Lead with the best version of yourself.

The Change Agent

by Dennis P. Reilly

In a previous article, I discussed why some commands fail. If we accept this premise, then we must also accept the fact that someday you may end up in one of these commands. Leaders do not always get what they want and must make the best of their environment. Good leaders understand the importance of being a change agent in these less-than-ideal environments and come to this role with a tool box full of techniques to execute the mission.

But first, there is no sense in asking yourself, “why did I end up here?” You might have been sent to that organization to clean up the mess. More realistically, you could also be there because your name came up on the rotation roster at the same time as the commander, the classic luck of the draw example. There is no sense in lamenting your situation. The best thing you can do is make the situation better than you found it. I have experienced this exact scenario in my career. Instead of saying why me, I saw this as an opportunity to hone my leadership skills. Your time in this organization is going to be what you make of it.

What’s the Issue?

If you are going to fix a problem, you must first understand the problem. My experience tells me that most failing commands are that way because they often have a poor organizational culture. In this sense, culture is the accepted norms within a group, and how the members of the group see themselves as part of the larger picture. 

In an organization with poor culture, substandard performance is the norm, good enough are the words often heard coming from the leadership. The members don’t really identify with the larger picture. They are just a bunch of folks wearing the same uniform. Equally, there might be well established “cliques” within the organization and often these cliques hold a lot of power. There can also be a fundamental lack of focus on training. People don’t do their job because they don’t know how to do their job. 

Whatever the reason, you are there to find these issues, identify the root causes, and use your knowledge and expertise to fix them.

Luckily, for a change agent, there are most likely people in the organization that realize there is a problem. Many of them are waiting for someone to come in and shake up the trees. Even in the worst performing organizations, you will find people who do not want to settle for good enough. These are the individuals who will deliver when pressed against the wall but need to be in the right environment. Your role as a change agent is to motivate these individuals and fix this fundamental flaw. Remember what Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”

In some cases, you may realize the challenge ahead as soon as your orders are cut. Many failing commands do a poor job of keeping their lackluster culture a secret. On the other hand, you may transfer in from a distant geographic region and the damage is unknown past the confines of a particular installation. No matter the case, you are at a decision-making point. You can choose to do nothing and pray the assignment does not damage your career, or you can go about the difficult but critical task of being a change agent.

Enter the Change Agent

Being a change agent is like walking a tightrope. I agree with the idea that you must take some time to develop the ground truth and figure out what is going on and how it happened. This is the critical piece of intel from which you can develop your plan on how to turn this failing command around. There is no one size fits all solution to the problem of a poor performing command. In truth, developing a plan without understanding the real problem will help no one.

Maybe the organization’s culture is suffering because no one has set expectations. Setting expectations is the absolute critical building block for healthy cultures and high performing organizations. Maybe the last commander didn’t care or have the appropriate knowledge. Maybe the outgoing leader was busy planning their next move and didn’t spend a lot of time in the present. If any of these facts find their way into your ground truth, setting expectations should be your first priority. 

Preparing for the Future

As important as it is to understand how your command got to where it is, you must focus on the future. We can rehash yesterday all day long, but the fight we must win is the next one that comes our way. When we allow subordinates to sing the “Well that’s the way we have always done it here” song we allow a stagnant command to continue their less than productive ways. In my years as a change agent, I have often dealt with this exact comment. The best approach is to ask for the why behind the way an organization does something. This question normally allows the leader to peel back the onion and can be a catalyst for critical thinking about mission accomplishment. When this question produces blank stares, you know that it really is time for change.

A change agent is almost guaranteed to run into resistance. Familiarity breeds comfort where change often does not. Some people will not be happy with you because of the changes you are trying to institute. As hard as it is, try not to take this as a personal insult. This is much easier said than done. It’s important to remember that the people with whom you might be in a conflict are existing members of the command. When issues become personal, people tend to pick sides. In this scenario, it is easy for you, the change agent, to quickly become marginalized. However, If you focus on performance and mission outcome, you will more likely be able to remove the personality issue from the discussion.

Try to remember that even in the worst situation, there are good people in the organization. Through no fault of their own, these people have not been allowed to flourish. If you operate on the personal level as opposed to the mission focus level, these people might see you in the same light as those who have been holding them back. 

If you are going to change a culture, you need those good folks to step up. Having allies in the ranks is quite helpful. However, the wrong approach can totally shut these people down. I have modified the saying most often attributed to Jim Collins when he talks about getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. I like to say there is a seat for everyone on the bus and this is where we are going, you choose if you want to be on the bus or not.

All change agents have a shelf life. As much as change might be needed, and as much as good people want change, there is a limit to how much any one organization can digest at a time. Change agents tend to run faster than their organization can keep up. Don’t burn your people out. Change can be exhausting just as much as it can be exhilarating. Allow your people to celebrate the wins. A little rest can go a long way. From the 30,000-foot view, remember your time in any one command is limited. Decide what needs to be changed and what you can accomplish during that time. Once you get to this point take your foot off the gas and start talking about how the unit will sustain the momentum when the new commander arrives.

Closing Thoughts

As demanding a role as the change agent can be, it can also be extremely rewarding. I have been down this road several times in my career. The challenges were numerous and sometimes very daunting. At times I asked myself if this was really worth the trouble and sleepless nights. Having come out on the other side I can say that yes, it was worth every ounce of effort that I spent in being a change agent. I will say that being a change agent allowed me to better prepare my organizations, develop the potential within the force, and in the long run, make me a better leader. If you are put into this position, just step up and get it done. 


Dennis Reilly is a forty-eight-year fire service veteran currently serving as the Fire Chief in Pittsburg, Kansas. Prior to his current position, he was the Fire Chief in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, an Assistant in North Carolina & California and retired as a Battalion Chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Chief Reilly holds a Master Degree in Public Administration from Penn State University and is a US Army veteran having served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. 

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