Photo by Tim Olk.
By Ken Himel
While teaching a class for the department in which I began my career, I asked the audience, “If you were the chief, how would you view yourself as a firefighter?”
No one responded. So, I interjected that, as a fire chief, I would have really liked the firefighter I used to be. When asked to explain, I answered that I was eager, dedicated, and all in.
I then followed up by saying, “Now, in the role of fire chief, I often wonder what I would think of the captain I was?” Where did that statement come from? My answer was,
“Simple—I wouldn’t like him very much.” I saw the look on a student’s face, and it conveyed, “Wow! Did he just say that?”
I explained how I never thought of things from a chief’s perspective. Again, I was asked to elaborate; I explained that, somewhere along the way, I became arrogant, self-serving, and defiant. I always thought that I knew better. I never looked at things from the “other side.” But honestly, I was just too arrogant. I was that guy!
We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t be ‘that’ guy.” What does it mean? Who is that guy? We have all come across that guy in our careers, whether it was the guy that just doesn’t fit in or the guy who always says the wrong thing. That guy could be a firefighter, a company officer, or even a chief officer. No one is immune to being that guy, but hopefully we can do things that will prevent us from falling into that rut. The simplest way to avoid the pitfall is to always be humble, place service above self, and stay true to the mission.
Most people who fit this description don’t always intend to end up there; a string of events is usually what gets you there. Herein lies a message of someone who fell into that trap but, luckily, saw the error of his ways. As with most lessons, it took a lot of time and experience to learn from my mistakes made along the way. Throughout my career, I was given what some may consider to be too many second chances. I screwed up just as much, if not more, than most of us. I truly believe all the challenging times of my youth have made me a better firefighter and, ultimately, a better fire chief.
In this profession, confidence is a must. However, there is a fine line between confidence and cockiness. I used to think that if you confused the two, it was your problem (how arrogant is that?). Now, I see it differently. Looking back, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. The irony here is that a common statement that I would make would be, “The day you think you know it all, do yourself and everyone in your organization a favor and quit!” I was too caught up in myself to see how much of a hypocrite I was being. Again, another sign of arrogance. It was at this point in my career where I began to change. When asked why I did something, my response was almost always, “Because I can.”
Slowly, I was becoming the type of leader that I had sworn off. Right before my eyes, as much as I wouldn’t admit, I transformed from the firefighter we all strive to be into a horrible leader. I wasn’t leading from the front, and I surely wasn’t leading by example. I moved on from a company officer position and spent the next chapter of my career atoning for my misdeeds.
Surprisingly, the event that got me back on track was working for another horrible boss. This boss was the person I eventually replaced as chief. During the hiring process, I saw a department that was in dire straits, lacking leadership, direction, and guidance, and it inspired me. It inspired me to change and revert to the firefighter that I once was—a young company officer who did the right things, put service of others above himself, and swore that he would never again allow anyone to steal his passion.
I am living proof that change is possible. I made mistakes, acknowledged those mistakes, held myself accountable, and began correcting them. This transformation has been the most rewarding part of my career. What is so humbling is, thankfully, I have not been judged by the fall, but instead by the way I responded to it. Muhammed Ali said, “Don’t judge the man by the knockdown. Judge him by the way he gets up.”
Here is my advice on how to not be that guy but if you do, how to recover, and come back better than ever.
Don’t Be That Firefighter
We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t just be on the job…be into the job.” If you want to be on the “fast track” to be a great firefighter, live by that saying.
Are you going to get messed with and picked on? Sure. Are you going to be told you ask too many questions? Absolutely. The only way you are going to learn is to be engaged and ask questions.
When you first come onto the job, be a sponge. Seek out information and training at every opportunity. Never lose your passion. Whatever you do, avoid becoming the “know-it-all.” Enthusiasm and eagerness are great, but realize that you don’t know as much as you think you do. The day that you think you know it all, do yourself a favor and quit. Hopefully, you learned the basics in the academy. Your company officer and crew will get you the rest of the way; they will be there to take the foundation and build on it.
As a firefighter, you are entitled to nothing; everything in the fire service is earned. You want respect? It’s simple—earn it.
