Curators of the Organizational Culture

AvsecRIP Prescott 19

By: Robert Avsec

Leadership has always been a well-discussed and debated topic in our society.  Leadership in Fire and EMS (FEMS) organizations is a no less debated topic, particularly regarding what the term “leadership” means.  This debate is never more topical than when a FEMS organization finds itself in the “public eye” for the wrong reasons, like these recent stories (“ripped” from today’s headlines): Officer embezzling funds from department; firefighter having sexual relations while on duty in fire station; firefighter terminated for Facebook post and others suspended for “Liking” that post; firefighter deaths from not wearing seatbelts; and the list goes on.

As I attempt to keep up with FEMS news and views, I can’t help but think back to the first time I heard FEMS risk management “guru”, Gordon Graham, speak about reducing organizational risk.  Graham’s remarks made a huge impression on me that day, particularly his “Five Pillars” for Reducing Organizational Risk:

  • Hire good people;
  • Provide good policies;
  • Provide good training;
  • Provide GREAT Supervision; and
  • Maintain good discipline.

I’ve always believed that a great leader “exudes” integrity which includes keeping their promises.  A while back, one of my FEMS colleagues on a LinkedIn made the statement that, “Great leaders care for their organization’s culture, they are its curators.”  They uphold the “rule of law” throughout the “land”, be that “land” a nation, company or family. “rule of law” requires the government to exercise its power in accordance with well-established and clearly written rules, regulations, and legal principles.  No man or woman is above or beyond the laws.  For our purposes, substitute the words “policies and procedures” for “law”—and-voila!—you have the “rule of law” for a FEMS organization.

These days are very challenging for any FEMS leader as they attempt to maintain services within shrinking budgets, deal with new regulations and standards, manage labor relations, or attempt to “shore up” the declining number of volunteers in their department.  I believe that for a leader to be a great leader, they above all must maintain the “rule of law across the land.  Here’s how I think this looks:

  • A set of “laws”.  Good leaders provide sound and up-to-date, procedures, and Standard Operating Guidelines for the organization.  The missing element in such documents, even when they exist within FEMS organizations, is the consequences for non-compliance.  Under the rule of law, the people not only know the rule—society will not tolerate the taking of another life—but they also know the range of penalties for violating the law, e.g., prison time or capital punishment.  The policies and procedures for FEMS organizations should include both elements as well: the rule and the penalties for non-compliance.
  • An educated “populace”.  Good leaders ensure that their organizations provide outstanding entry-level and incumbent training so that everyone knows the “laws”, including the consequences, up front, of non-compliance.
  • A system of “law enforcement”.  Good leaders provide good “law enforcement” officers, that is, carefully selected and well-trained supervisors who: (1) know the policies and procedures applicable to their position “inside and out”; (2) don’t ignore infractions: and (3) apply the policies and procedures equitably to everyone all the time.
  • Maintain “order”.  Like the judicial system, which tries and punishes the offenders, good organizations have a fair and impartial system of “justice” that ensures due process when individuals have been cited for infractions of the organizations “laws”.  Once again, all offenders are treated with equality under the law.

Fire Department ManagementDon’t get me wrong, I believe that there are many other leadership attributes that a good FEMS leader must possess, including vision, commitment, strategic planning skills, etc.  However, the more I look at news stories involving FEMS organizations that have been “ripped from today’s headlines”, through this “lens”—that of the organizational leader as a curator of organizational culture—I can’t help but feel…something must have been missing from their system of “law and order”.

What do you think?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].