Commentary, Firefighting, Leadership

The Art of Changing and Protecting Culture

By Jeremy Sanders

Over the past couple of years (and as I write this), I have become very intrigued with the term “culture” as it relates to the working environment. This is a term that, until now, I have never really heard much about, especially in the context of leadership. Now that I have, I have become infatuated by the ideal of culture in the workplace. Every chance I get, I want to soak up as much about it as I can. I want to create a culture that produces great leaders, a culture that others who aren’t even on my team want to be a part of.

Creating and protecting this culture that I care so much about is not an easy job, and it does not happen without effort. I tell my team members that this type of culture I want to create is so important to me that I will fight to protect it. And, in fact, it is something I have had to do fairly often. To create a work environment that is better than anything anyone else has created, you must work harder and do things that no other leader has done.

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After being a supervisor for more than seven years, I had a pretty insightful thought as my wife and I were discussing the management roles of our jobs: “I am not the kind of guy that loves being a supervisor because I get to be in charge of people, but rather, what I love about being a supervisor is that I get to be in charge of the working environment.” In other words, I get to be in charge of the culture. For me, this means that I have control over if my firehouse (workplace) and whether it is a good or bad place to be. It is my responsibility to make sure that the morale and the attitude of my crew is good and that my crew enjoys coming to work. If you are in a nonsupervisory role, you play a part in all of this, but you are ultimately subject to your supervisor’s attitude and priorities. Sometimes, these supervisors don’t steer things in as positive a direction as you’d like. At my firehouse, I have a written list of expectations and priorities as well as a vision of my crew. As their leader, I truly look forward to the opportunity to sit down with a new crew member and discuss these with him. It is important for me, and I always want to do it as soon as possible so I know we are all on the same page.

Interestingly, I tend to have differing opinions about delivering my vision and its expectations than others who I have heard discuss this topic. I have heard many officers who discuss getting new crewmembers or going to a new station suggest that you go in and slowly implement your expectations to not “ruffle any feathers.” This makes absolutely no sense. Unclear expectations can easily lead to miscommunication and disappointment when your staff doesn’t live up to these “unspoken yet expected” expectations. When I am put in this situation, I first sit down with the member and go over everything I expect from him. Why would I be okay operating under someone else’s expectations with the hope that he will eventually run things the way I want it run someday? I don’t understand that way of thinking at all.

Being upfront about what you expect of your team—not only on scene but at the station—takes the pressure off the crew and won’t leave them “in the dark” about your expectations. It also makes things easier on you because your team members will now know what to expect; as a result, you won’t have to micromanage them.

I also tell them that I have their back and will stand up for them when it is needed. There may not be a more important statement made by a supervisor than “I support you.” I have had supervisors in the past that I know would be right next to me if I ever needed them fighting alongside of me. I have also had officers who would not be around when they were needed the most, and others who would not speak up for me or any of their other team members. Since I have experienced both ends of that spectrum, I know firsthand what it means to have that security of knowing that if things get rough, you won’t be alone.

Create Something Worth Fighting For

As stated previously, I tell my team members that the culture under my supervision is so important to me that I will fight to protect it. I came to this job in 2002 as a very quiet and passive 24-year-old kid. Now, in 2020, I can confidently say that this is no longer how I would describe myself. Both my personal life and this job have systematically beat the passive out of me. Overall, I am still a quiet person, but I have also become very comfortable getting rowdy when it comes to speaking out on things that I feel aren’t right. Lately, I have realized that I may be speaking out too much! I am not the kind of person to gripe about everything or who argues just to argue. However, recently, there seems to be a lot that is worth speaking up about. I have learned that I need to do a better job picking my battles; there can be a fine line between standing up for what you feel is right and getting the reputation of going against everything “just because.” Doing the latter erodes away your effectiveness to maintain a culture. When something serious comes up that you must speak out against, no one will listen because that’s all you ever do. So, being tactful in the stances that you take is crucial to maintaining relationships with those above you. You will never gain respect if you aren’t being respectful, and demanding respect will get you nothing but the opposite!

Maintaining positive relationships with those above you, even during disagreements, is possible and healthy. This leads to another big topic of leadership that I seem to differ drastically from most leadership advocates: I am friends with the members of my crew and their supervisor. I don’t understand the mentality that once you are a supervisor you can no longer be friends with those below you. The key to maintaining relationships with those above and below us revolves around one single ingredient: respect. If respect isn’t present on all sides, then I understand why you might have to keep a formal boss/subordinate relationship. However, the nature of our job allows us to avoid this.

