So You Want To Be A Leader!

Oct. 4, 2004
Being a leader is often a never-ending process of changing hats from friend to supervisor and back to friend again.
"But, Lew, I was only venting the window. I didn't need to wear my goggles! There wasn't any danger, and, besides, we've always done it that way. I've even seen you do it that way. After all, I'm the one who trained you as a rookie 10 years ago," protested Firefighter Thomas.

"I know we've always done it that way, but the Chief saw the newspaper photo and said I had to sit you down about it. This isn't my idea, and personally, I don't want to make a stink out of it. You know I'd have done the same thing. I don't agree with the department policy, but I have to give you a warning because of the rules," replied Lieutenant Johnson.

Most individuals enter the fire service intent on becoming a productive member of a quality organization. They want to be a part of something that is respected by the citizens. The vast majority of firefighters are highly motivated, dedicated individuals. This high degree of drive is an essential part of any department's promotion process. It is considered normal, even encouraged, to advance through the ranks in the fire service. Unfortunately, many of those same highly motivated, promotion bound firefighters have a distorted view of what being a leader is all about. Oh, yes, they see the gold badge, the fatter paycheck, and other perks, but they don't understand that being a leader is not what it seems, and most often the job is harder than it looks.

The conversation between Lieutenant Johnson and Firefighter Thomas is a perfect example of one of the tough parts of the job. It's obvious that Johnson and Thomas are friends, but the leader still has to manage the subordinate who is a friend. Frequently in this type of situation, one of the friends has as much or even more experience as the newly promoted company officer, but the promotional process resulted in only one individual receiving the gold badge. This mix of background, experience, friendship, and promotion creates a very uneasy situation for the new officer faced with distributing daily work assignments or dealing with routine discipline. Simply put, many company officers find it very difficult to deal with a performance issue involving a subordinate who is also a friend.

It's hard work. The job of the company officer, whether lieutenant or captain, is one of the most difficult jobs in the fire service. As a company officer you are part of the crew, but not really. You're also part of the management team, but not really. In reality you are something of a hybrid, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but not a whole lot of either. You are expected to be an integral part of a dedicated and loyal team, but the very nature of your job prevents you from meeting that expectation. The crew trusts you with their lives, and they need to implicitly trust the decisions you make, but you are still the person who must enforce rules, regulations, and policies. You're the one who can and will call them on the carpet when they don't perform as expected.

On the other hand, the chief has made it clear you are part of a management team that develops, implements, and administers the decisions that come from the "ivory tower." To some degree you have input into personnel evaluations that may or may not lead to pay raises. And, of course, you are on the front line in the administration of discipline when necessary. The chief even expects you to play a vital role in determining the vision and direction of the team. You are expected to be a cheerleader for the department and an inspiration to your crew keeping them focused on goals. But, unfortunately you are not really part of the "real" management team. That's because the chief understands your necessary closeness to your crew. After all, you spend your entire working day (whether 8, 12, or 24 hours) with your guys. In fact, you spend far more time with the rank and file than any of the department's chief officers. You get cut out of the management loop because there are certain pieces of information that cannot be allowed to "leak" before the political time is right. Other pieces of information are so delicate that premature release could hinder an investigation or ruin a career. You're simply too close to your guys to trust you with the info.

This "caught-in-the-middle" quandary causes many qualified firefighters to steer away from the promotional process. They see that, as a company officer, you feel left out of both groups. Some officers, in an attempt to maintain the acceptance they experienced with friends when working as an on-line firefighter, will avoid conflict concerning departmental issues. They choose instead to ignore the problem in hopes that it will go away. But in most cases it doesn't go away; it festers. This frequently leads the crew to view their leader as being ineffective and spineless. Senior management reaches the same conclusion when they believe that friendships are being allowed to take priority over operational issues.

Being a leader is often a never-ending process of changing hats from friend to supervisor and back to friend again. The important part is knowing when to play a specific role. It is possible to work with people and maintain a friendly relationship. It is necessary to build relationships on which your colleagues, both crew and management, can place their trust. It's okay to socialize with your subordinates after hours. Employees must know and understand what you are made of and what you are all about. What better place to do this than in a non-threatening environment? However, those same employees must understand that you can go to dinner with them on Friday evening and still do your job on Monday morning. It is your job to make that clear and to be able to change hats when the situation requires it. Besides, if the personnel you supervise were actually your friends, they wouldn't put you in a position of having to deal with a disciplinary or operational problem!

As a leader, it is better to have the respect of the crews and the people around you than it is to be liked as a friend. When the tough times come - and come they will - your people will trust you to make appropriate decisions and be consistent. They will see you as someone who stands firm on principle, rather than a flip-flop artist intent on telling people what they want to hear. When employees respect a leader, they will go the extra mile to insure that the job is done right. They may not send you a Christmas card, but they will guard your backside.

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