There have been numerous books, articles, speeches and blogs written about leadership. The authors range from Generals, Fire Chiefs, and CEO’s to the guy on the corner who took a business management class one time. Many works offer a great insight on the similar tools and attributes needed to be an effective leader; many just repeat what others have already stated. In any case, they all have one common thread…they are written from the perspective of a leader or someone in charge. This article takes a look from the subordinate’s perspective. An effective leader not only accomplishes the objectives set for them, they understand what their subordinates expect from them.
First and foremost there is an overwhelming difference between being in-charge (managing), and being a leader. People who manage tend to sit behind a desk and mitigate tasks without ever taking part in the work itself. There is a great disconnect between them and the workers in this situation. While this approach may work in office buildings and factories, it can cause dissent and inefficiency in a fire house. The nature of work that firefighters perform demands leadership, not management.
Firefighters expect their officers to be leaders, not managers. All officers were at one time a firefighter themselves; it’s not like in the private sector where an “educated” college graduate is placed in-charge of workers who have been there for twenty years. Firefighters have to learn the job before they can be promoted. For any aspiring officer, these first years should be spent watching current leadership. What do they do right? What do they do wrong? Do the men respond positively or negatively to how they lead? Everyone develops an opinion about their officer, whether it’s good or bad. An officer should worry about how the men feel about them; it will affect how hard they will be willing to go for them. However, an officer is not in that position to be friends with everyone. They are there to ensure that their men go home at the end of every shift and that they are trained to the utmost of their abilities. That means that they will have to make unpopular decisions at times. They will have to call people out on their shortcomings. As a firefighter, I expect this from my leaders, as it makes me better at my job.
Sometimes it seems like trumpets have a way of erasing one’s memory of what it was like to be a firefighter. Some officers may even see promotion as an escape from the mundane daily tasks that firefighters perform. Being a part of those daily tasks is a great way to earn the respect of the men. The officer sets the tone for the day, if he’s out on the rig first thing after roll call checking his equipment, the rest of the crew will follow suit. If the officer disappears into his office after shift change and never once looks at his gear, the crew picks up on the lax attitude and equipment checks become less important. Firefighters understand that the officers have additional duties to complete during the shift. But what’s more important, filling overtime for the next day or making sure the equipment needed to perform is in working order?
An officer’s attitude can be seen in the attitude of the crew. When the officer works hard, the crew works hard. Leading by example is the quickest and surest way to earn the respect of the crew. A true leader would never ask a subordinate to do something that they themselves would not do. That’s not saying that the Captain needs to get elbow deep in a toilet, but when the entire crew is hard at work, the officer should not be checking their email. Firefighters notice when an officer is around and when they’re slacking, just like officers know when the firefighter is slacking. Being an officer may mean working harder than the rest of the crew, that’s why they make the big bucks.
Firefighters also value consistency in their leaders. Setting a standard and sticking to that standard gives the men confidence in the officer’s ability to lead. That can mean being consistent in disciplinary action or in decision making. Giving favor to certain crew members is a sure way to cause dissent within the house. In the same way, not following a medic on an ALS call because it’s after midnight will cause the men to lose respect. The officer should remember back to when they had to ride the box and needed help when it wasn’t there. The men should never have to wonder if help is coming, they should know that their officer has their back every time.
The trust of having each other’s back can only be gained through time and training. Firefighters want to learn, they love getting dirty and working hard. It’s the officer’s job to ensure the crew is trained to the best of their ability. The attitude towards training starts at the very top with the Chief and trickles down to the Lieutenant. Some chiefs place training responsibility on the individual companies or houses, in which case the Captain or Lieutenant sets the frequency and quality of training. Other Chiefs, mainly in smaller departments, control the frequency and quality of training themselves. In either case, the training needs to be relevant to how the department operates and needs to be done more than once a month. If officers treat training as something that needs to be checked off for continuing education, the crews will suffer and so will the public they have sworn to protect.
If you are a firefighter aspiring to be an officer one day, observe those with the trumpets. What do they do well? What do they need to improve upon? Take notes on events that occur and how they were handled. Learn from both good and bad experiences. If you are a current officer take a moment to reflect. Really sit back and think about whether or not you lead your men or manage them. Have you become the officer you despised? Do you work with your crew? Do you earn their respect or demand it? To be a successful officer you, must remember what it was like to be a firefighter.
~ Charles Swank~ 125 Training ~