Purpose vs. Position

Why do you really want that promotion?

So, you have attended all the right meetings and events to get noticed. You want that next position badly. Maybe you have studied harder than you have for anything in your life, and you have passed that promotional exam. You get the call or you see your name on the list. Congratulations, you’re getting promoted. But do you know why? Did you do it for money? Did you do it for organizational status or power? What is the reason for your striving for that promotion?

Sometimes we get so caught up in moving up that we don’t answer the questions above. Most organizations have a certain social hierarchy that is often associated with rank. So, to gain this desired status we may decide to promote just to satisfy our own ego. After all, it’s what everyone else does. Another reason, again self-serving, may simply be so you can be in charge! You want to be able to tell people what to do. They will have to do it your way and there will be one less person telling you what to do. Yes, many think this way.

While rank is the traditional way of hierarchy in most fire departments, it has its pros and cons. We sometimes limit ourselves with rank because of tradition. Some departments require certain positions to be filled by a particular rank. At one time, maybe, there was a level of experience, standard departmental training, or some real reason for that rank to be required. Over the years, however, it is possible that those organizational norms have long been omitted, but the tradition of using rank as the qualifier is still in place. Many of you have seen this in action and you know where I am coming from. Maybe you have to be a captain or a lieutenant be assigned as a training officer. Your department conducts a test, a list is established, and a spot becomes open. The next person on the list gets the call: “Congratulations, Captain (your name here), you are assigned to the (fill in the blank).” Maybe it’s the training section or the community risk reduction section. You accept the position even though you have no experience or expertise in these areas.


Those promoted to whatever level are expected to manage something or some part of the organization. That, however, should not be confused with your purpose of wanting or filling the position. If your only desire for being promoted is to get a raise, you will never reach your potential because that is a false, or at least a self-serving, purpose. Your reason for desiring promotion should be for influence. The increase in responsibility should also increase what you are able to give back to the organization or, more specifically, to the people in the organization. This speaks directly to your character. If you promoted strictly for money, then you promoted for what you can take from the organization but not what you can give. It is unfortunate, but both the person who promoted for money and the one who promoted for influence get paid the same.

If you don’t know the objectives you want to meet at an incident, you can’t be very effective at meeting them. If you don’t know your purpose for taking a promotion or position, how can you be any good at it? So why would your purpose be influence? Everyone has an influence by default, but not everyone has a positive influence. Your character will determine the type of influence you want to have.

Are you a good example or bad example or, as some put it, are you an asset or a liability? Either way you influence more people the higher up in an organization you go. You are part of the formal span of control. If you’re a bad influence as a firefighter, your exposure is limited to your crew and a handful of others who may drift through now and then. If you are a battalion chief, then the bad influence has the potential to affect some 30 to 60 people (depending on your organizational structure and size).


Your character guides most everything in your life. It is the most important leadership trait. Unfortunately, most of our promotional exams fail to test or evaluate character. Organizations that rely on the bureaucracy want a test that is very simple … read book … study … take test … get score. Wow, and we wonder why leadership is so lacking. Assessment centers can explore character a little more but nothing like a complete personality test.

A new corporate trend for some of the most successful businesses is slowly gaining popularity, and it involves eliminating the formal rank structure and instead focusing on team leaders who are equal to and, in most cases, selected by employees themselves. This is scary stuff for the bureaucrat who dominates through rank instead of influence. In most cases, the employees select individuals to lead the team who have strong character, demonstrate competence, have great communication skills, and care. A recent article from the Corporate Rebels Web site, “Delete Titles and Job Descriptions. Add Talents and Mastery” (https://corporate-rebels.com/talents-and-mastery/), will get you thinking.

Talent over Title

Now don’t get me wrong, in our line of work (operating and managing incidents) there must be structure to effectively communicate and execute accountability. We have, however, already opted out of using rank to staff incident management positions for large incidents in favor of a team concept based on function and qualifications. Why don’t we adopt that model for our day-to-day operations? Why have a “captain” with no expertise assigned to training just because we made a promotion instead of a highly competent firefighter who is an excellent instructor? In this model, as with our incident command system model, we would simply call this person “instructor.” Why have a chief officer over apparatus maintenance who doesn’t know the difference between an alternator and a power steering pump simply because we have always had a chief in that spot? What’s wrong with a senior driver who was a diesel mechanic in the Army? Maybe with those jobs we can match talent with purpose. Could we even create a pay structure that rewards this talent? Ideas like this could turn bureaucracies upside down and allow talent to influence organizational performance. Sometimes structure is appropriate and sometimes it stunts our growth.

My point to all this is that positions are useless unless you have a purpose and something to offer in them. Anyone can dress up; come to work; and perpetrate, postpone, or pass off decisions or fake their way through by just managing and delegating the things that come their way. This is not leadership, and no matter how white your shirt is, how polished your shoes are, how many trumpets you wear, or how good you smell, without the purpose of making things better, taking care of the members, and bringing mastery and expertise to your position, you have nothing to offer. You are a drain on the system and the morale of the members. Your only influence is forced compliance because of an old and outdated rank structure that is ever fleeting. So, if your only purpose in moving up in rank is to pad your pension, tell people what to do, and look good in your uniform, please reconsider accepting a position. If that’s all you want, then you can probably better accomplish your goals outside the fire service (if anyone will hire you).

By David Rhodes

David Rhodes is a 32-year fire service veteran. He is a chief elder for the Georgia Smoke Diver Program, a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) International Executive Advisory Board, a hands-on training coordinator for FDIC, an editorial advisor for Fire Engineering and the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, and an adjunct instructor for the Georgia Fire Academy. He is a Type III incident commander for the Georgia Emergency Management-Metro Atlanta All Hazards Incident Management Team and is a task force leader for the Georgia Search and Rescue Team. He is president of Rhodes Consultants, Inc., which provides public safety training, consulting, and promotional assessment centers.

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