Public safety staff numbers continue to decline, leaving a real shortage of experienced leadership within the ranks. It is crucial for executive leadership staff to develop leaders from within their ranks without pushing personnel into leadership positions that may or may not have the skills set to be an effective leader.
My public safety tenure includes more than 25 years of industry experience as a first responder – I’ve worked as a fire chief, supervisor of dispatch operations, and as an EMT. In that time, I have worked under bosses with very strong leadership skills, as well as bosses that should have reevaluated their leadership skills. The strong leaders would inspire and motivate every shift. The weak leaders would struggle to complete simple assignments. The strong leaders would demonstrate outstanding work ethic by living as an example to their crew. The weak leaders would make reactive decisions while also attempting to put out managerial fires all day long.
Some individuals have leadership skills built into their genetic makeup. Some individuals can be taught leadership skills over time. It is crucial, for us as an industry, to cultivate leadership from within our ranks to build for a stronger future.
Proactivity versus reactivity
Proactive leaders provide the best environment for the team to grow. Proactive leaders have wide open lines of communication, support ideas and innovations, and are willing to take any suggestions for improvement into consideration. Proactive leaders allow and encourage the team to grow with the organization, and pivot to new plans when necessary. Proactive leaders typically are forward-thinking and planning for the long term. The survival of any organization is to have proactive minds that promote proactive actions while resisting reactive decision making.
By contrast, reactive leaders lose the faith of their team and often ultimately cause more harm than good. Reactive leaders tend to focus on short-term results while forgoing any long-term planning with the hopes of achieving immediate gains. In many cases, policies and procedures have the ability to help or harm proactive versus reactive leadership. At best, some of these will need to be reviewed and revised; at worst, some will need to be scrapped altogether.
Leadership in action
One of the first and most important steps a true leader can take is creating a free flow of information which will allow your team the ability to make informed decisions throughout their day. The alternative is unnecessary disruptions, pushback from team members due to frustrations, and ultimately low morale. Nothing creates more animosity within an organization than behind-closed-door decisions made by the few but that affect the many. Transparency in leadership means keeping your employees in the loop, sharing the good and the bad, all while welcoming honest feedback from the members of your team. As individuals, we want to see the best in ourselves, and too many bosses will read this information and mistakenly think to themselves of course my team can always initiate important conversations. The key, however, is to look at what happens if your team actually does – specifically if it’s one you dislike or disagree with. Too often, the reaction, retaliation, and result is poor. When their intention in doing so is to help you help the organization, and they feel punished in return, you can be assured they won’t try again.
These are the moments which truly define a leader versus a boss.
Further, promoting success should never start with promoting personal success. If you are leading an organization, your responsibility and motivation should focus on the activities of the team in its entirety, and not the sum of your success as its leader. The concept of leaving the place better than you found it, perhaps without complete recognition, requires a large amount of humility and always operating from a place of value. And failure to do so means lost credibility as a strong leader of the organization. Build the legacy you wish to be remembered by, and the leadership skills you desire others to take example of – this can be especially difficult when, as leaders, we can easily lose sight of how we felt under the power of poor bosses. Never forget the experience the employee is having on the other side of their desk, and remember it is your responsibility to advocate for them before yourself.
The new standard for public safety leadership
A leader should communicate, inspire, and motivate with positive instructions or direction. Your personnel need to feel appreciated and recognized, as well as empowered to make a difference. The definition of a growth mindset is the genuine belief that one can learn more and improve themselves by working hard and persevering in the face of challenges. A growth mindset in a leadership position promotes personal growth in every single member of the team. And a focus on the mission using a growth mindset will improve the morale and participation of every individual to maximize their contributions toward that mission.
A leader should be taking constant ongoing measurements of the performance of the team. Are there resources that could be provided that could improve the process or the experience? Are there positions that could be created to increase efficiencies? It is not always an easy endeavor and often requires putting the self aside, but the potential for impact can be increased by magnitudes – and everyone remembers the leaders who helped them shine.