Written by Kelly Walsh and Dan Jones
Having multiple personalities at work is not usually considered to be a good thing. But think about the benefits of having the ability to shift into different leadership styles as different people and situations cross your path.
In the Fire Service, it is critical to have an autocratic style on the Fire Ground. A crisis is no time for consensus building. Fire Personnel are trained for years on how to handle those situations and how to make quick and calculated decisions. Then later, in leadership positions from Company officer to Chief, there is a need to be more planful and strategic. It is appropriate and important to collaborate and discuss what is ahead and to collect the appropriate data. Rising up the leadership ladder can be challenging for those used to one way of doing things.
In interviews, I often ask candidates “What’s your leadership style?” Surprisingly, they often do not know. They may know what they are not, “I’m not a micromanager” or “I’m not autocratic”. But few can articulate what kind of a leader they are.
What kind of leader you are or want to be is a great thing to think about whether or not you are a formal leader. Thinking about how different leadership styles are needed is the key to growing your leadership style. It is also important to be able to accurately describe your leadership style(s) when asked if you have ambition to lead. Not only does this demonstrate self awareness but also allows you to define yourself.
Coach Kelly Walsh
In my first experience as a formal leader, I found myself with a very high functioning team. I had been promoted out of the team and led that group plus a few others with different roles. I enjoyed the challenge and the great results we had. Admittedly, I had a group of motivated, hard-working, detail-oriented achievers. They allowed me to do what I do best which was to create the ideas for going forward and encourage them to grow. What I didn’t realize was that I was developing a singular style based on my high performing team.
My next leadership experience found me with a group of varied experience levels, motivation levels, and interests. One person was a motivated go-getter who wanted to promote every year. One was a “get-by-guy” who wanted to do the least amount of work possible and hide the rest. One was a brand new college grad who had great potential but much to learn. The style I used in the first leadership experience was of no help in the second. I could have easily said my style was “not micromanaging” which worked well in the first scenario. It would have been a disaster in the second. I needed multiple leadership styles to work well with this group.
Chief Dan Jones -
I was promoted into leadership roles much too early in my Fire Service career and had to learn leadership styles the hard way. My first captain was old school, purely autocratic and had been doing it for a long time. I tried to emulate that style even though I had neither the experience nor the knowledge to back that up. I was, as is often described in the Fire Service, “badge heavy”. However, I benefited from an experienced crew (even as Lieutenant I was the youngest on the crew) that recognized my inexperience, my potential and my failings but still cared for me. One late evening on-duty they approached me as a group and laid it on the line about how overbearing and bossy I was when it wasn’t necessary. They were blunt but supportive and made a great effort to help me learn. My first reaction was anger and rejection. But after a few days of off duty contemplating every thing they said, I realized they were right and I had to make changes.
I began to read and research all I could about leadership. I also began to watch other fire officers and what they did that was good and what they did that was negative. I recalled other leaders in my life, my H.S. basketball and football coaches, my youth pastor from church, Boy Scout leaders and school teachers. I realized that the successful ones had distinctive styles but also the ability to use different leadership skills and approaches in different situations. I also realized that my first crew had done me a great favor and probably saved my fire supervisory career.
Coach KW - One of the finest leaders I have ever known is a member of the Fire Service and told me that he doesn’t believe that ‘leadership skills are bestowed on anyone by the cosmos’, rather they are behavioral and able to be learned. That’s the good news. The challenging news is that it takes work and that work will continue throughout your career.
As Leadership and Emotional Intelligence Guru, Daniel Goleman tells us in the Harvard Business Review (source below), “research suggests that the most effective executives use a collection of distinct leadership styles– each in the right measure, at just the right time. Such ﬂexibility is tough to put into action, but it pays off in performance. And better yet, it can be learned.”
In his book “Primal Leadership,” Goleman, describes six different styles of leadership. The most effective leaders can move among these styles, adopting the one that meets the needs of the moment. They can all become part of the leader’s repertoire.
Coercive: This is a “do what I say” approach that can be very effective in a turn-around situation, in fire-ground command, or when working with problem employees. But in most situations, coercive leadership inhibits the organization’s flexibility and dampens employees’ motivation. (Goleman says even the modern military has come to recognize its limited usefulness).
Authoritative: A “Come with me” approach. He or she states the overall goal but gives people the freedom to choose their own means of achieving it. This style works especially well when a group is having trouble finding direction. It is less effective when the leader is working with a team of experts who are more experienced than he or she is.
