Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Psychological PPE: A leadership team is like a rudder

By James Rychard   

Features Leadership editors pick

A Leadership Team (LT) is similar to a rudder. In order to effectively steer an organization in the direction it needs to go, the LT  cannot be compromised. LTs, regardless of industry, are vulnerable to external events. But by working together and maintaining priorities (staff), LTs can help build psychologically safe environments that deliver optimal services.

A rudder is a mechanism used to steer an aircraft, ship, or submarine in a desired direction. No matter how strong, resilient, and heavily armoured a vessel can be, having a compromised rudder can be frustrating and catastrophic. Rudders essentially help guide the vessel against the forces of nature: wind and water. Historically, there are significant events that have occurred because of a compromised rudder, and there is no better example then the German battleship “Bismarck” during the Battle of the Atlantic in May 1941.

The Bismarck, along with her sister ship Tirpitz, were constructed for the sole purpose of annihilating the British Navy and cutting off supplies from North America. The Bismarck was commissioned in August 1940 and set out to sea.  In less than one year’s time from her commission, the Bismarck had surpassed expectations.  She had very impressive amour and artillery capabilities; this battleship was daunting. She was built to take a lot of damage and still be operational. Though the marine engineers thought of everything atop the water, what they did not account for was what could happen below it. A hit on her rudder assembly system could render her vulnerable to attack.  Unfortunately, on May 25, 1941, after being hit by a torpedo from a Fairey Swordfish biplane, the Bismarck’s rudder assembly system became disabled; the German battleship could only travel in an NNW direction of 23 degrees. With a compromised rudder, the Bismarck was unable to reach safe shores and was sunk the next day when the British Navy deployed substantial resources to sink her. The Bismarck sank with over 2000 sailors aboard.

I share this story because I would like you to imagine your organization, strong and engaged, with no grievances or costly arbitrations, a wonderful staff, and a supportive CAO/city manager and council.  Then suddenly the fire deparment LT is unravelling from costly and mentally exhausting disagreements and conflict made worse because not all members of the LT are working towards the same goal. The desire to uphold a strong unified front is exhausting mental and emotional reserves. 


When you have a compromised LT, an organization can go in circles or in a direction that does not lead to progress, leaving everyone vulnerable including  firefighters and support staff. 

There are three things you can do to stave off this fate. 

Firstly, be transparent. To be an effective LT, everyone needs to be on the same page.  Although we encourage those on our teams to focus on their careers, problems arise when career aspirations diverge from the current organization. Each member of the LT needs to buy in to the common goals and how best to steer the organization in the direction it needs to go.

Second, have support. If members of the LT do not support one another and appreciate cognitive diversity, it is difficult to move the organization along. One of the competencies organizations look for in leadership is innovation.  When great ideas are presented, choosing not to hear them out may lead an LT towards groupthink or even a standstill. The Bismarck was out there on the Atlantic Ocean by herself. Once the Bismarck experienced a compromised rudder, she was vulnerable. No matter what the Bismarck’s crew tried to do, there was nothing they could be done to overcome their dire situation.  Without steering capabilities, the German battleship was left on her own and unable to outrun her adversaries no matter how much fire power she had left.  

Lastly, be humble. A first glance at the Bismarck was awe-inspiring. There was nothing about her that did not radiate invincibility. So much went into her design and construction that the German Navy “Kriegsmarine” felt that she would always be the hunter, not the hunted. The Bismarck oozed confidence, self-assurance, and might. The propensity to hire LTs is based on the competencies of success and achieving results. However, having character and a sense of humility is what keeps the LT strong and remarkably effective. Humility and character demonstrate to firefighters that LTs are human too. 

Ultimately, having a compromised steering system (rudder) for a vessel can be detrimental to the overall outcome of a particular situation.  Like steering, leadership is vital to the overall direction you aspire to take.  By being transparent, supportive, and humble , leadership teams can remain strong and effective.   

In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR Instructor from the City of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at 

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