If the above statements pretty much sum up your thoughts on fire service leadership and the abundant amount of written literature on the subject, I don’t blame you one bit for turning the page or clicking through to something else. I have had my fill of the leadership cup flowing over and, on occasion, have felt like I was drinking leadership from a fire hose. I’m hoping that this article will challenge you to think differently and maybe even stir up a few fire service sacred emotions around seniority, experience, and promotions. I promise we won’t discuss the buddy-to-boss phenomenon, or leading people and managing things, or building collaborative teams, and I won’t sell you any seven-step methods to lead your company better. I want to talk about change and fear and our behavior and attitudes surrounding leadership through this lens. To paraphrase Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, firefighters hate two things: the way things are currently and change. The other concept is fear. I don’t know one firefighter who doesn’t fear something; anyone denying this would just be delusional. The reason I tell you this is because I’m the new guy who represents change and maybe even a little fear.
Altered Strategies for Promotion
I have 16 years of firefighting experience and have just jumped six ranks in my organization to an executive leadership role as an assistant chief. This is a nonunion management position in a seniority-based organization of more than 1,000. I’m that guy, the one who some people talk about. I will let you add your own adjectives to describe the situation; I won’t be offended, I promise. As a senior firefighter, I was promoted up and past the ranks of super senior firefighter, lieutenant, captain, platoon safety officer, district chief, and platoon chief. That’s a lot of rungs on the leader ladder, and I will be the first one to tell you I’m a bit afraid, and the change has been everything from amazing and incredibly rewarding to really challenging. But denying that some level of fear of the unknown is not present—and, in fact, in many cases is a healthy concept—would not serve me very well.
I took a ton of courses on and off the job and completed a master’s degree, and with some hard work and a little bit of good luck and timing the right opportunity presented itself. The rest, they say, is history. The story is obviously more in depth, but many firefighters across the country, maybe even a few in your department, are doing the exact same thing. Many firefighters have embraced this as a new reality of departments promoting individuals based on a multitude of qualifications including a combination of education, seniority, and skillsets, while others feel completely different. How do you feel about this? Because the reality is, it’s happening across North America, and there is a right way and a wrong way to handle the situation.
Knowledge vs. Experience
When I’m asked how I could possibly understand the intricacies of all those ranks when I’ve never gained experience in each one individually, my answer is quite simple: I don’t, and I never will be able to fully understand each one of those roles completely, but if I were afraid to ask questions and learn from those who do have the required knowledge and experience—or, worse, ignore it—I would certainly risk the failure of the mission. However, this leads to a much larger discussion that I always seem to be able to relate back to—change and fear.
The chief executive officer (CEO) of Boeing does not know how to fly or completely build any of the airplanes that the company makes. It would be foolish for the CEO to attempt to take the stick on a 747 when he has only ever flown a Cessna. Likewise, any CEO, manager, or chief officer should be acutely aware of his individual capabilities and not demand the control of a situation that is outside a comfort level. I would hope that the fear one would have trying to land a 747 for the first time without the prerequisite experience would be enough to motive him to hand the controls over—thank you very much!
So how is it possible that this individual and the multitude of managers and leaders in the organization can be successful? How is it in one fire department an officer may be sitting in the front right seat with under eight years of service when in another department it may take 20? I will leave these questions right there for your consideration. The reality is the CEO does not need to do these jobs to be successful in the leadership of the company, and we can no longer measure the capabilities of our firefighters by one source or measurement, as the nature of the responsibility bears a higher level of accountability than what the fire service has seen in the recent past.
This has been a big change for myself as, like all of you, I have pride and want to be a professional. It goes without saying that one of my fears is disrespecting or dishonoring my organization and the men and women who are working in it. So, let’s talk about change and fear in the context of leadership. Whether you like it or not, change is happening all the time. Retirements, recruitments, equipment, stations, technology, procedures, and people all keep our work environments in a constant state of change. Sometimes I wonder why we ever keep repeating that adage of a hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress when, by and large, the statement has never really rung true.
Change is all around us and, for the most part, we’ve all kept up with a multitude of major initiatives in our fire departments. Perhaps we are guilty of fearing the unknown. Sometimes, however, I think we’re guilty of not seeing the trees through the forest because we’re standing in the thick of it all complaining and not being a part of the solution.
Change can happen slowly over days and weeks or rapidly in an instance; a major shift could have dire consequences if we don’t react. Leaders understand this, and they are in tune with the changes and, more importantly, the reasons the changes need to happen. Leaders ask tough questions; make decisions at the speed of the problem; and, for the most part, do their best to accept the results of any change initiative. Leaders earn rather than demand an opportunity to take the stick in a crisis opportunity and are keenly observant of when and if change needs to happen.
Fear and Appreciation
I have had to slightly change the way I deal with some people and, in some cases, turn the other cheek because I understand that change can be difficult for some to get used to. I have always said that your rank gets you a large portion of your total respect, but the remaining qualifier is based on how you treat people and how you’re seen treating and leading others around you.
I don’t fear making difficult decisions or being in charge when I need to be. We’ve all seen the way firefighters move up the rungs and embrace new challenges from riding the hydrant position as a probationary firefighter to one day being the nozzle person making entry on the first-in line. Every brand-new seat we sit in should induce a certain amount of fear for a while, because in this profession, if the change doesn’t elicit some fear, you’re probably not completely aware of the risk associated with it—and that’s just not good enough when lives are on the line.
Try not to worry too much about the CEO taking over the stick on final approach because we hope the reason he got there in the first place is he knows the difference in his own capabilities and he trusts in the teams he works with to get the job done effectively and safely. When we lead well enough, we understand when and why change is required and that the fear in a new direction or landing on a new runway is a normal part of the process. I know I said I wouldn’t say anything too cheesy or cliché, but I heard a respected officer once say your altitude is determined by your attitude. I understand this more than ever in the new seat I’ve been lucky enough to serve from.