Adaptive Leadership

Published: 10/26/2011
Author: The International Association of Fire Chiefs

By Billy J. Wenzel

Deputy Fire Chief-Operations

Wichita Fire Department, Wichita, Kansas


The challenges we have faced over the last several months have been a direct result of an unprecedented loss of our experienced workforce. Today, 40% of our department has less than eight years of experience.  13 of the 14 chief level officers have been promoted in the last three years.


The initial fear was the loss of fireground experience. Would we continue to be able to put the fires out in a safe and effective manner? It was a pleasant surprise to find our young members were up to the challenge. Our operations were infused with young, well trained firefighters and our officers exceeded expectations. What became apparent was the lack of organizational experience/maturity at the management level. I could hypothesize the many possible reasons for this gap: past micromanagement, no shared decision-making, and lack of accountability. It did not matter; it was a real challenge.

In late 2010, the City of Wichita sponsored leadership training that was provided by Wichita State University and the Kansas Leadership Center. The principle of this training was that some challenges do not have a technical solution. Those challenges require adaptive analysis. Adaptive analysis involves problems that resist easy solutions and requires new learning, often causing an examination of the context of a situation and the individuals involved, including the way things typically work and the way we work. This is in contrast with technical analysis in which known remedies and expertise can be applied.


We began to think the challenges we were facing could require an adaptive solution. I learned the adaptive leadership principles:

·         Leadership is an activity;

·         Leadership must engage others;

·         Leadership is risky;

·         Your purpose must be clear and you must hold to it.


Over the next several months we began using some of the adaptive leadership techniques. We initiated a weekly meeting where the management team (Divisions and Battalions) would meet with the fire chief and deputies to discuss any and all issues. This evolved over time from a typical “roundtable session” into a meeting where the management team was able to discuss ideas and make process improvements. While this took a tremendous amount of valuable time away from the fire chief and deputies, it proved the most effective way to mature as a team. But there was risk and we did have occasional backslides but we continued forward with the process. At times the process became more important than the solution. There is always the rush to find a technical solution, which was what worked well as a firefighter. I have been attacked with a broken vehicle window and had my vehicle egged, my yard driven through as well as disturbing midnight phone calls, but remember leadership is risky and your purpose must be clear and you must hold to it.


It now looks like we are turning a corner. I attribute the success to the fire chief and the leadership skills we continue to employ. It is becoming clear we have a shared vision and want Wichita’s bravest to be the best we can be.


The use of OpsNetlink will provide a framework for operations chiefs to work through adaptive challenges. These types of challenges take time and we all need support and the opportunity to discuss experiments for these challenges. Together we will become stronger.

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