In most cases, we spend at least 24 hours straight with these people for two to three days a week. If that isn’t enough time to build respect and relationships together, then you need to look at how you’re going about your day at the firehouse. As an officer, if you seclude yourself in your office all day, you are wasting the best opportunities the fire service gives us, such as the following:

  • Helping members complete every-day tasks reminds them that you won’t ask them to do anything that you aren’t willing to do.
  • Making sure that you do some type of training every day builds teamwork, morale, respect, and confidence in your crew.
  • Watching for “teachable moments” and opportunities to help nudge members to be better informal leaders.
  • Engaging in the laughing and joking.
  • Strengthening the relationships within the crew. This is one of my favorite things about being a firefighter; I’m not avoiding it just because I have become an officer. It’s okay to be the brunt of the joke. If that’s hard for you, then you probably need to put your ego in check.

All of these things and more build respect. If you have your crew’s respect, you will never have to remind them who the boss is. At my firehouse, you may not be able to pick out who is in charge, and I am completely comfortable with that because when we are on scene, all the playing and joking goes away, but the respect stays. I can joke and play around with my crew and still know that when I make decisions on scene, they know it’s time to get to work.

The Birth of the Crew 1st Culture

Are you willing to put the work into your team to create a special culture? This is a common question in the fire service days, and it is very disheartening. There is a huge discrepancy between the priorities of those who take care of and stand up for their crews and the priorities of the chief and administration above them who make the rules and decisions. Why is the fire service great at making its best employees feel like the worst? I believe in taking care of your employees first; by doing so, they will take better care of the customers. In fact, I have seen it firsthand: new supervisors come in and completely revive a dying environment mainly because they give their team things that the previous supervisor did not: value, care, and respect. It’s not magic, it isn’t something that will break the budget, and it’s not impossible to achieve. It just comes down to one question—are you willing to put the work into your team to create a special culture?

Putting your team first is a huge step and is vital, but if your subordinates know you care about them, it also drastically improves morale. However, there are two pieces to this puzzle, not just one. If you genuinely care about your team but are then absent when they need you, or never stand up for them when it’s needed, you are wasting your time. Checking in on my family and asking them how things are going at home is going to annoy me only if I can’t trust that they have my back when I need them. In my career, were times when I thought that I would rather work for a person who didn’t know my last name but was confident that he’d be there if I needed him. This is far better than working for someone who knows all my kids’ names and what we’re dealing with at home but who is totally absent at work when I need him to stand up for me.

Now, neither of those situations are ideal, and I would probably be miserable under either because there needs to be a balance of the two. Showing empathy and caring for your team are “bricks” that will build an unbeatable team. However, taking action for them when action is required is the “cement” that will hold those bricks together. Everyone knows what happens when you keep stacking bricks without using cement to hold them together.

Nothing is easy about changing the culture and creating the environment you want. You must invest time in and empower your team members, trust that they will do a good job, be the example you want them to model, and stand up for them when they need you to do so. Sometimes, issues will arise that will require you to address them quickly so as not to negatively affect the culture. If you set the expectation that the team should approach each day with a positive attitude and someone is dragging down the crew with a bad attitude, attack the problem and protect the team’s morale. This can be done in one of two primary ways: respectfully or disrespectfully. Doing the latter will waste your time and accomplish nothing toward solving the issue. Doing the former is the best route to go every time toward solving any issue.

Being a leader is hard work; it requires a lot of focus, courage, and love. Being a leader at work requires that you find a balance between the job and your home life. Without that balance, you can become consumed with one while ignoring the other. This is a constant process for me, and something that I always need to keep in mind because I tend to fixate on something in front of me while neglecting other things.

Being a leader is one of the hardest things you will do, but it is also one of the most rewarding. It feels good to be a leader, to see your crew members’ hard work pay off. Do you have the courage to step away from micromanaging and trust your crew to do their job? Are you willing to put yourself in the background to put the spotlight on your crew? If so, you will never have a shortage of people willing to follow you, to do whatever they can to be a good representation of you, and to fight for you. This is what a leadership looks like and is why it is worth every bit of work that went into creating it! The fire service needs great leaders now more than ever—do you have what it takes?

JEREMY SANDERS is an 18-year fire service veteran who currently works in central Oklahoma as a station captain. He speaks extensively on leadership through Crew 1st Culture on Facebook and Instagram.