It’s easy to find articles these days (electronic and hard copy) written about fire chiefs who are trying to sustain the capability of their fire departments to provide services to their communities. As I’ve said many times before, there is no silver bullet that can provide solutions to the many challenges fire chiefs face in this “new normal” world they’re functioning within. However, there are critical areas of focus that fire chiefs can address that can significantly strengthen chiefs and the fire departments they lead both politically and operationally.
The following seven areas of focus can provide a model for conducting a self-assessment that can serve as a roadmap to how the fire chief spends a significant part of his or her time and energy. The seven are not in any order of importance because each one impacts the leadership capability of the fire chief and the political and operational support provided to the fire department by policy makers and other key decision makers.
• City or county management teams – The fire chief must develop and maintain positive and productive relationships with principal managers who they directly report to in the chain of command. The lack of a good working relationship between the fire chief and those who have significant influence and power over them creates an atmosphere of hostility that can result in a lack of trust and respect between the chief and those other leaders. Remember, those are the same leaders that the fire chief must rely on for both personal and organizational support in a variety of ways. The fire department will always have issues that require the help of decision makers outside of the department.
• Elected officials – Almost every resource a fire chief gets to operate the fire department comes to the organization because a group of elected officials voted “yes” on a request and/or an issue. With that kind of political influence and power over the fire department being the reality, it is imperative that fire chiefs build and maintain good working relationships with their elected officials. This can be a challenging goal for many reasons. In fact, depending on the jurisdiction’s rules and regulations, the ability of the fire chief to interact with elected officials can be limited in some ways. It is important that these relationships be built primarily on a basis of professionalism and communication with the goal of making the fire department as successful as possible.
• Union leadership – Dysfunctional relationships between fire chiefs and union leaders can get in the way of addressing difficult challenges as much (or more) than any other issue. Fire departments that have developed the ability for management and the union to work together for the betterment of the organization and the safety of the community usually enjoy more success in a variety of arenas. The fire chief and union leadership should develop the capability to plan together, solve problems together, and create relationships inside and outside the fire department that benefit the organization as a whole.
• Employees – Interacting directly with the members of the fire department is important to the fire chief and should be a priority. Depending on the size of the fire department, this can be difficult. Making the effort to periodically meet with the members of the department can send a very positive message. Showing the desire to do so can be as important to the members as the reality of the chief being able to do it regularly. This can be as simple as scheduling opportunities to meet, responding to major emergency incidents, and other ways the fire chief can display concern and respect for the members of the department and what they do.
• Direct reports and management staff – The fire chief must be an effective first-level supervisor for his/her direct reports. The chief should also place a priority on ensuring the competent and relevant performance of the department’s management staff. The support of the chief’s direct reports and the rest of the fire department management team will be very important to the fire chief’s success and influence inside and outside the organization. Excelling in this area of focus will impact the ability of the fire chief to lead the department effectively in the short and long terms.
• Community leadership and stakeholders – Interaction between fire chiefs, community leaders and other fire department stakeholders is another critical area of focus. One of the best ways for the fire chief to be viewed as a community leader is for him or her to interact regularly with other community leaders. This can include relationships built through Chambers of Commerce, service clubs, charitable efforts and many other opportunities to be involved. These interactions provide a forum for the fire chief to meet future elected officials and to tell the fire department’s story to current community leaders.
• Family – Being the fire chief is a very demanding job. Sometimes, fulfilling the responsibilities of the position can mean that the chief’s family relationships suffer negative consequences. The job can simply become totally consuming for the chief.
Balancing work and family, while still doing the job well, can be a challenge but deserves a great deal of the chief’s attention. Deteriorated relationships with the people closest to us can be a high price to pay for success at work.
Influence is a reflection of leadership capability, and addressing these seven focus areas will enhance the political and operational influence of the fire chief. If any of the seven areas are weakened or ignored, it can negatively impact a chief’s ability to lead the organization. Fire chiefs should do a personal assessment of how they measure up in each of these seven focus areas, and then make ongoing adjustments where necessary and possible. This is not a one-time assessment, but should occur periodically throughout a chief’s career.
Helping future chief officers become aware of these focus areas can also help with their own professional and personal development. Take the time to do the assessment for yourself and encourage future chief officers to do the same. Bottom line, doing this can strengthen the current and future political and operational capability of the fire department – in good times as well as in the more difficult times.