As firefighters, we have all had associates that we have looked up to. These are the type of individuals about whom you say, “I want to be like him/her when I get older, get promoted, or advance my career.” We look up to those individuals that have taken the time to work with us, show us the ropes, responsibilities, and prepare us for our job and our future. There are no better teachers in the fire service than the seasoned veterans who take time out of their days to educate and train us on the way the job was, is, and should be in the future. So this coming year, instead of just sitting in the dayroom complaining of all the things I would fix if I were in charge, I am making 15 New Year’s resolutions for my fire department. These are things that I can spearhead to address our issues while imparting camaraderie, fostering a team concept, and promoting an actual desire to be a part of a world-class fire department.
#1. – Squashing the “us against them” mentality:
This is the management against firefighter mentality that exists in virtually every fire department. How do we resolve this? We stop letting anger fester. The complaining while sitting in the day room, during dinner, or at roll call is counterproductive. As the adage states, “Misery loves company,” we are only defeating ourselves. We need to ensure we don’t talk bad about ourselves outside the department. Stop airing our dirty laundry. The community will judge you by your actions, the words you speak, and your perceived appearance. Instead, be proud to be here. You are now a member of the best fire department in the world; yours. This organization is built on the shoulders of the people before you. Leave the legacy that you would want to return to. Have a sense of ownership. While you are here, this is your family, your firehouse, your job, and a stepping stone to your future. I am going to represent my department in a positive light. I want to leave a good impression.
#2. – Creating a conduit to admitting wrong-doings:
Whether it is up or down the chain of command, whether it is a captain or a chief, this is a big issue; never admitting you’re wrong. So as a leader, don’t fall into that trap. Admit your mistakes, take ownership, and move on. Be a leader. A leader is a person who has integrity, vision, honesty, trustworthy, has a drive, and a commitment to achieve that vision. They have the skills to make it happen. As a leader, first and foremost, lead by example. Don’t expect your crews to do things you wouldn’t do. Instill trust in your crewmembers. Your crew will realize that you have their best interest at heart and they will be more likely to follow you into hazardous situations once you have gained their trust. This also applies to vehicle checks, station cleaning, morning stretching and planning the day. Be present and involved. You must not be afraid to make a decision. Whether it is the right one or the wrong one, you must be able to decide and justify it, if questioned. A decisive officer instills trust and leadership with the crews. I am going to do a better job of making informed decisions. When I am wrong, I will admit it, correct it, and grow from it.
#3. – Redesigning indecisiveness:
Taking too long to make decisions is considered a huge barrier to effective leadership. Just remember, as a leader, people generally would rather you make a bad decision than no decision. The low hanging fruit is easy to harvest. The regular business day decisions set the tone for the ones you make during emergency situations. Even if you don’t make the right decision, you can make the decision right. Plenty of talented people, even the chief, go to exhaustive lengths not to appear dumb. Let it go. We have the right to change our minds; you are not admitting defeat. You are simply reassessing the situation and processing new information. Similar to a hazmat call where the offensive tactics aren’t mitigating the situation. We retreat, call an audible and deploy defensive operations. I am not dumb. I don’t know everything. I am learning. (See? It wasn’t hard to admit.)
#4. Creating a vision and purpose:
A lack of vision and purpose make effective leadership impossible. Make a daily schedule. We don’t have to adhere to it by the minute, but it gives guidelines for a typical day in the firehouse. Just to figure out a general schedule for each shift. It could be a list of times for training, cleaning, others tasks, down-time, meals, breaks, free-time. This visual tool will bolster the dissemination of information to everyone. They do this in grade school to keep the students on task and promote punctuality. In a broader sense, we need to define our personal goals. To accomplish this, we can start by writing a list of goals you want to complete. It could be of any type; personal, work-related, relationship, educational, or financial. Make it broad or specific. Share it with your supervisor. The department defines expectations of you as an employee; provide them with your expectations. Leadership won’t know what you want if we don’t tell them. It also helps write a performance review. We could define our purpose and share our vision with the entire department.
