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I was conducting multi-agency leadership training on the East Coast. As we discussed the importance of consistency in leadership, one fire captain shared his frustration with a common problem with most fire department management teams: a lack of congruency and consistency.
“We have six different battalion chiefs in our department, and it’s like having six different fire departments,” he said. “They all do things so differently and there is just no consistency to their management.”
Two months later, I conducted leadership training on the West Coast. I asked the attendees about their top five current frustrations. One item that showed up was “inconsistency in the management team.” A month later, a fire department in the Midwest answered that question and its top five included “management inconsistencies.” This theme has repeated itself in fire departments all over the world.
When a management team is not unified, frustration results. Perhaps some battalion chiefs enforce a particular policy while one battalion chief lets it slide. Or maybe one battalion chief has a high expectation in a particular area where another one couldn’t care less. Half of the battalion chiefs think the department should move in one direction while the other half disagrees (and lets everyone know it).
When members of a management team are at odds with one another, everyone down the chain of command knows it. Some management team members don’t even try to hide their disagreements as they vocalize their dissatisfaction with other battalion chiefs and the way they do things. That is a sure sign of bad leadership and it will adversely affect your department.
As one firefighter put it, “When our management team does not present itself in a unified way, we don’t feel a strong sense of security in our department. It’s like having mom and dad fighting – you just don’t feel safe. You don’t want to hear your mom bash your dad or your dad bash your mom…you want to hear them support each other and enforce the rules as a team. We want to see our management team support each other and be consistent in the way they manage our department and enforce policy.” Well said.
It is normal for a management team to disagree. It is healthy for a management team to have conflict. What is not healthy is when that conflict gets aired in the department in an effort to create allegiance. Members of a strong management team will come to the table with their thoughts and views, expecting that there will be disagreement. They will encourage others to voice that disagreement and then they will all agree that when they leave that room they are a unified team of managers who support each other emphatically. A strong management team will meet regularly and talk about effective ways to consistently enforce policy in the department, and more importantly create a values-driven culture so firefighters will want to follow policy.
Making the transition from company officer to battalion chief requires a transition to a more strategic and “big-picture” paradigm. This transition often creates a wider separation between management and labor and makes it more difficult for battalion chiefs to stay connected with the daily needs of the crew. As a result, many battalion chiefs can become oblivious to what their company officers and firefighters need in regard to management consistency.
Ways toward improvement
If you have such inconsistency in your department and you are part of the management team, you can make a commitment to change this pattern today. Sit down with your management team and create an action plan to create consistency among your battalions. Discuss how your management practices affect the front line. Talk about how you can best facilitate potential disagreements and still present yourselves as a unified team. This is a crucial element in creating high levels of performance in your firefighters and company officers.