The Fire Service Food Chain: Leading from the Middle

John G. Dahms, Richard A. Mueller and David F. Peterson continue their discussion on leadership skills and abilities that are essential at every level of organization.


Part 2 -- A Deputy Chief's View This is the second installment in a series of articles that examine fire service leadership responsibilities from the perspectives of a fire chief, a line chief and a company officer. This leadership food chain plays an important role in serving our internal and...


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Why are our firefighters motivated to perform at emergency operations, but not at non-emergency type of situations? Research by the noted behavioral scientist Fredrick Herzberg, in The Motivation to Work (Wiley & Sons, 1959), reveals that people are motivated by satisfiers. Achievement and recognition are two common satisfiers. Emergency incidents are filled with enormous and immediate achievement and recognition opportunities. Non-emergency activities like fire prevention programs or inspections contain satisfiers at much different levels for our action-oriented emergency operations-minded members. Emergency operations are much more satisfying to our members than non-emergency operations.

While achievement is an important aspect of motivation, Herzberg also notes that being recognized for achievement is an equally, if not a more, important component in motivating people to get things done. Hertzberg's theory also includes dissatisfiers. It should not be a surprise to leadership readers that poor or ineffective company policy administration and supervision was at the top of this dissatisfiers list. While we may not be able stop all complaining about non-emergency work, we can organize, distribute and manage these activities in a way that connects the activities to a potential (future) emergency scene. Letting firefighters determine who is going to accomplish the various roles while performing hydrant testing or inspections can be easily accomplished.

Scheduling can be best completed by company officers because they are the ones who directly supervise the firefighters. They are the ones who get the actual work done by our firefighters. In ensuring that they have the needed resources to accomplish their assignments and assuring that assignments are completed lies the leadership opportunity for the line chief. Additionally, when non-emergency activities such as fire inspections are done from a firefighting point of view many firefighting lessons can be learned easier than when members are in full personal protective equipment (PPE) with limited visibility. The vital connection between non-emergency prevention work and safe and effective emergency operations will help our members accomplish their pre-event tasks and achieve. A significant step to being an effective leader is to get out from behind your desk to discover and recognize achievement especially at non-emergency activities. By doing so, middle managers can help to make non-emergency work interesting, engaging and often fun.

How do line chiefs (middle managers) create or support this type of work/learning environment?

First and foremost, line chiefs must foster and develop trusting relationships. Trust is earned by being trustworthy. Trust lets line chiefs encourage and guide company officers in developing themselves and their firefighters. Trust in itself, though, is not an efficiency piece, it is an effectiveness piece. As stated earlier, leadership can be defined as "doing the right things" and trustworthiness is the foundation (brick and mortar) of relationships.

Trusting Relationships

Without trusting relationships, leaders must rely on unpleasant ways to get people to do things. Being trustworthy lets middle managers develop meaningful and lasting relationships with company officers. This is the first step to what can be called the "integrity obligation," which is simply the obligation that middle managers have to lead with character. The integrity obligation is especially critical at the line chief's position because you are the chief seen more often by your co-workers than any other. In fact, it would be safe to say that whatever you do in the station or out, at least one of your co-workers will see you doing it. Literally, you will be on stage every day. Minor lapses in integrity can be expected and even tolerated at entry-level positions, but at a chief's level there are no excuses. Perhaps you have observed chief officers who could not recover from lapses in their integrity.

So what is integrity? Integrity is a combination of walking your talk and standing up for what is right. It can be further defined as "saying what you mean and meaning what you say." This applies to both ends of your work relationships -- the company officers and the staff officers. To build integrity, you must develop and foster fairness and your people have to know that you care about them as not just professionals, but also as people. They must know and feel that you believe in them.