#5. Constructing a foundation of discipline:
Trying to be a buddy instead of a boss makes it difficult to be a formal leader. A huge morale killer in the fire service: having to drag around dead weight firefighters that no one wants to step up and discipline. If the captain or the chief does discipline, but it is inconsistent or not standardized between the shifts/personnel creates a barrier to effective leadership. The purpose of discipline should be to enforce the rules and standards that are valued by management, provide feedback, reaffirm expectations, and promote fairness through consistency. It doesn’t have to be negative/involve punishment or be confrontational. We can discipline ourselves. Set clear, achievable goals and a reasonable timeline to help yourself meet your job expectations. Additionally, always offer support and guidance to coworkers. After all, we are a family. One of my failures is deploying congruent discipline to all of my subordinates. I will remedy this with clear, concise, obtainable objectives.
#6. Fostering accountability:
Leaders need to take ownership for their actions and decisions both up and down the chain of command. Hold everyone accountable. We are the best fire department in our town/city/county/state/country. We set the bar. We should be the organization that other departments want to emulate. We have the opportunity to be a great place to work, but it starts with trust, motivating your crew, and taking ownership. As a driver, backstep firefighter, or riding the seat; it is your job and responsibility to keep your office, apparatus, and office space clean. Learn what motivates your personnel and use those techniques to instill a sense of pride and ownership in the work we do. Polish your shoes, the chrome on the rig, and that badge on your chest. I am working towards leading by example, a good example.
#7. Organizing our standardized operating procedures:
The departments SOP’s must be readily available. Show me the SOP’s and make me read them. Read them out loud to me. Make me sign that I understand and have read them. Hold me accountable. Hold everyone accountable. Set the rules and make me follow them. NO EXCEPTIONS. Foster a consistent team. You set the tone. Complacency kills. Keeping a positive attitude during your whole shift will instill a sense of purpose and pride in the job that they do every day. Encourage people to remain positive and do things to cultivate that pride, ownership, and positivity. Put in the same effort that you want from people. Accolades and “Atta-boys” go a long way in recognition. It doesn’t have to be coins, award ceremonies, or bonuses. Just acknowledge the type of behavior you want to retain and inspire. I am going to stop focusing on the negative.
#8. Developing effective communication skills:
Ineffective communication hurts the public, your crew, and also the department. A leader that doesn’t listen isn’t approachable. One that is inaccessible will create barriers. If they don’t know how to articulate themselves, or they are socially withdrawn, the results can be devastating. Having effective communication skills is vital when it comes to leadership. Communications is more than just being able to speak and write. Communicating effectively means you keep your crews informed, when possible, of daily events that will affect them and the way they perform their regular duties. Nobody likes surprises. Make sure that you keep the lines of communication open. Open communication between you and your crews gains respect. I am going to do better by practicing my public speaking, mentoring more firefighters, and calling my mother more often.
#9. Be receptive and take input on ideas:
Another barrier to effective leadership in the fire service is acting like you have all the answers, you know everything, you don’t need input from anybody, and there’s no humility. People find it very difficult to buy into missions and visions they didn’t help create, so get input! It is our department too, let us be a part of it. Tap into experience. This administration perpetuates the notion that no firefighter is different than the other. However, we all have different experience levels and training. Tap into that, it is a free resource and gives people a purpose. Let me teach; let me share; let me impart my experience on another coworker. It builds bonds, trust, and opens an avenue for potential leaders that can rise. Don’t forget the words “please” and “thank you” when asking personnel to complete a task (outside incident operations). These phrases will take you a long way in respect and motivation of your staff. I will be humble, share my thoughts and ideas, and continue to foster an efficient team.
#10. Cultivating trust:
Now, I want you to think about this one for a minute because this is huge. Do you know what the most effective way is to build and maintain a high level of trust? Do what you say you’re going to do when you said you would do it and how you said it would get done. Let your words mean something. If people can’t depend on you, they won’t trust you. I read a great quote once, “Trust is a lot like fine China; once broken, it can be repaired, but it’s never quite the same.” It ties into the lack of personal morality. This actually causes followers to be very reluctant about standing behind a leader. If you demonstrate a lack of personal integrity, you will have a huge uphill battle winning the trust of your followers again. A simple way to exude honor is pride in appearance. Perception is everything. YOU ARE THE EXAMPLE. Dress the part. Practice decorum. The statement still holds true, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” I believe one way I can nurture trust in my co-workers and my leadership is to solicit advice, counsel, and train with them.
