Becoming a Company Officer: It's Not Just a Badge

By Stephen E. Morris

Many firefighters test for promotion with the idea of obtaining a gold badge and all the leadership skills that come with the responsibility of being a company officer. The gold badge does come with authority, but does not provide the skills and abilities you need to lead in the new position. Being a company officer means more than gaining the authority that comes with the promotion. You must be able to inspire your personnel to work toward the organization’s goals and visions.

Decide to Lead
At first glance, taking the initial step to becoming a company officer sounds as simple as testing for the promotion. However, the first decision you must make is to be a leader. That means you must be willing to accept the responsibilities that come with being a company officer. To be an effective company officer, you must have a deep-seated desire and drive to lead your personnel and yourself. The company officer sets the example, sets the pace, and provides inspiration. As a leader in the fire service, you must commit yourself 100 percent to your people, organization, and community. All leaders must create a vision and a plan for reaching those goals. The vision the company officer puts forth will in part come from his department’s vision as well as his personal vision for his company. Being a company officer takes a great amount of courage. You will be bombarded with challenges from time to time, and you must have the courage to stick with your vision.
 
Seek Mentors
As a new company officer, you may not have the skills and knowledge to be a great leader. Learning in a didactic setting can only marginally prepare a company officer for the real world. A new officer should seek a mentor or mentors, wise and trusted guides. Officers who have been in their field for a considerable time have a wealth of knowledge and experience that makes them well suited to serve as mentors. When selecting an officer to be your mentor, think about the good qualities he possesses and the qualities you respect the most. For many new officers, one mentor may not possess all the qualities or experiences necessary for them to gain the knowledge they need. Seek out multiple mentors, if needed. 
 
Assess Your Leadership Capabilities
To become the company officer your personnel need, accurately assess your leadership skills. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. It is often easier to identify strengths than weaknesses. Request assistance from your peers, bosses, and subordinates. Keep in mind what you are asking them to do., and be prepared for some harsh truths about your leadership skills. Facing your weaknesses and fears may be difficult, but remember that it takes courage to be a company officer. Remain willing and humble throughout the process. Getting others to tell harsh truths about your abilities may be difficult without your soliciting the information. When you ask for the information, make sure that everyone knows you are sincere about the process. Show this sincerity by acting on the information provided by your peers, bosses, and subordinates. When you do this, you demonstrate trust in them and indicate that you truly value their input. With the information provided, actively seek opportunities to improve your leadership skills in the specified areas. Assessing your leadership skills does not end after the first assessment; there must be continuous assessment throughout your career.
 
Continue to Grow
To some, obtaining the gold badge means they have reached a pinnacle in their fire service training. This is far from the truth. Actually, newly promoted company officers have added to their ongoing learning needs; they must continue to grow in knowledge, skills, and abilities to become a well-versed leader. As a new officer, you must be open to opportunities to learn and be prepared to accept the lessons that will be brought to the forefront. Develop a culture of learning for your followers and for yourself. Learning should be continuous, not sporadic. Officers are responsible for their own development.
 
Take Risks
Part of being a company officer means you must be willing to take risks. Don’t’ avoid taking risks because you want to avoid the pain associated with not succeeding. Taking risks in the fire service has come to be associated with futility (no one will ever change), the boss’ disapproval, high cost, or lack of time to complete the task
 
Taking risks means you must make intelligent decisions. An “intelligent risk” is one in which the potential positive outcome outweighs the possible negative outcome. Doing your homework will ensure that you have all the vital information needed to take the intelligent risk. Timing is another important factor. Figuring when and if the time is right to take a risk may mean the difference between success and failure. Taking intelligent risks comes easy to many company officers on the emergency scene, but many fail when dealing with personnel and in-station matters. When there are risks involved, the company officer must communicate the risks involved, both positive and negative. Portraying the proper attitude is vital in setting the atmosphere when taking a risk. The officer’s attitude should reflect that all things can be accomplished. There may be some failures when taking risks; the key is to use these failures as learning opportunities. 

If you are aspiring to become a company officer, decide why you want the promotion before taking the promotional test. Do not take the test solely for the money or the shiny badge. As a company officer, you can have a substantial impact on the future of your organization and its personnel and on building a culture that strive to achieve goals. 

Stephen E. Morris has more than 21 years experience in the fire service and is a captain with the City of Harrisonburg (VA) Fire Department. He is an adjunct fire instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and has a B.A. degree in fire science. He is a graduate of the Virginia Fire Officer Academy and is enrolled in a M.A. degree program in management and leadership at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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