Part 7: Leadership Competencies

Clackamas Fire District has implemented a program of best practices to ensure fire and EMS officers embrace the tenets of leadership competency

The graying of America's Baby Boomers has implications beyond just the public we serve. It's also likely to impact many of the nation's emergency-services organizations internally.

In suburban Portland, OR, a quick glance half a decade or so down the road drives that point home with one alarming statistic: Clackamas Fire District #1, which serves 180,000 citizens in large and growing Clackamas County southeast of the city, stands to lose 80% of its top management in the next six years.

Those leaders will need to be replaced. And that's a process that has to begin now.

"We're going to see a significant number of younger employees moving into roles that, 10 years ago, we couldn't have imagined them in," says Executive Officer Kyle Gorman, who oversees EMS and government relations for the roughly 200-member department. "The challenge for us is, how do we develop that group of future leaders so that they're prepared to take the reins when we pass those reins along?"

The fire service has an established standard and well-defined career path for its officer candidates to follow. NFPA 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, defines four progressive levels aspiring leaders can pursue: supervisor/company officer (Fire Officer I), battalion chief/managing officer (Fire Officer II), administrator (Fire Officer III) and executive (Fire Officer IV).

That's all good and necessary training, but it's not all that goes into making a good officer. Just as valuable, and perhaps even more, is real-world, real-life experience facing and solving the unique obstacles posed in the emergency services.

You can't fake that kind of experience, and you can't gain it overnight. Imparting it is a long-term process that -- at least for departments with demographic profiles comparable to Clackamas' -- should be started now.

"What it means," says Gorman, "is that we have to get many, many people engaged in our organization. We have to get them experience in the leadership skills that matter: the strategy, the innovation, the creativity, the planning. All those things are important from a leadership perspective, but we can't give them to them on a fireground or in a classroom. We have to give those skills by providing our potential new leaders with challenges outside their normal range of operations."

Those challenges have to be visible, and they have to carry a risk of failure -- they have to "have some heat applied," Gorman says. After all, it takes pressure to forge a diamond.

For a combined service like Clackamas', there are two ways to go about bringing those opportunities to up-and-comers. Within their current positions, candidates can take on new projects -- e.g., lead or participate in a task force, help develop strategic plans, manage accreditation efforts, etc. Or they can transfer to a new position within the organization via a range of temporary-duty assignments: A candidate might serve as chief training officer, for example, to get a feel for the skills and competencies required to oversee training.

"If I had my way," Gorman says, "I'd send my stars overseas and have them start some kind of factory using foreign customs, currency and labor laws, and put as much pressure on them as I could to succeed. Then if they came back successful, I'd know I could assign them anywhere in my organization, and they'd do a good job."

The goal is to help develop specific competencies. And while much about the emergency services is unique, the competencies required to be an effective manager, to a large extent, aren't.

Back in the early 1990s, management-development experts Michael Lombardo, EdD, and Robert Eichinger, PhD, created a toolkit for the assessment and development of management and leadership skills. It's built around a set of 67 research-based competencies, 19 identified behaviors that can stall or advance careers, and an approach to leadership development that heavily weights experience. That toolkit is now a primary component of the full Leadership Architect product suite offered by the company the two men founded, Lominger International. Clackamas is using these tools to help develop its next-generation leaders.

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