#11. Sponsor effective training:
Train with your crew. Training is a vital part of what we do, now more than ever. Convey the importance of training with your crews. Make each shift a training day. If there is no formal training scheduled on a particular shift, take the crew out for driver’s training. Get the rope bag out and brush up on your knots or learn some new ones. Practice buddy breathing with your self-contained breathing apparatus. Practice a rapid intervention scenario. Practice putting up ladders behind the firehouse. Pre-plan a building that you’re not familiar with, discuss the layout, construction type, and the potential risks and hazards. Would a rescue be a concern, and if so, where and how would you deal with it if it happened? What are the exposures? Where is the nearest water supply and is it enough to sustain a prolonged fire attack? Would this be an offensive or a defensive incident? What hazardous materials do you need to address? The more you train with your personnel, the more comfortable you will be with them, and they will trust you as their officer. Remember, this profession is a team effort. Freelancing will get you killed. This comes back to complacency. I am going to lead more training, developing new training modules, and sign up for more classes.
#12. Encourage time spent with the troops:
Staff officers are sometimes viewed as out-of-touch with what’s actually going on in the station. This can create an obstacle and should be addressed immediately. Be a good listener. Be open to what your crew has to say. Take time to be a good listener. If one of your crewmembers needs or wants to discuss something with you, make a chance to do so. Save what you’re working on your computer, put your cell phone on vibrate, and assign another crewmember to answer the phone to take messages for you. Such behavior shows your personnel that you honestly care about your crew and what they have to say. This behavior also instills respect from your personnel. Being a good listener is probably one of the most important ways to inspire trust and respect in your personnel. We must not forget that we are under the watchful eye of the entire community. We must hold ourselves to a higher regard than the other departments. If leadership is embarrassed to acknowledge us, then the community will follow suit. All due to the examples that the leadership sets. Don’t ostracize our department and co-workers. Don’t ignore us. Every day should be an open house at the fire department. I have an open door policy, I eat meals with the staff, I offer greetings and handshakes, and you should too.
#13. Inspire free thinking leaders:
This applies to informal leaders who are attempting to share ideas. One of the obstructions to effective leadership in the fire service is there is not enough freedom for free-thinking leaders. Informal leaders are squashed, and supervisory or positional leaders are very threatened by them. There is a fear of retaliation. Regardless of their position, whether it was a firefighter, lieutenant, captain, or command staff, they aren’t free reigned enough to put their ideas out there or say what’s wrong, or what needs to be fixed because they’re afraid they will be retaliated against. People need to feel safe coming forward with their ideas, suggestions, and input. And if you’re the one coming forward, you need to do it with respect and humility. As a formal leader, don’t use your positional power to try to keep people in line. Use your positive influence, your vision, and your role model example. Be a supervisor. A supervisor is the team leader, overseer, coach, facilitator, and a manager in a position of trust. It is your job to make sure that work is completed safely, effectively, and promptly. I am going to hold a meeting with my staff to solicit ideas, concerns, and comments to take to the Chief. They work for me; it is my duty to work for them.
#14. Provide mentors in the fire service:
When people are thrown into positions, they’re expected just to figure it out, and it’s frustrating. It’s not just rookie firefighters who need mentoring. Officers & veteran firefighters need it as well. Everyone needs good mentoring and good role modeling to look to in the fire service for good leadership. As a mentor, don’t be afraid to relinquish some of your information, your duties, and your valuable knowledge to the personnel who will be following in your footsteps some day. That is how the next generation will learn your position. Yes, I said YOUR position. None of us are permanent fixtures in the fire service. I have worked with officers who are afraid that if their secrets get out, someone will advance in front of them, or worse yet, take all their glory. Remember, firefighting is a team effort. Not one single person can do this profession alone. A good officer is also a good teacher. Lead by example. This year, I am going to mentor more firefighters and I am going to seek out a professional mentor for myself.
#15. Nurture respect:
We should not be condescending. Rather, we should be approachable, friendly, and inviting. The city/municipality/town judges us regularly; not by the leadership, uniforms, or effectiveness to extinguish fires, but rather by that one asshole that runs his/her mouth at the bar, public gatherings, or on social media. Respect is earned! It doesn’t come with a uniform, position, or title. Remember that a leader must lead from the front. An officer should strive to better himself/herself every day. It is your responsibility to motivate and keep your people heading in the right direction. It is also your responsibility to keep yourself motivated, educated, and up with the newest trends, management, and leadership skills, as well as equipment in the fire service. Never coast along because it only hurts those who want to do a good job. Morale will suffer if you don’t care. Motivate your crew. As a driver, back step firefighter, or riding the seat; it is your job and responsibility to keep your crew motivated. Keeping a positive attitude within your whole shift will instill a sense of purpose and pride in the job that they do every day. Learn what motivates your personnel and use those techniques to instill a sense of pride and ownership in the work we do. I am spending 2017 making my crew, department, and myself better. I want to work for a world-class fire department, so with these 15 resolutions, I am creating it; a world-class department that I have always wanted to work for.
