During my career in the Fire and Rescue Service I have seen many types of leadership and changes in the way leadership is displayed and has evolved over the years. When I joined in 1992, my experience of leadership was what academics would term heroic in nature – basically, individuals who had all the answers and would swoop in and save the day. However, there were some leaders who still stand out in my mind for adopting a different leadership approach, an approach which we now discuss and explore at length during the UK FRS’s Executive Leadership Programme.
I recall vividly a Watch Manager (or Sub Officer) who would set probationary firefighters up to fail only to give them a robust telling off. He would tell them they were doing it wrong before then telling them how to do it. On the other hand, I had a senior firefighter on my first watch who would go the extra mile to help me to understand how the various pieces of the EPCO kit (hydraulic hand-pumped rescue equipment) worked. He used coaching and was supportive and encouraging whilst not laughing at the many mistakes I made trying to get the equipment working. With hindsight I know that this style of leadership got the best out of me and others that I saw him help during my time on that watch.
So what does leadership mean to me today? There is no doubt my view has changed over the years and, as I have progressed in my career, my approach has also undoubtedly changed. I look at it quite simply really: to me leadership is about creating an environment where everyone can come into work to deliver their best and perform to the fullest extent of their potential. Of course, I recognise that it is much more complex than that, but to think that I, just because I am in the position of Chief, have all the answers is folly. I have in the region of 850 people in my Service, who all have brilliant ideas about how we deliver our activity every day. If I think my idea is the only way, then I am absolutely stifling the incredibly talented people who work to make Staffordshire safer every single day. I see my role as a leader being one to listen, to help encourage and to forge a culture in which people bring their ideas forward, to ask questions about people’s views and to help people realise it is okay to make mistakes because that is how we learn.
To be clear, leaders have to be accountable for the delivery of their Service, but leaders do not just exist because hierarchy says they do. Leaders exist throughout our organisations and I believe that we need to really look hard at the way in which we support the development of our leaders in our organisations. Of course not everyone sees themselves as a leader but this might be because they see leaders as managers or the boss, but each and every one of them at some stage displays the traits seen as effective leadership today.
For the last four years I have had the privilege of being the Programme Director of the Executive Leadership Programme (ELP) on behalf of the National Fire Chiefs Council, which means working closely with Warwick Business School and the attendees who are already strategic leaders, or will be very shortly in those positions. The programme is not for everyone and nor should it be; we all learn differently and we all might need slightly different opportunities to get the most out of a learning experience. We need to be brave enough to embrace this difference and see the strength in it rather than continue to adopt the sheep-dip approach that I certainly saw in my early career. However, these opportunities need to be at all levels, so whilst the ELP offers opportunities for strategic leaders we need similar opportunities for tactical and operational leaders, which provide a different learning experience to that of an incident-command course. This development, I believe, needs to help leaders understand their own nature as leaders, their emotions and the impact they have on others and how others emotionally affect them. For many this may be extraordinarily challenging, but real learning is not easy and in my view it does not come from learning how to recite a list; it comes from the uncomfortable position of not knowing, of making mistakes and learning with others in a social manner. We have an opportunity through the leadership work within the NFCC to really grasp this challenge of learning and move it forward, a challenge I hope all my colleagues will embrace, overcoming their fears and pushing themselves out of the comfort zone.
I look forward to the publication of the NFCC Inspiring Leadership framework, a framework designed to explore the behaviours of leaders at various levels within the Fire and Rescue Service. This framework will replace the old PQA’s and provides a much simpler model of behaviour for leaders. Whilst many FRS’s have their own frameworks, this is not designed to replace them but to act as a benchmark for FRS’s to work against. However, some FRS’s may decide to adopt it fully. We have an opportunity through this work to really grasp this challenge of learning and move it forward, a challenge I hope all my colleagues will embrace, overcoming their fears and pushing themselves out of the comfort zone.