As the Chief, Changing or Enhancing Culture Starts with You

April 13, 2023
Jack “J.” Taylor explains why leaders must live the message of fire department culture change each day so as to reinforce its positive effect with the team.

Like many of you who have worked in the fire service for 30 or more years, I have seen my share of leadership changes. Also, as a former Division 1 college football referee, I also saw leadership changes in coaching staffs and officiating supervisors. I found there is a constant theme that seems to prevail. Leadership is only as good as the person charged with the responsibility for the entire organization. The unfortunate part is that the person in charge isn’t always a leader. They may be a supervisor who either doesn’t have inherent leadership skills or have the desire to learn quality leadership skills. They probably have strengths in areas of business management, budget strategies, policy creation, etc. However, they may not possess the most important trait required in leadership and building culture – empathy.  Simply put, this is giving a consistent and sincere effort to being in tune with the members of your organization.

Being empathetic isn’t being soft, it is understanding and respecting the people within your organization. Not forgetting the challenges you endured when you worked in their positions. Empathetic to their concerns and realizing the importance of sharing the “why." It seems this trait is overlooked or ignored as some believe imparting their will on the people within their organization will get the job done. 

Being domineering can be effective to an extent. Being direct on the fireground is expected due to the need for quick action and strategy to win the battle at hand. However, we are talking about around the firehouse, not at the fire. The problem occurs when it leads to your firefighters being afraid to make their own decisions because they are berated or shut down when making their own decisions or suggesting an idea that betters the department.

Looking over your shoulder

It is like a 6th grade basketball team who has a domineering coach, who is a bit lacking in experience, and knee-jerk reactions are their only way of compensating for their lack of ability and wisdom that may come with time.  Every time the whistle blows for a travel, foul, double dribble, etc., the coach replaces the player at fault.  The coach only belittles them and instructs them to sit down.  They don’t take advantage of the opportunity to coach them on how to improve.  The result is a team of five who turn and look over their shoulder whenever the whistle blows to see who is being replaced.  No organization can operate effectively when their personnel are constantly “looking over their shoulder” and fearful of making a decision.  This leads to a lack of confidence and increased complacency as people start relying on orders to be enacted before performing a task.  This dysfunction breeds poor morale and results in declining trust in the “leadership” of the team or department.

Trickle-down leadership

I have seen the same up close and personal, on the college gridiron. The personality of a head coach is reflected by every assistant coach, player, and support personnel. When you are on the sideline this trickle down of leadership becomes very evident. These observations have always been intriguing to me and a great learning experience. In addition to my 18 years as a player, officiating at the highest level of college football for 17 years prepared me as much for becoming a fire chief as did my over 20 years in the field as a firefighter. This was a great opportunity to master conflict resolution in a high stress environment. Being the calm in the storm is a necessity to succeed as a college official.  We must learn to function calmly amid chaos by effectively communicating with very emotional coaches and players. 

Coaches’ livelihoods are predicated on the decisions of 18-year-old males. Think about that one for a minute. For any of us who have sons, we all know how unpredictable they can be. Therefore, it is easy to empathize with the stress these multi-million-dollar coaches face on the sideline. You can prepare these young men as best you can then hope for the best when they are released into a loud and stressful stadium of 90,000 face-painted fanatics. Therefore, coaches can be high strung and lash out at anyone in their path, including the officials.  They lose focus and look for alternate ways to channel their frustration and lack of preparation. This lack of control becomes quickly evident in the assistant coaches and players. This results in mistakes being made that are avoidable, and losses that are difficult for the coach to explain.

Conversely, great coaches who are in control, calm, prepared, and in tune to their gameplan also trickle down through their organization. The calm and preparedness they exude is evident in every assistant coach and player, down to the student trainers. They are focused on their individual tasks for the ultimate goal of achieving the mission, winning. These are those coaches you tend to dislike because they always win.  However, they win for a reason. Great coaches understand how to raise the bar of success and create the needed buy-in to accomplish the goal of winning. The great ones aren’t merely coaches, they are empathetic leaders who are driven to constantly improve and succeed. Being on the field, you can easily see and feel the differences in leadership and the effects they have on the entire team. The fire chief is no different. Good or bad, the leadership traits of the chief will trickle down through the entire organization. You control that narrative.

Utilizing the talent

Great coaches and chiefs can identify great talent and utilize it for the good of the organization. They are not fearful of another coach being more talented than they are and react by shutting them down for fear of looking bad or being “exposed." The great coaches are successful because they surround themselves with more talented people than themselves that counteract their weaknesses. They push for their assistants to improve and create an avenue for succession. This allows for the organization to succeed for the long term and provide opportunities for their staff to grow and pursue new opportunities in the future. They empathize with members of their organization and sincerely seek ways to improve and raise the bar as an organization.

 This reluctance to utilize the talents around you may be due to narcissism, low self-esteem, or fear of others being more talented than you are.  In some cases, it can be a combination of all these self-limiting traits. Coaches, and chiefs, who resign to this approach may stay afloat, but will never flourish. Due to their lack of empathy, they squander the dreams of those around them to move up the ladder of success. There is no loyalty in this organization and the lack of trust leads to stagnation and not success.

Changing culture

So, how do you change culture? Take a lesson from the great fire chiefs and great football coaches you know and follow. Understand that it is easy to achieve great things when you surround yourself with outstanding people. So, you say that you don’t have the ability to change personnel or place talented people in the best position for your organization. Then be a great coach and identify the talented individuals you do have, cultivate their talents, and provide them a means to utilize those talents for the good of your team. Find their passions and push them to grow those passions and share them with others. This leads to buy-in which leads to increased passion and teamwork.

