by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D.
Published in Fire Chief Magazine, January 1, 2009
Fire departments all over the world have adopted values to which they proclaim their dedication. For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department attests, “We owe each other a working environment characterized by trust and respect for the individual, fostering open and honest communication at all levels.”
Trust, respect, and open and honest communication are some of the most commonly stated values by fire departments. These openly stated cooperative values are not mere verbal decorations. Rather, they are a call — a call to attend to the wants, desires, needs, issues and concerns of a department's employees. They are a call to achieve higher morale; a happier, more creative culture; greater employee satisfaction; and a stronger ethic of service to the community.
But a call to the moral leadership of living by such values does not automatically lead to their actual fulfillment. There often is a gap between ideal and real, stated and practiced.
"Conscience lies deep in the mind. The conscience of a leader is a way of thinking and feeling that is not hard core but warm core, with a warm heart tuned into the suffering of all others in the department and an unquenchable thirst for their well-being."
Why does such a gap exist? Often it's because the necessary and sufficient conditions for fulfilling values throughout a department are not yet known, are not wanted, or are wanted but not yet applied effectively.
Learning what these conditions are is an essential first step for chiefs who seek the comprehensive fulfillment of cooperative values in their departments.
The first condition is the conscience of leader. But to know what the conscience of a leader is, we first must define who is a leader and what is leadership. The leadership historian James MacGregor Burns wrote, “A leader and a tyrant are polar opposites.” Stalin was a ruler. Gandhi was a leader. Ruling, or commanding others, except in emergency situations, undermines respect, trust and open communication, and other cooperative values. In contrast, leading supports such values.
Leaders can have any career role in addition to their leadership role. Any member can rise up and be a leader at a particular time to deal with specific situations in a complex, shifting organizational dynamic. Leaders rally allies to achieve a cause.
What then is the conscience of a leader? Conscience lies deep in the mind. The conscience of a leader is a way of thinking and feeling that is not hard core but warm core, with a warm heart tuned into the suffering of all others in the department and an unquenchable thirst for their well-being.
How important is that firefighter (or anyone else) who has a list of complaints or who has performance problems? The conscience of a leader answers that he or she is as important as the board president or mayor, as important as the favorite officer, and as important as the bleeding person trapped in a wrecked car or burning building.
This conscience is the psychological foundation of a leader's identity. As such, it helps make members of the department into consistent, staunch allies who want to vigorously pursue the mission and vision of the department. This conscience drives the example chiefs set in their actions, which helps leadership to show up all over the department. Most importantly, it provides a strong and sustained motive for fulfilling values.
To fulfill this condition requires the chief to activate his or her conscience of a leader. It means looking at the urge to say, “They don't have to like me, just to do what I say.” It also happens by deliberately deciding to see each person as an equal human being, with equally important needs, wants, concerns, rights and feelings as one's self and anyone else in the department or the community.
“We've got to treat each person like a human being,” says Chief Richard Carrizzo of the Southern Platte (Mont.) Fire Protection District.
If there are obstacles to that, it is important to look into what they are, starting with events where you were disrespected in some way, and revisiting and healing those events, perhaps through depth counseling and self-examination, which takes great courage.
Once a fire chief fully activates his or her leadership conscience, it is necessary to find out what is actually happening regarding values in the organization.
That requires the second condition: a process of fearless, open communication. Some people are afraid to communicate openly because they imagine that their issues, concerns or complaints will be dismissed, ridiculed or ignored. They fear that they will be labeled as complainers, or that those above them will retaliate if they speak honestly and openly.
Measuring values fulfillment — and lack of fulfillment — happens in members' consciences and through the stories they tell. If chiefs and executives could hear them all, they would know the values of the organization, and how they were being violated and fulfilled. But there are no flies on the wall to hear them all, so organizations need specialized processes to bring about the condition of open communication. That way, they can diagnose the extent to which there is organizational values fulfillment. It is difficult to solve problems that remain hidden and festering. Surveys and meetings are two processes chiefs can use to create fearless open communication.
The survey results can show how well the organization practices each of its values over time. By using surveys with both open questions and targeted values questions, the results indicate what the organization is doing well with its values and how it needs to improve. Answers can be sent to a neutral person or agency, summarized and given back to the organization.
Conducting anonymous surveys allows department members to express themselves without fear. And the results allow the department to look at itself, complaints and all, just like standard 360° performance evaluations.
Open communication can happen through regularly structured meetings. At meetings, Carrizzo has a series of what he calls partnership meetings with each shift, each month. This enables him, the other chiefs and the members of a shift to engage in open communication, whether about regular work issues or values issues.
Also, a clear process of open communication for meetings held by and called by any member can be very helpful. If any person can call such an ad hoc meeting with anyone else about a problem, it helps open up communication, as long as retribution is forbidden.
Open communication leads to a diagnosis of an organization's problems. That way they can look at themselves as they are. This paves the way for the group to see what is important to them.
The next condition centers on discovering and committing to cooperative values. While many fire departments have a stated set of cooperative values, it is important to make sure that they accurately reflect the actual, felt values of the department's members.
Three key ways of discovering a group's values are: analyzing and discussing survey results, telling stories about values-violation experiences and values-fulfillment experiences, and engaging in consensus-building processes to come up with a set of values that reflect what the group believes in.
