Millennial leadership: How to foster a new crop of leaders

Four strategies to develop younger members so they can effectively lead the fire service into the future


Deputy Chief Ian Emmons will present “Passing the Torch: Millennial Leadership” at the IAFC’s ReIGNITE conference on Oct. 21, 2020. Learn more and register here.

Over the past decade, there has been a coming of age of sorts for fire departments across North America. As our seasoned veterans retire and their collective experiences and skills walk out the door, millennials are next in line to fill the chain of command. But have we done everything we can to prepare them for these roles?

The answer to that question varies from department to department, but overall, it’s safe to say the fire service is feeling the growing pains of this generational issue. Fortunately, we still have time to prepare our young leaders for the next phase of their career.

Resolving this issue won’t happen overnight, though. There are several important elements to passing the torch to younger leaders. Here we’ll address some sound strategies to help ensure the fire service has the future leaders it needs to flourish. But in order to get there, we must first understand some history.

As our seasoned veterans retire and their collective experiences and skills walk out the door, millennials are next in line to fill the chain of command. (Photo/Getty)
As our seasoned veterans retire and their collective experiences and skills walk out the door, millennials are next in line to fill the chain of command. (Photo/Getty)

Disrupting the chain of command

Traditionally, new hires are the youngest members, and the fire chief is one of the oldest members with the most time on the job. However, today’s fire service is rapidly evolving. In many departments, maybe even your own, the chain of command isn’t so linear. While the general layout may remain the same, you’ll notice a young leader, or even a few young leaders, sprinkled throughout the chain. A lieutenant may appear to have been promoted “out of order” or a chief officer may have taken command at a noticeably young age. This often occurs much to the chagrin of older members, no matter how well-liked the young leaders are, and the decision to promote them is scrutinized.

The real question: How did those young leaders get there? Was this transition planned and fostered by leadership recognizing up-and-comers, engaging them, and putting them in position to succeed? Or did it happen organically, maybe even because “that’s just how the cards fell”? I’d bet for most, it’s the latter of the two.

So, why is this a problem, and how do we overcome it? The challenge involves many factors, but it’s mainly a perception issue. Poor communications and a lack of understanding, or even an unwillingness to understand one another, also contribute. Fortunately, there are many ways we as leaders can overcome these obstacles and tear down walls that prevent us from being our best and increasing our overall bench strength.

The problem with perception

As noted, perception is a driving factor in why many departments haven’t attempted or have been unsuccessful in developing the next generation of leaders. To some within our ranks, millennials represent a group of coddled, self-serving, poor communicators, who are used to always getting a trophy. If they don’t get what they want, they leave. Quite simply, millennials have been put into a box, and it’s been difficult for many members to overcome this stereotype.

While some of these characteristics may be true for some millennials, the reality is that millennial members bring much to the table. When their skill sets are properly harnessed, millennials are likely your most engaged, technologically adept members. The question “why?” may get thrown around a lot, but it’s merely because they want to understand the task. This should be seen as an opportunity to provide your young leaders with frequent feedback and calibration.

One of the biggest issues that arises seems to be the desire of millennials to “have a seat at the table.” With limited time in the service, typically 15 years at most, this is a hard sell for those members who were required to literally and/or figuratively “sit down and shut up” earlier in their career.

Powerful motivations and values

The millennial members of your department also possess many powerful motivators and values. These can and should be leveraged, not only to develop them into your next crop of leaders but also to advance your department into the future.

This generation is often associated with a healthy optimism toward the future, along with a desire for a more collaborative, inclusive and just culture. These values will most certainly assist in diversity and inclusion efforts, which only stand to make your department better stewards of the community and a better place to work.

Their motivations for working are also different than those of past generations. They seek a cultural “fit” and desire a sense of belonging over pay and other benefits. This is often a reason for their transiency, as many members of this generation are willing to leave a department if they feel like they don’t belong. This is a far cry from the past when members were hired on and retired from the same department no matter what the issue.

Armed with an understanding of the problem and what makes our young members tick, we can focus on practical implementation efforts and preparing younger leaders for their ascent into and up our chain of command.

Strategy 1: Engage them

Your department should strive to engage your young members. By doing so, you’re increasing their buy-in to the department and its mission. While they may not be subject-matter experts (SMEs) just yet, the use of committee work and program and project assignments is a great way to accomplish this.

Committee and program assignments are often given to officers and SMEs. However, when you make your next appointments, consider the atypical approach of assigning committee work, programs or projects to your younger members. This will actively engage them in the project and also help develop them as future leaders.

Strategy 2: Build programs around abilities

Make every attempt to create meaningful work for your young members by working toward inside-the-box programs and projects. This can be accomplished by matching community needs with special areas where department members show a great capacity. For instance, what if you have a large geriatric population that is prone to wandering away from their residence and a young technologically adept member of your department who has both interest and skills in UAV operations? This is a great opportunity for both the community and the member. Remember to find your bright spots and build programs around their capabilities.

Strategy 3: Give immediate feedback

You must get into the habit of providing immediate feedback, whether it’s formal or informal, to your young members. Being diligent in creating a culture where it is customary to do this will help your young members accept constructive criticism, something the millennial generation is notorious for having difficulty with.

Special focus should be placed on developing your supervisors to do this well. Young members crave constant and immediate feedback. The goal of this shouldn’t be about praise, though; it’s about letting them know what is working well, what needs to be tweaked, and what isn’t working at all.

Providing this immediate feedback will help young members tailor their work to your expectations and allow them to feel like a valued member of the department.

Strategy 4: Facilitate mentorship opportunities

This tool has made the largest impact on my young career – and is the most self-explanatory. Senior leaders should seek to facilitate mentorship opportunities for their young members.

This requires senior leaders to identify and understand the areas in which those members show promise, and then connect them with someone who can help cultivate their strengths. Whether it’s a young firefighter or a young battalion chief, this will not only assist in their development but also show them the path forward so they’re able to do the same for the next group of leaders.

Outcomes and takeaways

The goal of developing and preparing our young leaders should be seen as a marathon, not a sprint. Most often, they don’t have the benefit of fighting fires in legacy structures, bestowing upon them the same experiences of their predecessors, or the many years of experience before being promoted to senior firefighters.

Attrition through injuries, medical leave and regular retirements are occurring much more often than in the past, requiring our young leaders to step up. By focusing our efforts on their development, we’ll realize both short- and long-term benefits.

In the short-term, young members will have greater job satisfaction, increased job competency and better overall job performance. All of these positives translate into a better fire department for the community.

Long-term efforts will result in increased bench strength, molding new leaders while retaining department traditions and values, and will ultimately help shape the 21st century fire service.

Above all else, remember that if we don’t pass the torch to our young leaders, the fire service will miss out. And missing out on millennials means missing out on Generation Z.

[Read next: Are millennials really the problem – or lack of mentorship?]

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