Every Fire Department has that supervisor that is incapable of leading, whether it is the Chief that hides in his/her office, the Station Captain that made an egregious error on a call, or Lieutenant that is assigned to the first due engine. We have all worked with them and it drives all of us crazy. We talk about their deficiencies at the next call, during meals, and even gripe to our families.
The single biggest decision that the command staff can make to affect the entire department—bigger than all the rest— is who they promote. When you promote the wrong person to manage others, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits, not time off—nothing.
The Peter principle is a concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter and published nearly half a century ago. The theory is that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”
- When you do good you get promoted into to something you are terrible at. A typical example in the fire service is promoting a Master Technician/Driver to the Lieutenant position. Knowing the intricacies of your apparatus, your response area, and your complex equipment does not always prepare you to manage people. All your experience and technical know-how is going to be stuck behind a desk, making schedules, writing reports, and concocting performance evaluations. These competencies are vastly different and a proficiency in engineer/operator type of job does not correlate to managing people, personalities, and conflicts. If you are not prepared for your new position in a leadership role as a Lieutenant, you will do yourself and your crew a disservice
- You won’t get fired or replaced you will just remain stagnant in your new position. Possibly because the manager above you has reached their threshold of incompetence as well. They are unable to realize how unproductive you are in your position. The subordinates will adapt and will now just work around you seeking advice from other more effective managers or subordinate leaders.
- When you are competent you have recordable and obvious output. You are being held accountable for that production, once it stops and there is little or no output, you are now judged by the input. This input is your demeanor, attitude, punctuality, friendliness, loyalty, and helpfulness. However, if you are too competent you make the immobile managers look bad. Thus jeopardizing your position in the hierarchy or worse being promoted to a higher position that you aren’t adequately equipped for, succumbing to the axiom, “Certified, not qualified”
- The principle suggests that this incompetence is inevitable. So as you progress in your fire service career, you need to decide whether you are going to jump on the train headed toward the void called “Final Placement”. This last station is an ominous place, where you will wear down with a fruitless future, or take your time and forestall this as long as possible. You can slow this locomotive by mentoring the person that took your old position while providing a performance plan to meet your own standards. Another avenue is to seek out your own mentor, to provide you guidance, advice, and discuss your performance objectives for your new career path. Lastly, there is training, these are courses on leadership, management, and organizational tactics to address this pervasive incompetence.
- If your intent is to race to the finish line, then just latch on to the superiors, doing all you can to gain a premature promotion, stepping on as many backs and shoulders as you can, climbing to the top. Once they are your subordinates you will be able to change things for the better, set new rules, and lead your former coworkers. This is a delusion that comes with a price. Don’t be surprised if your shift, crew, or company start seeking transfers, new assignments, or increase their leave usage. Victor Lipman a former Fortune 500 Manager, published an article, postulating, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers.
- If you are astute enough to realize that you don’t want to be hurled into career limbo, you need to seek out places you are productive, useful, and happy. Once there, you should forego seeking promotion, better yet focus on mastering your craft, self-betterment, and even mentoring subordinates. You are a wealth of knowledge, now go and make others’ lives richer. I am not advising you to refuse promotions, just be prepared to accept the new position and its responsibilities since they may vary drastically from your former position.
- We can’t just fire all of our incompetent managers, it will create a vortex. They are useful in the sense of, they will inflict the least amount of damage on the productive people in your department. The competent employees will maintain a non-threatening illusion that these managers are useful, are producing, and cling to a bright future. All of this to avoid repeating this vicious cycle of new incompetent managers.
The Harvard Business Review has 4 decades of business articles providing solutions to curb the endemic management dilemma. It is not just the Fire Service, this problem arises in every institution, career, and organization, you will never be able to escape its reach. From a subordinate’s point of view, every department I have worked for has a repetitious cycle of the deficient leadership. Generations of fire service managers have been fraught with incompetent leaders. It is the duty of our managers to address bad bosses by improving their own leadership skills, becoming a good boss, and stop promoting the incapable. Our jobs as subordinates is to manage ourselves well, be engaged, be committed to the organization with purpose, principle, and pride.