Adaptive Leadership in the Hazmat World

One of the greatest leaps we make in our hazmat career is the progression from operations level responder to hazmat technician.  This progression is viewed as a technical challenge, as it involves the acquisition of knowledge so the hazmat technician can then apply that technical know-how to operating offensively in the hot zone.  An even greater challenge for many hazmat personnel is subsequent to the aforementioned leap — the transition to a leadership position in which adaptive leadership skills must be utilized.  Adaptive leadership skills are not as cut-and-dried as the skills utilized to tackle technical issues, as adaptive leadership involves the changing of the very hearts and minds of the personnel that are supervised and there is no succinct road map or guide that can be applied to such challenges.


The decision to address adaptive leadership in this discussion was made a few months ago while at the National Fire Academy in my fourth and final Executive Fire Officer class.  The first year (Executive Development) and fourth year (Executive Leadership) classes are centered around the topic of adaptive leadership as it applies to the fire service in general.  The thought that then crossed my mind was that if adaptive leadership can be applied to the fire service collectively, then why can’t we apply the same leadership techniques to the discipline of hazardous materials response?  I must state before we proceed any further that the concepts that we will discuss have been developed by others and are utilized as a portion of the Executive Fire Officer Program.  We will merely relate those concepts to leadership in the context of hazardous materials response.

As we have alluded to above, adaptive leadership is often a difficult concept to put into practice, as we are more accustomed to solving technical challenges in the hazmat world in which we can rely on our training, education and experience to guide us.  When we are promoted to leadership positions, no one hands us a manual on adaptive leadership or teaches us an adaptive leadership class.  I must also add that when we speak of leadership positions, we have both formal leaders that are granted their authority through rank or position, and informal leaders that do not derive their leadership authority from rank or position, but rather are viewed as leaders because of their experience and breadth of knowledge.  We all have such informal leaders on our hazmat teams and know them well, as they are the veterans we call upon when something really needs to get done. 

One concept that is discussed as an element of adaptive leadership is that of being a “servant leader”.  When we first hear of this term, it conjures up negative images of a leadership model in which the personnel being led “run the show”.  This image could not be farther from the truth, as it by no means consists of the “tail wagging the dog”, since even servant leaders must discipline their personnel and maintain order in their ranks.  What it does refer to, however, is the concept that as leaders we should advocate for our personnel, listen to them, and give them the tools they need to succeed.  A servant leader listens as much as he or she speaks and empowers their personnel by avoiding the trap of micromanagement so that the personnel can gain leadership themselves by running facets of the program, thereby building experience, knowledge, and buy-in to the goals of the team.  As one well-stated axiom goes, “The character of a leader should not be judged on how he treats personnel equal in rank or above him, but rather how he treats personnel below him in rank.” 

In the Executive Fire Officer Program, the Battle of Gettysburg is utilized as a case study in management throughout the fourth year class.  An example of the practice of adaptive leadership through being a servant leader occurred during the battle when General Chamberlain of the Union Army was presented with a group of captured Union deserters and was told they could be shot if any tried to desert again.  He stated that would not be necessary and then met with the leader of the deserters to determine the cause of their actions.  He found out that they had deserted following being forced to remain after the end of their conscription and many months of subsequent heavy fighting.  Chamberlain treated them fairly and used adaptive leadership in that he spoke to them and stated that he realized what they had been through and that they were not being forced into battle, but their participation would be welcomed when the battle commenced.  The former deserters than joined back in the fight and performed admirably.         

The practice of adaptive leadership is often not a comfortable one.  True adaptive leadership does not occur when we are maintaining our position in our “zone of authority,” which is the region in which our authority is exercised from our position, job description, and/or regulations.  Adaptive leadership occurs when we venture outside the predictability and safety of our zone of authority.  The secret to adaptive leadership success is knowing when to venture outside our zone of authority and to what extent; and in not being afraid to do so.  Such actions are easier said than done, as stepping outside our zone of authority can either result in success as a leader, or the loss of position or even one’s job.  Being able to accept these risks is the mark of a true leader and such acceptance lies in direct opposition to our duty of providing for our respective families and our need to progress in our own career.

Another concept that relates to adaptive leadership is that of emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence is the ability to realize that most “attacks” on us as a leader are not against us personally, and the application of emotional intelligence is being able to look at the root cause of any discord or push-back to determine the true cause and hence the path to a solution to the challenge.  We also practice emotional intelligence when we are faced with a personal attack from our personnel over an issue and then successfully separate the personal side of things from the “business” side.  This ability to remain calm under fire in a management sense is the true definition of emotional intelligence. 

A theory that runs counter to the successful practice of adaptive leadership is that of “groupthink.”  The groupthink theory was developed in 1972 by Irving Janis and is described as a condition that occurs when the desire to act or think alike in a group results in bad decision-making due to the desire for conformity and the inability to speak out against the opinions of the group.  One prime example of groupthink occurred prior to and was a causal factor in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Prior to the fateful launch, personnel had voiced concern over the joints and seals joining sections of the solid rocket boosters that propelled space shuttles into orbit.  Even more concern was voiced over the conditions present at launch time — namely abnormally cold below-freezing temperatures and the unknown performance of the booster seals in those conditions.  The consensus of the group stifled the objections of the few, resulting in one of the greatest disasters in the U.S. space program. 

A second example of groupthink occurred in the Battle of Gettysburg.  General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army was regarded as a very intelligent tactician and leader; however, he fell victim to the groupthink phenomenon.  The Confederate Army had seen considerable success in previous battles and also on the first of three days of battle at Gettysburg.  This success led to General Lee having a sense of “hubris” or overconfidence.  Many of his top personnel — including General Longstreet, who Lee called his “Old Warhorse” —  advised to wait until a more favorable position to attack was held, however General Lee and many of his troops held to their sense of invincibility.  This resulted in the disastrous “Pickett’s Charge” in which Lee and his Army was defeated.  The concept of groupthink can also rear its ugly head in the hazmat response world.  Past successes in response can lead to a false sense of invincibility.  Throw into the mix some micromanagement in which hazmat team personnel are afraid to voice their opinion and you have a recipe for disaster.

In summation, the concept of adaptive leadership can indeed be applied to the hazmat world.  We can practice adaptive leadership by being servant leaders, exhibiting emotional intelligence, venturing outside our zone of authority when appropriate and avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink.  Exercising adaptive leadership is oftentimes not an easy nor comfortable process as adaptive challenges are not as “cut and dried” as technical challenges, however practicing adaptive leadership can ensure the success and effectiveness of our hazmat team.  As always, stay safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at                   

Glenn Clapp is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders and is a division chief with the Town of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina Fire Department. He has over 20 years of fire service and emergency management experience and is a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor, a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager, and a Certified Fire Protection Specialist.

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