Part 7: Leadership Competencies

Part 7: Leadership Competencies

Article Jul 31, 2009

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.

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"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.

For each potential position in the organization, the 67 competencies -- conveniently depicted in a deck of cards -- are sorted into three categories: essential, nice to have, and least important. Someone aspiring to the position of, for example, battalion chief could then identify and work to develop the competencies particular to that position. Each competency is supplemented with definitions, behavioral measures to develop it, obstacles to achieving it, developmental reading and other resources.

"Take a competency like 'Managing Vision and Purpose,'" explains Gorman. "If somebody wants to develop that competency, we can tell them, 'OK, go here. Here are the remedies for that.' It's a structured, data-based self-help tool."

Under this approach, around 70% of an individual's development comes from experience -- facing and conquering challenges. Another 20% is drawn from mentoring and the examples of others, and only 10% comes from formal instruction and coursework.

Clackamas has structured its development opportunities accordingly, offering its up-and-comers chances to tackle wide ranges of assignments: overseeing operational changes, managing crises, refining strategic plans, fixing problems that crop up and so on. "There's a real structure," Gorman says, "to how we use the experience factor."

The department did its first competency card sort roughly a year and a half ago, for the fire chief's position. It refines the process as it progresses. But the reception has been good, early results have been positive, and the success across various industries of the Lominger approach suggests that it could ultimately benefit a major fire/EMS organization too.

"It's important to us to build a strong foundation today that we can pass to future generations," Gorman says. "I believe this is one of the most useful leadership development tools I've ever seen to help do that, inside the fire service or out."

What Competencies Does Public Safety Need?

Lominger's Leadership Architect suite of products isn't widely used in public safety, but on the law enforcement side, the Winnipeg Police Service in Canada uses the company's competencies in assessing applicants for constable positions. The service cites 21 competencies as essential for its officers, including five of utmost importance:

  • Respecting diversity -- Respects all people, treats them equitably, and acts as a proponent of equal opportunity for all.
  • Citizen and customer focus -- Committed to building relationships, garnering trust and respect and acting with customers in mind.
  • Integrity and trust -- Honest and trustworthy, regardless of the outcome.
  • Ethics and values --Does the right thing even when no one is looking.
  • Results-oriented -- Meets goals, strives to be a top performer, encourages others.

Other competencies valued by the department include action-oriented; compassion; learning on the fly; listening; peer relationships; perseverance; self-development; self-knowledge; work/life balance; dealing with ambiguity; intellectual horsepower; written communication; timely decision-making; approachability; composure; and patience.

For full descriptions of these competencies, see

Leadership Architect Resources

Next time -- In the next installment of this series, we'll look at the benefits of mentoring and succession planning.

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