Get out and visit your crews. Have lunch, breakfast, any opportunity to interact face-to-face. Share your vision but also ask theirs. Ask them what they like, don’t like, want to change, and want to keep the same related to the entire department. Don’t be afraid to hear some critique on yourself but be prepared to address concerns that seem to be a consensus. Take their ideas if those ideas benefit the majority of the department. Utilize those great ideas and you will be amazed how quickly morale turns positive, more great ideas evolve, and requests to join various committees increase. Speaking of committees, fill them with technical professionals passionate about the subject matter. Provide them direction and needed parameters, such as budget. Then take their recommendation and follow through. Don’t be the chief that has committees but doesn’t act on their recommendations. Nothing more damaging can be done to the passion of your team. Build trust by taking their great suggestions and use them for the good of the department. This will increase buy-in tenfold.

Be sincere in your approach, because true firefighters can spot selfish and narcissistic leaders from a mile away. Check your ego at the door.  Share your vision, provide clear expectations, and hold all equally accountable...beginning with yourself. Stand up for what is right and defend them to the “death”, as long as they don't leave you defenseless.

Discipline fairly and consistently, promote fairly and consistently, hire new personnel fairly and consistently. See the pattern?  Being fair and consistent is the best way to build stability within your organization.  Be that methodical, consistent head coach that builds a team that reflects those traits. 

Know and do your job, have fun at your job

Consistent doesn’t have to be boring. You can have fun and be professional at the same time. I instruct my Pearland, TX, Fire Department family to “KNOW your job, DO your job, and have FUN at your job." It is a simple concept that goes much deeper. Knowing your job is not just being trained on the basics but becoming a technical professional. Finding your passions and building on them to help others improve their weaknesses improves everyone. Also, identify those who are strong in your weak areas and learn from them. When people don’t know what else to do they call the fire department. We find a remedy even when it requires outside the box thinking.

As a chief, we must foster that creativity. We are bound by black and white policies that guide us and provide direction. However, 90 percent of what we do is “in the gray” and requires creative thinking to achieve a successful outcome. If it benefits the community, doesn’t harm anyone, and reflects positively on your department, then those decisions should be supported. If a decision is slightly outside expectations, then have a discussion to reinforce those expectations and move on. The name of the game is “keeping them between the ditches." Provide your folks an avenue to make decisions for the good of all involved so they aren’t stagnating by “looking over their shoulder."

“DO your job” is more than responding when the tones go off. It’s doing the little things that set you apart. Our job is the greatest job in the world.  It is also an easy job for the most part if we merely DO our job. Don’t walk by something that needs to be addressed, such as fuel levels, a dirty pumper compartment, dirty hose or PPE, saw maintenance, etc. If we continually adhere to doing the little things great, then our entire department will begin to set itself apart. Those little things become big things. Surrounding departments will take notice and begin inquiring about what your department is accomplishing and how it is being done. We share our successes so others can benefit. The result is your number one recruiting tool, your folks, will begin talking with pride about their department, sharing successes on social media and prospective candidates will contact them, not you. They will bring quality into the department because they are of high quality and will accept no less. It is a good problem to have.

“Have FUN at your job” is simply just that. Enjoy what you do and the people you work with because in our world we aren’t co-workers, we are family. When we enjoy our family and really know them and their home families, we build a connection, a bond, and a burning desire to never let them down. When we enjoy what we do it is infectious. Just as a firehouse terrorist can be infectious. Subconsciously, because we are having fun, we smile. When we smile our shoulders are a bit broader, chin a bit higher, and the result is a higher sense of professionalism by those we encounter. It’s a simple concept but the deeper meaning leads to a positive, can-do attitude and greatly limits the debilitating effects of that dreaded firehouse terrorist.

Be sincere and live the message

Like a great head coach, we need to work to be a great chief, because it all starts with us. Understand that we have greatness around us.  Check our ego at the door and don’t be fearful of it but learn to harness that greatness for the good of your organization. Believe in them, rely on them, and include them. They are smarter than you, so never forget that. Rely on their varied talents and ideas because having buy-in is priceless. Get to know them personally and love them equally. Have a true open-door policy and not just a veiled statement of your availability.

Through sincerity and empathy, trust will be built. The result is an organization that will achieve more and soar higher than ever thought possible before. Kick down the silos by building positive relationships with other departments, vendors, stakeholders, etc. Build on positive traditions and don’t allow needless traditions to stagnate your organization. Build your department to be the leader in your area.  Build an environment that people want to come be a part of. Build on creative ideas and continue to raise the bar of excellence in the services your team provides. Or, as we like to say in our organization, #PardonOurDust

About the Author

Jack "J." Taylor

Jack "J." Taylor joined the Pearland, TX, Fire Department in May 2022 as the fire chief. Taylor, a 31-year veteran of the fire service, previously served as fire chief for the Town of Trophy Club, TX. Prior to that, he served with the City of Irving, TX, where he rose through the ranks to assistant chief where he retired after 25 years of service. 

Taylor is a professional actor, author, and presenter. He also was a NCAA Division 1 football referee for over 20 years where he served in the Western Athletic, Big Twelve, and Southeastern conferences. He was assigned 20 consecutive postseason assignments with his last game prior to football retirement being the 2018 College Football Playoffs National semifinal between Clemson and Notre Dame.

Taylor resides in Pearland with his wife, Staci and they have two grown sons, Jack and Nick.

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