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Developing Ambidextrous Leaders

The Fire & Rescue Service Executive Leadership Program at Warwick Business School profiled


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The Fire & Rescue Service Executive Leadership Program at Warwick Business School promotes a sophisticated leadership model that reflects the complexities, ambiguities and uncertainties that characterise the challenges facing the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) in England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland in the 21st century.

The firefighters who attend incidents everyday are universally praised for their heroism. In fact, the heroic firefighter very much symbolizes the UK’s Fire and Rescue Service as a whole. As a consequence, we tend to imagine leadership in the fire service as characterised by command and control.

However, the problem is that whilst heroics and direction through authority have a place, their relevance applies to little more than 10% of a firefighter’s day job.  The focus is less on fire-fighting and more on prevention, protection and working with multiple stakeholders in a complex, cost-conscious, collaborative environment that seeks to ensure and enhance community safety. In many circumstances, firefighters are required to act using their own intuition and judgment. Like so many organizations in the 21st century, it is important to develop this agile capability which can respond to conflicting and contradictory imperatives. This ‘ambidexterity’ is a key function for a Service that seeks to accommodate a range of priorities that require fundamentally diverse forms of execution. 

Over the past 10 years the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) has been working with Warwick Business School (WBS) to provide its senior officers with the knowledge, skills and nimble leadership mindset needed to be able to lead effectively in today’s pressurized environment. The resulting, co-created, Fire & Rescue Service Executive Leadership Program has become the significant development vehicle for strategic leaders in the majority of the 50 UK fire services.

The core challenge faced by the NFCC and addressed by the program is summed up by the WBS Program Director, Nick Barclay:

“There was a need to move from a role that focussed on firefighting to one that emphasised community safety and fire prevention: from being reactive to becoming proactive. That role is more complex as establishing collaboration and partnership relationships with the police and the ambulance services together with a wide variety of stakeholders from across the community, become more and more important. No emergency service can cover the range of skills and responses required in isolation.”

This changing context has required of its leaders a fundamental shift in mindset that acknowledges the value of command in some circumstances whilst being simultaneously comfortable with a range of additional behaviours that reflect the complexities the FRS faces.

In deciding to engage a progressive UK business school, NFCC sought to commission a program that reflected modern-day, holistic, thinking about leadership and its development. Having awarded the contract to WBS, the two parties began discussing how it might be shaped.

The program design involved a co-creation process that identified the central issues facing the FRS and the leadership requirements needed to meet those central issues.  The style of delivery was agreed as both immersive and experiential together with the importance of establishing a safe environment in which participants could trial ideas and experiment with approaches.  Over the duration of the program the design has evolved to take into account changes to the external environment, but the central ethos of development and exploration has remained a constant throughout.

Addressing these issues, the Fire & Rescue Service Executive Leadership Program was then developed over a period of six months before launching with the first cohort in January 2008. It has been run every year since, over 19 days between January and September, for cohorts of around 20 aspiring strategic leaders.

From the outset the ethos of the program has been experiential, introducing concepts and material that participants can take back to their workplaces and use throughout the period of the program. Rather than being exposed to material and asked to critique it in the standard academic way, participants write assignments in which they can operationalize and apply their learning within the workplace.

“We try and work with live issues that appear in the classroom.” (Nick says). “The cohort of participants is an organization like any other group of people and there are examples of ambiguity and uncertainty that can surface at any time. When they do we endeavour to integrate those experiences with conceptual material used in the program.”

This approach is very much supported by the NFCC representative on the program, who can introduce real-life anecdotal experience, albeit confidentially, in order to bring sessions to life and keep the program continually attuned to daily reality.

The current representative Becci Bryant, Staffordshire’s Chief Fire Officer, did the program herself several years ago. This gives her valuable insight into what it feels like to be a participant, what it feels like to aspire to become a Chief, and what has helped her be successful in that role. She has an appreciation of the strategic demands and political environment that characterises the role of Chief Fire Officer along with an understanding of the requirements of the role. Prior to taking up the role of Chief, Becci was a Deputy.  Consequently, she is able to explore with the cohort the differing responsibilities that strategic managers hold. Becci explains:

“The step-up to Chief exposed me to a demanding political environment as well as legal responsibilities that I had not experienced as the Deputy. An understanding of these through my attendance on the ELP has been of great assistance and given me the chance to think about the work required at a strategic level in a different way.”

Becci plays a proactive part, not only in the design, but also in the delivery. She tries to be there as much as possible, and when something is raised that some of the participants consider outside their orbit of experience, she can point out its value and relevance. This can help to assuage concerns some participants may have for the experiential element of the program. It draws attention to the importance of examining feelings and developing a sense of self both of which are key themes to be explored.

What participants find difficult is that for maybe 30 years of training, they have been taught the command behaviours appropriate in emergency situations. The program helps them understand that other contexts require different responses which, in turn, necessitate the capacity to ‘read’ and interpret the complexities inherent in those contexts. 

Although the program has a set schedule, it remains very flexible so that faculty are able to work spontaneously and respond when something captures the group’s imagination. Nick quotes an example where he introduced the notion of dialogue as an alternative to argument and discussion:

“It blew some of them away. They had no sense of the notion of dialogue, raised as we all are on the idea of debate and winning and losing. We stayed with that for two or three hours because it was so powerful and new for them… You just don't know, until you get involved with a group of people, how they're going to take to the material and what is and isn’t going to be valuable to them.”

The program has evolved over time in terms of content, focus, and the way in which it is delivered. These developments have been informed, not least, by feedback from earlier cohorts who often return to support the program. There is a new session on Industrial Relations and a day-long simulation of an event requiring multiple responses and actions. 

Although flexible the program is accredited and participants receive a Warwick University Post Graduate Certificate, which constitutes a third of a Master’s degree.

The UK government's 2016 Thomas Review of the Conditions of Service for Fire and Rescue Staff, specifically mentioned the Fire Service’s program. It concluded that "The Warwick program is delivered by a world class university that delivers similar programmes to a wide range of UK industries. Fire and Rescue services not using the ELP should reconsider doing so.”


Click here to learn more about WBS Custom Programs and how the School works with organizations to develop their people, their leadership and their strategic capabilities.

Warwick Business School is a leading thought-developer and innovator, in the top one per cent of global business schools.

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