Firefighters with their engine, marking the fact that WBS won an EMFD award for its Executive Leadership Programme for the National Fire Chiefs Council.

The EMFD award winning Executive Leadership Programme at WBS has helped fire chiefs replace heroic leadership with a more compassionate and effective approach to management

Every day firefighters are risking their own lives to save people.

To many, this can seem to be the very definition of being a hero and so when they climb the metaphorical ladder into leadership roles, it may seem perfectly natural to feel they should carry on as a heroic leader, seemingly with all the answers and an innate ability to command and inspire.

This macho image - often popularised in the media - is outdated and far removed from the reality of leadership in a 21st century Fire and Rescue Service.

Instead, the leaders of today need to be compassionate and caring, multi-skilled and agile, spending time building relationships, interacting with a multitude of diverse stakeholders, while at the same time lobbying for resources, engaging in political discussion and creating strategies to support safety and well-being across the communities they serve.

Indeed, any organisation with an outdated focus on a command-and-control leadership style will miss out on the opportunity to develop those most suited to lead a top performing public service.

Fire and Rescue Services draw their employees from across the diverse communities they serve and so need to have a focus on ensuring their leadership teams are properly representative of these communities.

In a world becoming increasingly volatile and uncertain, relying on a heroic leader trained to focus on a style based on command and control, is one doomed to fail.

As Des Prichard, Director for People and Organisational Development at the Chief Fire Officers Association and former Chief Fire Officer, of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, says: “It had been recognised through discussion with local authority political leaders, that applicants for the most senior leadership roles in the UK Fire and Rescue Service, while demonstrating intellect and knowledge, appeared to lack self-awareness allied to a gap in their strategic understanding of the complexities involved in leading a 21st century public service organisation, alongside a lack of political acuity in what was an evolving VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) environment.”

That environment has become increasingly complex since Warwick Business School joined forces with the National Fire Chiefs Council in 2008 to create the Executive Leadership Programme (ELP).

The UK has suffered the Great Recession, a decade of austerity that has caused growing inequalities, Brexit and perhaps most complex of all, a global pandemic now followed by a cost-of-living crisis.

With social media and the constant spread of misinformation across the digital sphere fire chiefs need to be adept at communicating and being on top of the latest issues in order to lead effectively.

The ELP has helped fire chiefs gain the self-awareness, political understanding and agility to deal with such turbulence.

Nick Barclay, who helped put the ELP together as Client Director at Warwick Business School, says: “The intention was to enable those aspiring to senior roles to be able to move away from a rules-based mindset that characterised their operational training, to a VUCA environment which confronts senior personnel in all organisations.  

“There was a strong sense that a more interactive and challenging programme was needed.” 

Finding suitable candidates for leadership roles

More than 300 fire chiefs across 16 cohorts have gone on this cultural journey for the UK Fire and Rescue Servce and the result has been staggering.

From struggling to find suitable candidates for leadership roles, the programme has seen a 300 per cent increase in suitable applicants for strategic positions, with a 19 per cent increase in women applying for the programme since 2008.

Mick Crennell was one of the programme’s early recruits as an Area Manager at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and believes the ELP has been integral in his rise up the ranks to now be Chief Fire Officer at Avon Fire and Rescue Service.

“It was definitely challenging, but also very enjoyable and different from any programme or process I had previously attended,” says Mick. “It was very personal and challenged me to think about me as a leader very early, which was indicative of what the programme was all about – it certainly didn’t stop there.

“I found this very refreshing, as mirror-gazing personal reflection and personal scrutiny as a leader was a new concept for fire officers in those days.

“I have actively supported the programme and recommended it to several of my team. I have coached and mentored them throughout their development and it gives me great personal pleasure to see them grow and develop into great leaders – many of whom are now executive leaders themselves.

“All of this can only improve our service and how we deliver our services to our communities, keeping them safer and making our organisations stronger.”

One of the features of the programme has been the creation an eco-system of ‘critical friends’ offering support and advice long after the course has finished. These Action Learning Sets (ALS) allow fire chiefs to consult with colleagues on problems and issues that all leaders in the service are likely to face but can’t talk about with those they are leading.

“Our ALS still meets,” says Mick. “Learning from others’ experiences and having a safe environment to share experiences has been invaluable.

“As a fledgling strategic leader at the time the programme definitely enabled me to grow my personal network beyond my home service and local region.

“It has opened up a world of possibilities and opportunities for collaboration, co-production and sharing innovation. It also provides a trusted and safe environment of peers to enable professional discussion, sense-checking and personal support.

“I would describe the ELP as a personal programme and not a course. It will be a personal journey of discovery and growth with many facets.

“The academic side of the programme is, of course, very valuable, but so is learning from other strategic leaders who have experiential learning to share; gaining access to external speakers, excellent tutors and trainers, the beneficial effects of the ALS and the alumni.”

With its emphasis on moving fire chiefs away from the deep-rooted ‘command and control’ style to a more collaborative style of leadership, the ELP has been vital in bringing more women into senior leadership roles in the UK fire service.

Leadership is more than a position

As Rebecca Bryant, who recently retired as Chief Fire Officer of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service after 29 years as a firefighter to take up a role at WBS as Associate Professor and facilitator on the ELP, says: “Leadership is a practice and not a position.”

Leaders need to take people ‘with them’ rather than to do leadership ‘to them’.

Joanne Bowcock, Deputy Chief Fire Officer at Oxfordshire County Council, says the ELP helped her see leadership in a different light and adopt a new method for decision-making.

“We use a model called the Incomplete Leader to acknowledge that the whole is a sum of the parts that makes the team,” says Joanne. “It sounds obvious but in our decision-making we don't adopt the hierarchy of the chief principal officers that make all the decisions. It's very much done on a consensus through the senior leadership team.”

Many of the UK’s 52 fire services have now added the ELP or similar programme as a ‘desirable’ in the person specification when advertising for senior leadership roles, while Sue Hopgood, Director of Leadership and Organisational Development at the Fire Service College, has gone on to set up the Cross Sector Leadership Exchange connecting leaders in the country’s fire service, police and National Health Service (NHS) to improve leadership across the public sector.

Gavin Tomlinson, Chief Fire Officer at Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, points out that six of the officers on his senior leadership team have done the ELP.

“Without a doubt it has helped me within my career,” says Gavin. “Not the badge or qualification, but the learning, networking, understanding myself more and taking a different approach to leadership as my career has progressed.

“And the programme journey is still continuing. I am still in contact with many of my programme cohort. The network of friends and colleagues has been the best part for me.

“I have adapted how I lead and undertake much of my decision-making since the programme. I am certainly more reflective, allowing others to speak and express views first. I focus on the development of others and have supported many of our leadership team to attend the programme over the years.

“I would say to anybody thinking about doing the ELP that it will change the way you think, approach problems, look for support and enhance your role in senior leadership. It will also provide support and a channel to share and discuss things, options which aren’t always fully available within your own service as it can be a lonely place at times and that support is vital, especially for your own health and well-being.

“It was probably the best course I have ever done - and I have done lots.”