even not making a decision is, in fact, a decision. In all cases, a person exercising leadership, or desiring to do so, must face the consequences of their decisions. Consequences for decision-making in fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) are often aligned with the thought of life and death within the communities we serve. However, there is a more prevalent and essential community in which we serve: the community of fire and EMS personnel, uniformed and non-uniformed. It is their lives that are impacted by the failure of those in positions of authority to decide, or decide in a manner which serves themselves before others.
Failing to decide
The idea of turning a blind eye, or failure or refusal to act, is seen in what is referred to as the code of silence. It is easier in our close-knit culture to remain silent and inactive regarding actions or behaviors of those around us.
To address a member with an apparent substance problem, or to call attention to behaviors indicative of emotional or mental illness, can be seen by the culture as violating the sacred trust in which “What is seen and said in the house, stays in the house.” The idea of the sacred trust cannot be sustained if the code of silence is broken, even if it is in the best interest of those to whom the consequences of revelation may be severe but lifesaving.
The second matter — self-serving decisions and actions — is a characteristic behavior seen in all walks of life. The genuine exercise of leadership is absent in these matters. When the decision basis is to avoid taking a risk or making oneself open to critique in order to self-protect, then leadership, in the concept of serving others, is null and void.
This is often noted when the person in authority acts to marginalize those who may be pushing the envelope or presenting new ideas, and they do so as a means of self-protection. In this, the decision to act, or not act, can be as fatal as remaining silent in the face of overwhelming evidence of a need for active and compelling leadership.
The greatest challenge facing those who desire to exercise leadership in the face of a contrary culture or within an environment of self-protection or marginalization is making the decision to act in the first place. Saving the life of a fellow member in need is a much greater reward than suffering the ridicule for breaking the code or perhaps being sent to an organizational abyss. After all, no one said leadership would be easy and without challenges. So take on the challenge and act now. Someone’s life may depend on you.
Action step to become a better fire service leader
The National Fire Academy’s (NFA) Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program provides senior fire officers with a broad perspective on various facets of fire and emergency services administration. The courses and accompanying research examine how to exercise leadership when dealing with difficult or unique problems within communities. Learn more about the EFO Program.
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: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times