How do you accomplish that? Know your job; train, find a mentor, perfect your craft, and be into the job. The department for which you work only owes you a paycheck, nothing more. The citizens you took an oath to protect don’t owe you anything, either. It is an honor and a privilege to wear your badge and uniform. Remember, the name on your helmet represents the company for which you work and the name on your bunker gear represents your parents. You would do good to serve them both well. If you ever forget that, shame on you!
Don’t Be That Company Officer
Young company officers can easily default to reminding their crews about the trumpets on their collars. If you have to do this, you’re doing it wrong! If your crew doesn’t know that you are in charge, you have serious problems. Besides, do you want them to follow you because of rank, or because they want to? They will follow you if they respect you. This respect is earned; it doesn’t come with collar brass or a different colored helmet. Just as you earned respect as a firefighter, you will have to earn it as a company officer.
Speaking of respect, how are you going to earn it if you don’t take responsibility for your crew?
As a chief officer, the last thing I want to hear from a company officer is him blaming the crew. I once asked a captain if we no longer washed our rigs. His response was that he had the laziest firefighter and engineer in the department assigned to him. Wrong answer! This taught me something that day; although we may have a lazy engineer and firefighter, I had an even lazier captain. The deeper problem was this: why was that crew not working together? As it turns out, we had a company officer who never set expectations for his crew therefore they were never held accountable. This is a recipe for disaster.
If the little things cannot be taken care of in the firehouse, how can we successfully work on the fireground? As a company officer, you will be tested. Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good, that means you’ve stood for something in your life.” This should not be taken personally; your crew is merely testing the boundaries you have set. Hold the line and, when necessary, hold them accountable.
All of us, at one time or another, have had to be talked to by a superior officer. If you haven’t, congratulations, and I’m sorry. “Congratulations” because you must be perfect. “I’m sorry” because your superiors may not have cared enough about you to coach you and help you become better.
A mistake company officers often make when they have to coach or give corrective action to a subordinate is when they “blame it on the chief,” which usually goes something like this:
“Hey man, it’s not me. I’m fine with you showing up late, not shaved, out of uniform, and so on, but the 5-horn is coming down on me.”
Sound familiar? This usually happens because someone is trying to avoid being the proverbial “bad guy.” Remember, complaints should only travel one way: up the chain! In the attempt to follow orders and remain someone’s “buddy,” this is the tactic most likely to be used.
Here’s the problem: If the subordinate is truly paying attention, it weakens the level of respect he may have for the company officer. I once had a superior who always used this tactic. I would always ask the same question,
“If you don’t agree with this, and you are truly fine with [fill in the behavior], what did you do to fight for me? If this is just the boss being a jerk, did you do anything to attempt to justify my actions?”
A simple tactic that was used to make my superior look good would always have the reverse effect. Obviously, a conversation was had and a decision was made. Once the decision was made it, was my superior’s job to carry it out. As a company officer, you own that decision, and it is your duty and responsibility to carry it out. Don’t fall into the trap of hiding from duty or responsibility.
Do you ever think how you would handle who you are today if you were the chief? Maybe you should. Do you get so caught up in the forest that you miss the trees? With that in mind, be part of the mission. Worry about what you can control. Take care of your men, and always place service above self. At a point in my career, I lost sight of these values. I wish I could have done a better job of doing those things. I wish I could go back and change that. It would have made me a better company officer and, undoubtedly, helped the guys in my company. I realize now that it was an injustice to them as well as my fellow officers. I realize now that I unnecessarily placed them in harm’s way. For that, I am truly sorry. Thankfully, I didn’t get anybody killed or seriously injured.
Don’t Be That Chief Officer
Commander Pete Blaber’s book “The Mission, The Men, and Me” should be required reading for all chief officers. The title says it all. If you can remember to always put the mission and your people first and yourself last, you can’t go wrong.
The biggest pitfall that often “snatches up” fire chiefs is when they become self-serving and they begin to ignore the needs of their departments. An easy way to avoid this is to remember that it’s not about you, and it never will be. Keep this in mind: don’t take yourself too seriously, nobody else does! Laugh, have fun, be approachable, and make sure to get out of your office. Interact with your guys. Just because you have a white helmet with 5 trumpets does not mean you are no longer human.
