Leadership: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
By Mark Cannon
Over this past year, several articles have been written regarding decisions made by fire service leaders. In some cases the outcomes have been revered as positive, thus reflecting a decision made by a good fire service leader. In other cases the outcomes have not been quite so desirable. Then there are those cases where the decisions have left all of us shaking our heads in disbelief and yielding predictable outcomes. These are the cases where decisions have been made by both the bad and the ugly fire service leaders.
Battalion Chief John Kincaid, of the Abilene Fire Department was quotedÂ saying, â€œAs a fire officer, you should always remember that you will be judged on the outcome of your decisions, not by what was happening at the time.â€ Decisions at the company level usually only affect four or five people. Decisions at the battalion level will usually only affect that battalion. However, decisions at the upper management level will affect an entire department. One decision, from any level of leadership, can harbor continued respect for that leader or completely degrade a managerâ€™s character and integrity. So what characteristics of leadership in the fire service separate the good from the bad and the ugly?
Letâ€™s take a look at one example of a good fire service leadership decision that has yielded a surprising outcome. Recently, news has been circulating about Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn of the Boston Fire Department, and his decision to change the work schedules of the departments 1400 members. If you have read the articles about this case, you know the story. If you havenâ€™t, wouldnâ€™t you think that changing the shift schedule of an entire department sounds extreme? Add in the fact that Commissioner Finn has only held his position for two months. Now what are your thoughts?
Without knowing the entire story, it would be hard not to assume that this decision was made in an effort to flex a muscle. One could also assume that this decision was made in an effort to retaliate against the membership for some reason. Look at whatâ€™s going on in the world today and you can justify these thoughts. When I first read the title of this Boston Globe article: Firefighters Given New Schedules to Curb Sick-Day Abuse, I assumed that this was a case of management flexing muscle in an effort to test, or decompose, the strength of the firefighters union. After reading the whole story, I was completely surprised.
The main surprise in this article was how Commissioner Finn pulled off his decision with overwhelming support from the departmentâ€™s union membership. Boston firefighters have been working a 10 hour shift schedule where 4 shifts have rotated between day and night shifts for more than 50 years. Imagine working Monday for 10 hours from 8am to 6pm only to return Tuesday night at 6pm and work 14 hours. You now have Wednesday off, but start all over working the day shift on Thursday and the night shift on Friday. After working that cycle, you have 72 hours off before starting the cycle again. This type of schedule leads to enormous sick leave abuse and multiple shift trades; something that was not greatly approved of by fire management. So what helped Commissioner Finn develop a solution to this issue that has been labeled as a â€œfree for all?â€ It would be the fact that he worked this shift as a member of Boston Firefighters Local 718 for almost three decades. He understood that this shift not only created issues for fire management, it has created issues for the membership for as long as he had been on the job.
Finn immediately took this issue head on but not without help. Finn enlisted the help of the folks who would be affected by this major change in lifestyle; the membership of L718. In two months the work between labor and management yielded a 24/48 work shift. Local 718 voted for the shift change with over 80 percent approval, even though this shift change is being tested for only one year. The main test for the one year period is to see if sick leave usage declines. Finnâ€™s greatest characteristic in leadership was embracing the true nature of the labor management model. Finn kept the best interest of his employees in mind while looking out for the best interests of his department.
Now letâ€™s take a look at one of the most ridiculous decisions a fire service â€œleaderâ€ has ever made. Iâ€™m sure that there are not many folks in the fire service who have not read about the sicker debacle in Maywood, Illinois. One of the best things about being a firefighter is our ability to wear our personalities on our helmets. After 9/11, fire helmets all over the nation were being adorned with stickers remembering those who fell that day. Helmets were not the only things harboring remembrance stickers. Patches were being sewn on coats and stickers soon showed up on refrigerators and lockers. American flag stickers also became a major sight.
All of a sudden, we are reading about Maywood Fire Chief Craig Bronaugh and his decision to mandate the removal of all patriotic and personal stickers from helmets and lockers. This order was met with resistance and lead to four Maywood firefighters being sent home with the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11 upon us. I had to read this article twice; I just could not believe it. The main question in my mind was why this decision was made.
Matthew Walburg and Joseph Ruzich of the Chicago Sun Times highlighted this situation and quoted several reasons behind Bronaughâ€™s decision. One reason for the decision was to prepare for station renovations. Another reason was to create a uniformed appearance. Then came the reason of addressing racism in the department. None of the reasons made any sense for mandating the removal of patriotic stickers, so our firefighters refused to remove them and were sent home. So what was the real reason for mandating the removal? Was this a situation where fire leadership was merely flexing their muscle? Was this a situation of retaliation?
In the course of one month, the fire service has seen two completely different perspectives of leadership. Bostonâ€™s example shows great leadership skills of how the labor management model was utilized. Maywoodâ€™s example is on a completely opposite side of the spectrum. This was an example of the ugly side of leadership. The Decision not only created a hostile work environment for employees, it also showed complete disregard for the labor management model.
In Boston, labor and management embraced a need and worked together to make the best decision possible. In one year the fire service will see what the outcome of that decision will be. In Maywood, it seems as if the Chief made a shoot from the hip decision. This decision snowballed quickly to the point where his integrity and character dissolved to nothing, not just in Maywood, but nationally.
These are just two examples of fire service leadership decisions that have made headlines. Major decisions are made on a daily basis that impacts the lives of firefighters all over this nation. Some of these decisions can completely ramp up morale in a department, or completely degrade it. One true testament of a good fire service leader is the condition of his/her department. If the rank and file is happy, and the department is operating optimally, then that leader is more than likely a good leader. If the rank and file is unhappy, and the departmentâ€™s affairs are in disarray, then that leader is more than likely a poor leader. Commissioner Finn understood the issue at hand, and took into account the best interest of both the department and its members. I honestly donâ€™t know what Chief Bronaughâ€™s motivation was for his decision. No matter how much pressure a leader may feel from government, or no matter what personal issues may exist, a fire service leader must always remember where they came from.
About the author:
Mark Cannon has over 23 years experience in the fire and emergency services field, including 20 years with the Kansas City Missouri Fire Department. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Fire Science and is a certified fire services instructor. Mark has held positions in the ARFF, Hazardous Materials, and Technical Rescue divisions. He also served in the United States Air Force as a firefighter. Mark currently resides in Kansas City, and is married with two children ages 16 and 14. Mark can be reached, via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.