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Warwick Business School and National Fire Chiefs

Getting past comfort zones: How Warwick Business School and the National Fire Chiefs Council develop well-rounded leaders

The Executive Leadership Programme is giving fire service leaders the emotional intelligence and appreciation of modern challenges they need.

When you think of a firefighter, one word springs to mind. 


And of course, firefighters are heroes in the truest sense of the word, risking their lives to save people in the most difficult and dangerous of situations. 

But to lead a fire service effectively, it isn’t enough to be a hero. These days, the people at the top of the ladder must also possess other qualities – qualities like compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence.   

Despite the macho, somewhat sexist image portrayed in the media, being an inspiring and successful leader in this line of work is less about being the first to run into a burning building and more about building relationships, interacting with stakeholders and lobbying for the resources needed to better serve communities. 

That’s something the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) understood in 2007, when it first commissioned Warwick Business School (WBS) to develop a programme that better prepares its members’ employees for senior roles. 

The resulting product has been rolled out every year since, with more than 300 fire chiefs across 16 cohorts going on a cultural journey to become stronger leaders. 


A job - and course - with nuance

Being a firefighter is not all about saving families from blazes, nor rescuing cats from trees. 

Much of the job is focused on prevention, protection and collaboration with other organisations in an environment where budgets are stretched and new challenges emerge all the time. 

Yet back in 2007, applicants for senior leadership roles in UK fire services kept missing this point. 

“While demonstrating intellect and knowledge, they 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,” Des Pritchard, Director for People and Organisational Development at the Chief Fire Officers Association, said. 

To address this problem, NFCC looked for a partner that could create something reflective of modern-day holistic thinking around leadership. 

It found Warwick Business School and soon, the Executive Leadership Programme (ELP) was born. 

“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 and towards the environment of vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that confronts senior personnel in all organisations,” Nick Barclay, who helped build the ELP as Client Director at WBS, explained. 

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

The ELP was co-designed over a six-month period as WBS and NFCC identified the leadership traits needed to tackle key issues, and it was agreed that the programme should be delivered in an immersive, experiential manner. 

From the outset, participants have been invited to take materials back to their workplaces for use throughout their involvement, and have written assignments that they can operationalise so that learning can be applied back at their stations.  

“We try and work with live issues that appear in the classroom,” Nick said. 

“Examples of ambiguity and uncertainty can surface at any time; when they do, we endeavour to integrate those experiences with conceptual material.” 

Another feature of the programme has been the creation of ‘Action Learning Sets’ – groups of fire chiefs who can discuss the problems all leaders encounter long after the ELP has concluded. 


Improving quality and increasing confidence

The ELP has delivered some impressive results throughout its 14-year history. 

For starters, there has been an increase of at least 300% in the number of suitable applicants for strategic roles, with many of the chief fire officers in post across the country today having completed the programme in the past. 

The greater emphasis on collaborative styles of leadership and added inclusivity has also coincided with a 19% rise in the number of women applying for senior positions since 2008.  

Perhaps more importantly, participants leave the programme with greater confidence when dealing with challenging situations, having already taken themselves out of their comfort zones and gained greater self-awareness through their experiences. 

It’s why in 2016, the Thomas Review of the Conditions of Service for Fire and Rescue Staff concluded that “fire and rescue services not using the ELP should reconsider doing so”. 

And it’s why the current generation of fire chiefs is that much more well suited to leading the heroes we rely on.


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