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A few months ago, I wrote a column titled “Top Seven Morale Killers in Your Department” (November 2011). First on the list was “lack of discipline,” and I talked about how morale takes a real hit when you are dragging around a deadweight firefighter no one wants to discipline. This is a common problem in many departments where company officers are uncomfortable having the tough conversations with their crew members and correcting bad behavior. As a result, discipline is often neglected and bad behavior continues.
I want to shift the focus now to the management level. This same problem exists when a fire chief does not want to have the tough conversations or administer discipline to members of the management team. When you have a battalion chief or a division chief who is in desperate need of discipline and the entire department knows it, you have a morale killer on your hands. And the morale problem will not just be with your firefighters who have to interact with this chief. There will also be a morale problem with the other members of the management team who recognize what good leadership is and see a blatant disregard for that example in one of the management team members. This is a common problem in many fire departments.
In one department in particular, a second-in-command battalion chief provided a buffer between the fire chief and the other battalion chiefs. When he disagreed with the input of others on the management team, he withheld it when it should have been relayed to the fire chief. Additionally, he created rules that he expected the other battalion chiefs to follow, but he did not follow the rules himself. He was often late to important meetings and lacked integrity in several areas, but was never held accountable for his behavior. Many of the battalion chiefs tried to talk to the fire chief and explain their frustrations with the inadequate leader, but their concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears. This continued for years and caused very low morale for the rest of the battalion chiefs.
Without a high degree of accountability at your management level, you will experience a high level of resentment from other management team members as well as other firefighters down the chain of command. If an undisciplined battalion chief stays in that position year after year with no accountability, you will see even your most passionate and committed firefighters and management team members become disillusioned, discouraged and uncommitted. They are constantly wondering why they should perform at the highest level when someone who is supposed to be setting the role model example is failing miserably.
While I believe we should never use others as an excuse for low performance or a bad attitude, it is very difficult to work long-term in an environment with little to no accountability, especially when key leaders are not held accountable. If you are a fire chief, you need to listen to your management team and those down the chain of command who are trying to help you address an important issue. If more than one person has come to you and complained about one of your management team members, it is imperative that you take action. Investigate more by asking others what their experience is with this manager and where the manager can improve. If you are not willing to gather this type of input and take complaints seriously, then you are a very big part of the problem. The best way to prevent this problem is to conduct 360-degree evaluations on all of your management team members (including yourself), which allows people up, down and across the chain of command to give input into the leadership skills of each manager. (See my October 2011 column “Using Your Core Values to Evaluate Behavior.”)
The number-one responsibility of a fire chief is to ensure great leaders are being developed within the management team. This takes care of most of the other problems you will encounter as a chief. And when you do this, your management team will ensure the best leaders are developed within your company officers. Your company officers will then ensure the best leaders are developed on the crew.