Affiliative: The hallmark of the affiliative leader is a “People come first” attitude. This style is particularly useful for building team harmony or increasing morale. But using only this style can be a problem because its focus on group praise can allow poor performers to go uncorrected.
Democratic: By giving staff a voice in decisions, democratic leaders build organizational flexibility and responsibility and help generate fresh ideas. But sometimes the price is endless meetings and confused employees who feel leaderless. This style’s impact on organizational climate is not as high as you might think. Used in the right situation, it can be a powerful tool.
Pacesetting: A leader sets high performance standards and exemplifies them him/herself. This has a very positive impact on employees who are self-motivated and highly competent. But other employees tend to feel overwhelmed by such a leader’s demands for excellence – and to resent their tendency to take over a situation.
Coaching: This one-on-one style focuses on developing individuals, showing them how to improve their performance, and helping to connect their goals to the goals of the organization. Coaching works best with employees who show initiative and want more professional development. It can backfire to those resistant to change if it is perceived as micromanaging.
Chief DJ - The Fire Service is clearly one of the most difficult environments to be able to lead in. Probably second in difficulty only to the military. Think about it; other supervisors are with their personnel 8 to 12 hours at a time and then they go home. They may not even take breaks together. Fire Service supervisors/leaders are with their personnel 24 or more hours at a time. The Fire Leader has down time with subordinates, eats with subordinates, shares sleep time with subordinates, know personal details of subordinates about family, finances, hobbies, beliefs, politics, health, habits and emotional issues. Leaders may even spend off duty time with subordinates in recreational activities. But even through this all they must be able to effectively lead and supervise. Add to that the responsibility of emergency scene decision-making where the very life and health of subordinates may depend on the leader’s decisions! Such difficult environments in which to lead and be able do it well.
Many Fire service leaders are unable or unwilling to use or learn more than one style of leadership and this is where they fail. Think about the most effective and respected Fire Leaders you know. Are they not capable of leading with two or more styles? Do they not employ multiple leader skill sets? This is the leadership schizophrenia that Coach Kelly refers to; the ability to adapt your leadership style, skills, approaches and behavior to varying situations and needs of personnel. I believe this is what makes a really good Fire Leader.
If you are a leader or aspire to be a leader, it is important that you can:
1. Define your style(s) of leadership
2. Develop and use more than one style of leadership and appropriately apply it in any given situation or environment
3. Recognize when you have not used the correct approach in a given situation and without beating yourself up over it, correct and learn from it; and
4. Learn to use your skills and styles consistently in order to build trust with your subordinates. Good leaders are consistent and predictable for their subordinates because that lays a foundation for trust.
How do you begin to define your style(s)?
Coach KW – An easy way to start is to be observant. Watch other leaders, observe their style and see what results they get. Think about leaders you have liked and leaders you have disliked to start defining your style. Taking pieces of different styles and learning when the right time and situation calls for each style is an art. Do not try to copy or emulate a specific leader you like or admire. Take the good traits from several different leaders and develop your own style. Every leader has a particular style that is their primary or comfortable style and that is ok as long as you can adjust to meet the circumstances at the time. We joke about it requiring “multiple personalities” but it’s really having the ability to shift to different styles when needed. The more styles you are able to use in the right situations; the more tools in your leadership toolbox. Leadership is a life-long learning process.
Chief DJ – Spend some time thinking about your leadership style and skill sets. Introspection is an important ability for leaders. How do you define your leadership style? What are your leadership strengths and weaknesses? How can you improve your weaknesses? Can you identify a new leadership skill you would like to learn? How have you helped others develop their leadership skills? Have you asked anyone for help in improving your leadership style? What do your subordinates think of your leadership style? When was the last time you read a leadership article or book (not counting this one)?
Some books I have found useful in developing leadership style and skills are;
“Leaders” by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus
“Principle-Centered Leadership” by Stephan Covey
“Servant Leadership” by Robert Greenleaf
“Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” by Wess Roberts
There are many good reads available on leadership and no matter how experienced or successful you are it is important to continuing learning and refreshing. Even as we start this New Year I am reading a leadership book by Gen. Stanley McChrystal called “Team of Teams”. Never, ever stop learning.
Quotes to get you thinking:
“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” - Everett Dirksen
“Debate is common about which leadership style is most effective. The answer, of course, … it all depends.”
– Thomas Kohntopp
“I strongly believe that leadership is an art, not a science. I've learned that leadership can be innate or it can be learned. However, I don't believe anyone was truly born to be a great leader. Great leaders are formed over a long period of time through a series of opportunities and experiences. Without opportunities, even the greatest natural leader among us may never become known for great leadership.”