Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Psychological PPE: High performance teams begin with socially intelligent leaders

By James Rychard   

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Photo: Blue Planet Studio / Adobe Stock

Are you interested in building a high-performance team? To build one, regardless of industry/sector, takes a lot of work. People are the essence of any organization and how they get along, or don’t, will influence the results achieved. Regardless of the organizational competencies, having a collaborative team with strong interpersonal communication is fundamental to organizational success.

For the public sector, how we relate to one another can be vital to how and/or whether projects, goals and initiatives get done effectively and efficiently. In fact, when it comes time to creating a healthy organization, the first and most important principle is alignment at the top. The key to providing responsive services to the community is integrating council and staff, including the fire services, into a high-performance team, and it begins with a socially intelligent leader. 

In 1920, Columbia University psychologist, Edward Thorndike, first professed the importance of studying a person’s ability to understand and manage men and women effectively. He conceptualized the first iteration of a discipline called “Social Intelligence” (SI), and it goes beyond how emotions affect our relationships with other people as well as ourselves. It’s about how we relate to one another and the biology behind it. Thorndike stated that “the best mechanic in a factory, may fail as a foreman for lack of social intelligence.” Yet, SI was dismissed as not important because it involved social situations. 

On the other hand, in the early 2000s the VIA Institute on Character did a three-year study, which involved 55 distinguished scientists, examined positive traits of character, and listed SI as one of 24 key traits that makes a person morally good. SI was deemed an important characteristic of Humanity next to kindness, love (valuing others). It’s these soft attributes that not only makes a person a good leader they are becoming critical for high-performance teams. 


When seeking notable examples of SI leaders, ones who are morally good, yet who have also built successful high-performance teams in their organizations, there’s one individual who stands above anyone else; former Buddhist Monk turned CEO, Kazuo Inamori. Inamori was renowned for saving Japan’s flagship airline carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) from going bust in the 2000s. 

JAL, once an international juggernaut amongst all airlines had lost its way. The result, JAL was on its way to bankruptcy, and the country of Japan losing its stake in international travel. 

Kazuo Inamori was a different type of leader. He valued people over profits, and recognized that employees were unfortunately forgotten about during JAL’s lavish expenditures over the years. A process he needed to correct. 

In response, JAL’s new CEO and Chairman had a turn-around plan. First was to build the team up and create an esprit du corps to help get the employees excited about the new JAL. He believed placing wellbeing and livelihood of all his employees and their families first while creating an organization where employees felt happy to be a part of it was key to getting them excited. Second, was introducing his management philosophy called “Amoeba Management”, a philosophy endemic of a high-performance team. 

Building a high-performance team doesn’t happen overnight. It happens when all members of the team are working together like cogs in a wheel.

Amoeba Management was a method that gave voice to those on-the ground who were all supervised by lower-level managers. Instead of every decision coming from the top and handed down, now the workers were split into small units. Those units were led via a leader with an extraordinary degree of decision-making power, who reported to upper management for approvals. Every worker from pilots to custodians felt that they had something to contribute to the company’s success, feeling freedom and support to share their respective contributions. 

In a municipality, corporations do everything through our people. They are the largest part of the budget and our most important asset. Regardless of rank/role, people are the essence of any organization. 

At a recent Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO) leadership conference, Rob Adams (co-author on this column) witnessed a discussion focused on the lack of harmony between council and staff. To his surprise this included issues of growing concern about council members behaving badly. The audience comprised of chief administrative officers (CAOs), executive directors, and directors were all asked, “how many of you conduct values, leadership and team training with your senior leadership?” All the hands in the room went up. Interestingly, the same group was asked, “how many do the same training with their council members?” A single hand went up.

We can’t expect our council members at the top of the organization to lead and work as a cohesive team, with good values, without investing in their development. While many municipal staff may have education and training on these subjects, it’s common to have inexperienced or first-time council members elected to office. Choosing to provide these council members with the correct toolbox is integral for cohesive success and sets the tone for the corporation and its operations. 

Sometimes we do not have to look far to seek “tools” for our toolbox to find solutions to our problems, we only need successful management models that can be mirrored as “what to do”. Having a toolbox filled with “soft skills”, such as the virtue of humanity, kindness, valuing others (love), and SI, is critical for team success. When coupled with political and business acumen, these skills can go a long way to building value for municipal staff and taxpayers delivering responsive services. 

When considering building a high-performance team within your organization, albeit council, staff, or a fire service leadership team, having SI leaders is critical for success. Leadership of both staff and council need to create a culture of psychological safety if we aspire to build up voice, diversity and contribution. 

Research validates that fostering an environment where members are proud, excited, and feel as though they can contribute impactfully, has proven to have incredible outcomes. This begins with a socially intelligent leader. A leader who understands the importance of employees, their needs, and how their contributions result in the success of the organization.

For the public sector, profits don’t factor into the equation; however, people do. When council and staff act with SI and focus on building high-performance teams throughout the organization, the outcome is high value. Working in local government is a noble calling for those who care about their community and want to make a difference. Being socially intelligent and building a high-performance team is not only essential, but also a duty to tax-paying citizens. 

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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