Most chief officers speak of ownership. They often long for their people to take pride and ownership in their firehouse or the rig. Where they often go wrong is when they don’t let their members own! When members come to the chief with ideas (within reason), and they are always shot down, do you really expect them to continue bringing ideas and suggestions to you? If you’re going to preach ownership, you must let them own! Company or station T-shirts…why not? Pink T-shirts in October…sure!
As a chief officer, you will experience days that will remind you that it really can be lonely at the top. After all, no one ever said leading was going to be easy. In these circumstances, the department will realize that you are doing your job. They may not like your decision, but they are going to support it if you have gained their respect and trust. Leaders understand this; bosses sometimes never figure it out. This usually occurs when you are trying to change the culture of your organization. As a young chief, I was told that you can’t change culture by several colleagues. However, this is simply not true. It isn’t easy and, in most cases, it isn’t really fun. But, if you stay the course, the change starts, and it ultimately happens sooner than you can imagine.
Remember, lead by example, and do not fall into the trap of hiding behind clichés. Although most leaders will speak about being part of the solution and not the problem, or they come to me with a solution to your problem and are sincere, some use them as excuses to delay and ignore subordinates as though somehow the issue will magically correct itself or go away altogether.
Supervisors are not the only ones who can fall into this behavior; subordinates can do it just as easily. Like the guy who always defaults to “attitude reflects leadership.” Although I agree with that statement, its use is sometimes bogus. We all know that guy who has a terrible attitude about everything—the guy that has a problem to every solution. He is just a miserable person whose primary goal is to make someone or some group just as miserable as he is (misery loves company). I refer to these people as “peaches.” They hide behind their terrible attitude even though it has absolutely nothing to do with their leader’s abilities. He is the person that wants everyone to be accountable for his actions…except him!
In my career, I have worked for a few great leaders. People who led from the front and by example. Unfortunately, I worked for more that taught me how not to lead. This was true with an organization that I held in high regard. To say their leadership style was autocratic or domineering would be putting it mildly. They led through intimidation, threats, fear, and with an iron-fist. Any leader that was not in tune with his style was ostracized. Although I was miserable at the time, I quickly used these lessons in a positive way. I thought, along with several other co-workers, that “this could be a great place to work.”
In the end, I often reminded myself to not be like the bosses I had. I strived to be different because there had to be a better way. While working for this organization, it taught me to embrace the philosophy of worrying about the things I could control. I alone could not change my supervisors attitude or leadership styles. What I could control was my attitude, work ethic, and love for my job. Surrounded by some of the worst bosses of my career, there were still lessons to be learned. It taught me to focus on my job. It also taught me how not to lead. When I became a chief, I did not want to lead a department that felt the way I once did. One of my driving forces is to never have members of my department say, “this could be a great place to work.”
Following are my tips for not becoming that guy:
- Be the firefighter that is eager, all in, and engaged.
- Be the firefighter that knows his role, takes pride in the job, takes care of the little things, respects tradition, and earns his way.
- Strive to be the firefighter or company officer with which others would always want to work.
- Be the company officer that leads, defines expectations, holds his crew accountable, takes responsibility, and serves his crew.
- Be the chief officer that keeps the mission and the department first.
- Be the chief that serves the department and the community, leads from the front, promotes ownership, and owns his mistakes.
As a chief officer, one of the best compliments you can get is when others say, “That chief gets it.” If you do not like the firefighter, officer, or chief you are today, fix it NOW. After all, only you can.
Ken Himel is a 26-year fire service veteran who has served in volunteer, combination, full-time, and career departments. He was appointed chief of Bayou Cane Fire Protection District in Houma, Louisiana, in August 2012. He is the 3rd district representative for the Louisiana Fire Chief’s Association and served as the Education Coordinator for the 2017 Louisiana State Fireman’s Association Annual Conference. He is a certified fire instructor II; owner of 5 Horn Leadership, LLC; and teaches classes throughout the region.