As a fire chief, you invariably end up thinking about issues differently than you did during the time when you were a firefighter. Often, this is the case because you approach things from a different angle as a result of your position in the department or because your perspective changed based on the experience that you gained over the previous years. The undeniable component is that your view is in fact different. Also of importance is the fact that the perception that people have of you can change, too.
That said, I assure you that if you ask a fire chief about him/herself, the response that you will get from that individual is that person hasn’t changed but that person’s job changed. If that is in fact the case, why is it that we constantly battle the issue of “us versus them” in our departments?
A significant reason for the us-vs.-them divide in the fire service is the concept of perspective: how each of us sees an issue.
What’s the answer? I will give it to you in two words: understanding and grace.
Leadership’s effect on understanding
A fantastic leadership book was written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. It’s titled “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.” In their book, the authors espouse two ideas that are applicable to this column. First, you must be willing to lead down as well as up the chain of command. Second, if you don’t understand something and that lack of understanding hinders your buy-in, you most definitely are obligated to ask the decision-makers, “Why?” The reason for this: When you understand why things are done and why decisions are made, you increase your support of your leadership team.
In the context of the key words of this column—perspective, understanding and grace—how do the two principles of Willink and Babin’s book apply to fire chiefs?
Perspective and understanding go hand in hand in our profession. For example: Consider a policy decision that was made in your department. If the policy decision isn’t popular with the members, could that sentiment be changed if the department’s leadership seeks to increase the understanding that the firefighters have of the policy decision? If leadership is willing to put in the time and effort to do that, it really is an attempt to shift perspective.
Conversely, think about the possible positive outcomes that could materialize should the department’s leaders decide to engage in conversations before a policy is given to the department. Going to the members with a concept—instead of going to them with an edict—creates the ability to develop perspective and understanding together, as a group, which is the outcome that all of us should seek.
Ego vs. success
For a department to create a shared understanding and perspective, everyone must admit to themselves that every single person has an ego. Now, understand this: Having an ego isn’t what gets any of us in trouble; the problem is failure to keep our ego in check. It usually is this that derails us.
Ego is what causes chief officers to automatically believe that they know what’s better for the team than they actually do.
Additionally, ego is what causes the firefighter to blatantly state that the chief “has forgotten where he came from” after a decision is handed down to the department members.
Undoubtedly, these certainly are slippery slopes for each and every one us to navigate. As a consequence, a degree of emotional intelligence is needed for successful outcomes.
No grace without conversations
To work through the issues, the concept of grace comes into play. However, we are operating in a society that’s struggling constantly with the concept of grace.
As a fire chief, I want you to know three things about how I approach my job.
First of all, I don’t have all of the answers. Often, the reason for this is because the information that’s available to me to make a decision is incomplete and is actively changing.
Second, the decisions that a fire chief makes can be categorized into degrees of good and degrees of bad. Put another way, everything that’s decided—everything—has good consequences and has bad consequences.
Third, I genuinely want the best for our fire department team. I haven’t met a fire chief who doesn’t feel the same way and who isn’t faced with the same operating parameters as I am.
Members, if there’s a decision that you don’t agree with, do your best to try to not let your first thoughts be “He forgot where he came from” or “He’s trying to micromanage me.” Give your departmental leadership the benefit of the doubt and assume that there are good, valid reasons that serve as the basis of the decision. Take the opportunity to lead up the chain of command and provide subtle input on the decision and its ramifications to the department. Ask “Why?” to gain the understanding and perspective that you need to legitimately support the decision.
Chiefs, if you want your team to approach decisions in the manner that’s described above, it’s quite possible that you must change the way that you operate. If you want your firefighters to have better perspective and understanding, you must work on yours, too.
Engage in conversations with your team before decisions are made.
Talk about issues that affect the department and concepts that you believe could create better situations.
Solicit feedback. Often, you will be pleasantly surprised with how well thought out responses are and how your own thought processes change based off of the new information.
Most importantly, you then must act on the information that your team gives. There’s little value in asking for input if you have no intention of using it. That isn’t to say that everything must be used, but it should be considered and incorporated, as appropriate.
It’s worth noting that the concept of grace is, in no uncertain terms, a two-way street.
Encourage your team to speak up and solve problems before you ever get involved. Encourage them to take risks, knowing that real growth comes when people operate outside of their comfort zone. However, all people are reluctant to leave their comfort zone if there’s no belief that they will be supported.
Realize that not every solution that’s enacted will be successful but recognize the intent and underscore the positives that are associated with the effort. Part of your job is to build future leaders, and this is a vital step.
Benefit of the doubt
Perspective, understanding and grace are foundational concepts to building a better team. We nurture these things by investing in each other and committing to a constant communication loop. Realize that none of us knows everything and that results that come from the collective usually are better than what’s generated solely from the individual. This is true with the fire company and still holds true in the relationship between the fire chief and the department.
Commit to leading up and down the organization, giving people the benefit of the doubt, asking questions to gain an understanding of the “why,” and positively supporting the successes and the failures that result from the endeavor. We best accomplish this by checking our ego at the door, acknowledging that we are human and realizing that the true value of our team is from the different experiences that add to the thought process.