The Fire Service Food Chain: The Company Officer Level

John G. Dahms, Richard A. Mueller and David F. Peterson discuss part three of this series, which focuses on effective leadership at different levels.


Previous articles in this series have discussed the theory of the castle and moat and communication from above, and how middle managers engage company officers with the edicts from upper management. This installment will examine several components of effective leadership at the company officer...


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Previous articles in this series have discussed the theory of the castle and moat and communication from above, and how middle managers engage company officers with the edicts from upper management. This installment will examine several components of effective leadership at the company officer level.

To be an effective team player, company officers need direction and guidance from the middle and top of the organization. Unfortunately, many fire departments operate in a vacuum when it comes to communicating the vision of the fire chief to the company officers. The company officer is a critical link in the leadership of the fire service food chain because that is where the public (read: taxpayer or customer) is served. Devoid of any direction from above, company officers must lead their personnel in the best way they know how.

The importance of leadership at the company officer level cannot be overstated; the company officer leads and oversees all personnel at the service-delivery level. The company officer must effectively communicate and apply the vision, mission and values (VMV) as communicated by the chief of the department to all personnel at the company level. In doing so, company officers would do well to keep the following three concepts in mind:

  1. What do you stand for?
  2. Communicating the vision
  3. Delivering the service

What Do You Stand For?

Company officers need to be well prepared to apply the vision of the department through everyday operations. Thorough knowledge of all departmental policy and procedures, rules and regulations, administrative procedures and other accepted guidelines will be good guidance for company conduct, but it goes beyond this. Company officers must first understand themselves and develop an effective method of communicating with service-delivery personnel.

Company officers must first determine what values and principles they represent and in which they hold convictions. (These convictions must be consistent with management in order to avoid problems.) These convictions also need to be extremely firm, like a line drawn in the sand, to withstand challenges by personnel. This is important because personnel will test the company officer and make many attempts to see if the company officer will "cave" to challenges. When officers cave, or compromise their principles or values, their ability to lead will be eroded. Personnel will then know how to manipulate and/or push the right buttons and will essentially take control over from the company officer. In essence, "everybody would be in charge, but no one would be in control."

Effective company officers know the importance of standing their ground and being firm when applying the guiding principles of the company. It is for this reason that effective company officers must develop thick skin and have the ability to withstand criticism and carry on with their convictions. In the long run, mature and intelligent personnel will respect the company officers who have well-known convictions and stand their ground.

Effective company officers also take their convictions and show the way to their company personnel. They become the steadfast models in which other personnel can emulate. Personnel will appreciate and copy effective leadership when they see it modeled. Company officers will also do well to remember that their effectiveness as leaders or managers must be paramount to any friendships that may be enjoyed. A company officer's effectiveness is severely compromised if friendship is more important than fairness or "doing the right thing." Leadership development consultants Karen Dawson and Kelley Marko authored an article in which they stated, "Being able to maintain a healthy boundary between self and others is a key leadership skill. If we are too connected with others, we are likely to become emotionally hijacked by them." ("What Are You Willing To Change?" Leadership Compass, winter 2005/2006 issue, pages 26 and 27.) Fostering healthy boundaries is prudent as leaders and a general guide for all company officers is to be friendly, but not necessarily a subordinate's friend.

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