Survey results can help discover a group's values. If people say or write that they feel disrespected in a particular way, then respect is a key value. If they are concerned about being mistrusted, then trust is a key value. It is the same with other complaints. They express desired values by their negation.
Story-telling also works to discover values. During leadership training, each person in the group tells a story of when a value was violated and when a value was fulfilled. Everyone listens. Over time, people begin finding common values across their stories. Some obvious candidates for common group values emerge. This can be done by using many groups or a representative group from across the department.
Through story-telling, people engage in a process that creates a foundation for consensus, not just about value-words, but about the overlapping experiences exemplified and prompted by the stories when told and heard. That energizes and infuses the words with emotional meaning. That makes consensus much easier.
Once stories have been told and values listed, it is time to come to agreement. That's when consensus processes are used to agree to a set of values that represents the wants, needs and aspirations of the members of the department.
Once the organization has that consensus, the values get implemented by committing to practicing them on a daily basis — using them as the organization's moral compass for making decisions. But more is needed. There must be the leadership skills necessary to live by them on a daily basis, especially for dealing with values problems as they arise.
The next condition is the outer and inner skills of leadership. It is important not to behave in such a way toward others as to cause disrespect, mistrust or closed communication. Some typical behaviors do this consistently. A short list of such behaviors includes blaming, avoiding, whining, negative labeling and sarcasm. Instead of these behaviors, which often violate values, it is better to be more effective and wise. If someone else has a problem with your behavior or performance, use a leadership counseling process to listen deeply. If you have a problem with someone else's behavior or performance, use a requesting process to ask for what you want. If another group or person behaves or performs very well, use a process of appreciation to encourage more of the same. If you have hurt or offended a member, then use a seven-step apologizing process to negotiate for forgiveness or get past the hurt. If you encounter a conflict, use a six-step negotiation or mediation process to create an agreement where both parties win. If someone else has a skill problem, use in a coaching process to bring out skills. If your group performs poorly, use a process of organizational learning such as group conversations to make and implement plans. If someone else has a professional or personal problem, use a mentoring process to help them solve that problem or issue.
To make these outer skills effective, especially in challenging or stressful situations, inner leadership skills need to be activated. That's because the inner world of thought drives the outer world of communication.
If you are upset, stressed, angry or otherwise not at your best, use a process of calming down, healing and recovering your composure. This happens through processes for preventing harmful behaviors and healing stress and anger. To clarify what you want in terms of desires and plans (so you are not confused or mixed up), use an integrity process. To know the feelings and motives of others and care about them more deeply, use an empathy process. To see a situation from the outside, use an objectivity process. To analyze a situation deeply and effectively, use an analytical-thinking process. To see the effects of problems and actions on others, use processes of long-term and wide-angle vision. To remain trusting of people, use a process to see the good in others. And to integrate the concepts developed with these inner skills into a coherent whole, use a process of synthesis to create leadership intelligence for using outer skills.
The fifth required condition is an organizational structure that is free of constraints that prevent the fulfillment of cooperative values. If there are constraints, they need to be removed or transformed into factors that encourage fulfilling values.
Constraints come in many forms. Many large corporations are based on shareholder-only control, with no or weak unions and outrageously paid executives. These policies constrain cooperative values by substituting the financial values of a tiny controlling minority for cooperative values. But this is good news for fire departments. Typically, fire departments are free of such constraints in their organizational structure. That's because they are governed by elected officials, are rooted in their communities, have fair pay scales with less than a 5-to-1 ratio from highest paid to lowest paid, have a caring culture of healing the wounded, and have an ethic of community service.
There may be other constraints in a fire department's organizational structure that need to be removed, fixed or modified. Those can include having an antagonistic relationship with elected officials or the union. In these cases, it is critical to work toward a resolution of conflicts and gain support for fulfilling values. Once organizational structure constraints are removed, a fire department is free to pursue fulfilling values. What remains is determining how to make sure it happens over time, comprehensively.
The next condition is having a committed, responsible leadership facilitator. One person needs to be completely responsible for the process of fulfilling values. This person should have the skills and experience from taking organizations through the process before and having no other responsibilities. That way the accountability is clear and the neutrality established.
Some of the required skills and knowledge for any leadership facilitator include mediation, family therapy-type conflict resolution, cognitive science, psychology, leadership development, depth counseling and psychotherapy, executive coaching, and group facilitation. Such accountability and neutrality skills and knowledge are critical because if something breaks down in the process and values get violated, there is a person who is completely responsible for the process and who will therefore intervene and help to correct the situation.
With a full leadership conscience in the chief, and in others, a department will have a strong motive for a sustainable departmental culture that fulfills cooperative values to respect all members as equal human beings. With a process of open communication, it will have a constant organizational self-diagnosis, which leads to identifying values problems.
With a process of discovering and committing to cooperative values, it will have a set of standards towards which to strive. With inner and outer skills of leadership spread throughout the organization, it will have the means to strive toward the fulfillment of values. With the removal of constraints by the organization structure, it will have the freedom to support the other conditions for fulfilling values. And with a person who is entirely responsible for the process, it will have put into place authority and responsibility to proceed.
Kelly Patrick Gerling is the founder and president of The Leadership Project, a consulting firm that has specialized in values-based leadership since 1992. He has a master's degree in human relations and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.