Riding the Right Front Seat: Avoiding the New-Boss Blues

Congratulations. You've just been placed in a new position of responsibility in your fire department. Maybe you underwent an extensive period of studying, promotional examinations and personal interviews. Then again, you may have been elected to this new position. There are also those among you who may periodically end up in the right front seat in an acting capacity.

You are probably feeling pretty good, so spend a bit of time enjoying yourself. You've earned it. However, no matter how you got to this point, be ready for the letdown. I can recall my first time in the right front seat in the U.S. Air Force. I spent a great deal of time studying and felt that I was ready for the new job and its attendant duties and responsibilities. That made one of us who felt I was ready.

My problems came not from the close friends I made during my time as a driver and firefighter. They knew me well and knew that I would have their interests at heart. No, the problems came from others. There were those who felt that they had been gypped by the system, and that since they had been in the service longer than me, they should have been promoted ahead of me. What they failed to note were the things I had done to prepare myself.

I had college credits on my record and worked hard to do the right things. Correspondence classes, previous job experience and a great deal of extra work in the fire department let me grow as an individual and impress my superiors with the quality of my work and the level of my dedication. I felt qualified for the responsibilities I was given, but that did not make it any easier to endure the snide remarks and backstabbing.

A few years later, I faced a similar problem in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department. The negativity was the same, but the reasons were different. I was promoted to captain with just four years and one week of service. Many of those promoted at the same time had at least double the amount of service.

Jealousy is not pretty. Sometimes it is blatant and sometimes it is subtle, but it will be at work around you as you move into your new position. The key to surviving is knowing what will happen and then making up your mind that you are tough enough to leap the hurdles that will be placed in your path. You must also be ready to do battle with older people of the same rank.

I remember having a verbal battle with a fellow captain who insisted on calling me "Kid." This came to a head one night after a particularly bad fire when this guy's company stretched a hoseline off of my pumper company. After the fire, his crew left the hose in the street for my crew to reload. When I approached him about it, he tried to provoke me into a fistfight at the fire. Fortunately, I was not stupid enough to succumb to his challenge. Hell, he probably would have kicked my butt anyway.

No, I suggested to him that he and his truckload of prima donnas return with us to my station for a further discussion of this issue. I knew that I was going to win when he agreed to my suggestion. When we got to the quarters of Engine 15, I asked him to come upstairs to my office. If anything negative were to happen, let it happen behind closed doors, was my thought.

The interaction was brief. Before he could utter word one, I said I wanted him to cut out the "Kid" stuff. I told him that as a veteran of the Vietnam Conflict, I had long since passed the "kid" stage of life. I further told him that I earned my rank the same way he did. We had both studied and taken civil service tests.

I stared at him face to face and indicated that I wanted us to be friends. I extended my hand to him and after what seemed like a really long time, he grudgingly extended his hand. We never became buddies, but we did develop a healthy respect for each other.

The key to new-boss conflicts is keeping your cool and taking the moral high ground. The same holds true for the interaction between you and your crew. Many times, you will lead a crew more senior than you. Most of the guys on my first crew were old enough to be my father. Win them over with your interpersonal skills, your technical skills, your honesty and your sincerity. You need to learn as much as you can about who your people are and what motivates them to be team players. You must then create a team based on the skills and interests of both you and your crew. Much can be accomplished by the honest discussion of the problems facing your team. It is critical to lay out your plan for running your company. You must also make sure that what you want to do is allowed by your department.

You must act within the guidelines established by your department. If you establish yourself as one with little regard for the rules, don't be surprised when your troops challenge you. If you disregard the rules, you will engender an example that will come back to bite you. This is critical.

No one will ever be perfect. However, if you fail to work at self-improvement, I guarantee that you will travel a long and difficult road in the right front seat.

DR. HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Dr. Carter is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is vice president of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). He recently published Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a Firehouse.com blog. He may be contacted at drharrycarter@optonline.net.