The Fire Service Food Chain: Leading from the Middle

July 1, 2008
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 external customers.

The phrase "leading from the middle" almost seems like a contradiction. How does one "lead from the middle?" The truth is that leadership skills and abilities are essential at not just the top level of the organization, but at every level, including the middle level.

The fire service is especially dependent on the leadership abilities of its officers. Leading from the middle is what line chiefs (deputies, assistants and battalion chiefs) do on a daily basis. Those line chiefs hang out with both the upper-level managers (staff chiefs and the fire chief) and the lower-level managers (company officers). This middle-management role is responsible for carrying out the goals and objectives of the upper-level managers by engaging the lower-level managers into action. While there are many components of leadership, this article will focus on differentiating between management and leadership and examine the concept of trust and its relationship to three leadership components -- integrity, fairness and caring.

Management Vs. Leadership

Ferdinand F. Fournies, author of the book Coaching for Improved Work Performance (McGraw-Hill, 2000) defines management as "getting things done through others." This entails developing the efficiency side of operations or getting the right amount of people and things (resources) in the right place at the right time. Leadership, on the other hand, is ensuring that those people in the right place and at the right time are doing the right things. Stephen R. Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster, 1989), has simplified these two similar, but different terms as "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." Leadership is about deciding what those right things are and getting others to want to do them. This is extremely important because it is entirely possible to do the "wrong things" very efficiently. Leadership is being effective while management is about efficiently getting things done through others.

Typically, fire departments work at two levels. One is at the emergency level and the other is at the non-emergency level. Emergency operations are usually characterized by the need for immediate action operating with a very real and limited deadline. On the emergency scene, we have clearly defined roles and responsibilities to help our members apply standard inputs toward gaining standard outputs. This has simply evolved because most of our emergency work must be accomplished within a short window of opportunity to be effective. This doesn't leave a lot of time for discussion. Figuring out who is going to carry the tools and nozzle on the fireground is a waste of energy, time and talent. In fact, when we do not operate effectively and efficiently at emergency incidents, people get injured and killed. Firefighters seldom complain about having to perform at these incidents except when they are led or managed poorly (either at the incident or before).

Non-emergency operations usually have non-immediate deadlines and while they may contain elements of high risk, generally, they can be managed to keep all people safe even if the deadline is not met. Some non-emergency operations include public education, hydrant testing and training. These non-emergency operations seem to generate the most complaints from our members, yet these activities are critical components of our fire service mission.

Motivating Firefighters

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.

Fostering fairness is not difficult; it is mostly about listening to your co-workers and appreciating their individual opinions and perspectives. An excellent example of being fair is to apply the F.A.I.R. approach, as presented in the video "Just Be F.A.I.R. -- A Practical Approach to Diversity in the Workplace" (Vision Point). F.A.I.R. stands for Feedback, Assistance, Inclusion and Respect. This approach can be used as a tool to build more positive, productive relationships at work that will help employees make better decisions that impact overall productivity of the organization. An effective leader would do well to identify and implement the four elements of the F.A.I.R. approach.

The caring component involves acting on their opinions and perspectives. This does not mean instituting every suggestion from all of your employees, but simply taking the time to listen to their opinions and suggestions. Not all suggestions and opinions will be the "right thing" or "right ones" and trying to please everyone ends up pleasing no one and eventually destroys your credibility as an officer. Caring is about engaging in real, honest-to-goodness conversations with your co-workers about their opinions, attitudes and behavior. When employee behavior matches the organization's expectation, it should be recognized, which will ultimately lead to higher levels of trust and respect, and that should be your ultimate goal.

What Will Really Matter?

In closing, it is good to remember that your opportunity to lead in the fire service is finite and will one day come to an end. So what will really matter? In his book What Will Matter (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2003), Michael Josephson writes, "What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example." Because leadership from the line chief's position is so visible to all in your organization, it presents little room for leadership lapses.

While leadership is not always easy, it can be very rewarding. Developing, maintaining and building strong relationships is the first step to being the type of leader who inspires respect while getting the job of firefighting accomplished through others who feel like they're a part of a winning team.

JOHN G. DAHMS is the fire chief of the City of Brookfield, WI, Fire Department and a veteran firefighter of 30 years. He has a master's degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). RICHARD A. MUELLER is a battalion chief with the City of West Allis, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 30 years. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University. DAVID F. PETERSON is a lieutenant with the City of Madison, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 29 years. He is completing a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from SIU and is enrolled in the EFOP. All three authors are veteran fire service instructors and are members of The Wisconsin FLAME Group LLC ("Fire Leadership And Management Excellence").

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