STAYING IN TOUCH
Chief officers need to “stay in touch” to maintain an effective fire organization. Simply stated, staying in touch comes down to nothing more than displaying an active interest in the members of your department. Ten simple points summarize how a chief—or any officer, for that matter—can keep an ear on a department’s pulse and a hand in the department’s activities.
- Go to incidents. In a scenario that happens time and time again, someone gets the top job and then quits responding to incidents, becoming totally devoted to the department’s administrative affairs to the exclusion of the department’s activities. Hopefully, the chief officer is someone w ith strong administrative skills, but a department’s operations will always be ts lifeline. Quit responding to incidents, and you’ll lose touch operationally. This doesn’t mean you should show up to command—that is the line officers’ responsibility. But, at a minimum, you should go to incidents to observe, offer words of encouragement or praise, and get the press off the incident commander’s back by functioning as a public information officer.
- Be approachable. As likely as not, firefighters are not going to come to the boss—you’ll have to go to them. Meet with them on their territory, at their stations. If you meet with them both formally and informally on their own turf, you will stand a better chance of hearing and seeing their concerns.
Firefighters feel the most relaxed and uninhibited at their stations. I know one chief of a large metropolitan department who makes it a point to visit the stations periodically, particularly after unpopular management decrees, to let firefighters take their shots at him. It works wonders—they get to vent themselves, and he gets to explain himself face to face instead of through secondor third-hand communications.
- Socialize. Shunning social contact has led to the demise of many a chief officer. The social aspect of any
- fire department simply cannot be ignored. The ability to engage in small talk, tell a few jokes, and socialize both away from and at the workplace shows the “human” side of a chief officer. Few people do not enjoy the respite provided by a well-placed dose of humor. Similarly, most enjoy chitchat about things that are inconsequential to the department. Just be careful not to overindulge and take socializing to damaging, counterproductive extremes.
- Listen. Encourage both positive and negative input from firefighters and subordinate officers. After all, one of the reasons you got the job was your ability to solve problems. Everyone likes to hear what is good, but if you don’t listen to the bad and the ugly, it will sneak up and catch you at the worst possible moment. Encourage input even when it hurts.
- Don’t shun anyone. Maintain openness even with those who disagree with you. I know of a case where a fire officer’s avoidance tactics were so radical that whenever he encountered his department’s offduty firefighters on the streets, he immediately turned and went the other way, pretending not to have seen them. Needless to say, the department members’ esteem for the man fell to a record low. This doesn’t mean you should try to be friends with everyone; you simply must maintain communication with everyone, whether they’re on your side or not. Shut someone or some group out, and the counterproductive “we-vs.-them” environment will command instead of you.
- Don’t run with a clique. Every fire department develops groups within its corporate culture whose members fraternize because of common values and objectives. These groups’ objectives will run the gamut of those on par with the leader’s objectives to those that are polar opposite. Being a part of any one of these “mini cultures” shows favoritism. Favoritism can be very counterproductive. Why should a member who isn’t part of the department’s favored group put forth extra effort when the favored group will get all the glory and benefits? Remember, however, that although you cannot afford to become part of any of the cliques within a department, it is important to maintain effective relationships with them; once again, don’t shun people no matter how contrary they may be!
- Encourage involvement. This is where you will discover the latent talents of your department’s members. You can’t do it all yourself, so don’t try to hoard it for yourself or a selected group of cohorts. Involve everyone at every level of the organization in the management process. It can be a real eye-opener for them (and you) and can change adversarial attitudes and relationships in a hurry. One of the most effective strategies for improvement is putting the complainers in charge of the targets of their complaints. Sometimes they come up with truly innovative solutions to age-old problems, but more often than not they develop a deeper respect for the organization and management processes. In a strong, effective fire department, all members feel they play important parts and feel good about those parts. Since it is true that nothing motivates like success, you should strive to make everyone feel successful. They only way to do that is by involving them.
- Be humble. This is difficult for many chiefs, since those who aspire to and end up in leadership positions often are headstrong and a little heavy on ego. Avoid the tendency toward the “I-did” and “I-am” approach and instead strive for the team approach of “We did” and “We are.” Sharing the spotlight and the glory of accomplishment and recognition will provide greater returns in the long run than taking all the credit. Also remember that the finest management classes in the world don’t guarantee a good manager, so don’t hold your educational background over other department members. If you know your stuff, it will show—you won’t have to strut it.
- Set an example. If you demand and expect people to be honest and straightforward, you must be so yourself. If you demand and expect certain behavior from the troops, you must demonstrate the behavior yourself. And the only way you can teach by example is if you spend a little time with the troops! Take the example of the chief who implemented a mandatory physical fitness program for line firefighters. He could have been content to accept his own obesity but instead shares his members’ plight by routinely participating in exercise sessions with the troops. He provides not only the rule but also the example—and he also has a physically fit department.
- Be ethical. One of the biggest problems in business today is unethical behavior, particularly with regard to personnel management and relationships. Everything a chief does is watched and judged. Unfair and unscrupulous practices do not go unnoticed, particularly by those under your command. The motive behind such practices usually is some sort of personal gain. Even if such actions may be of no consequence to your job or your position, they will have an effect on the people with whom you must work. Manage for personal gain, and the troops soon will start looking for ways to advance their own interests ahead of the department’s. Manage for the honest gain of the organization you lead, and the example you set will bring honest returns.
After arriving in the upper echelons of the fire department, chief officers often bury themselves in the office and insulate themselves from involvement with personnel. The ability to separate oneself from emotional influences is a valuable leadership tool; however, this does not mean an officer need become dictatorial, aloof, unfriendly, or unsympathetic. Such behavior sets a poor example and can only create bitterness, dissension, and apathy in all ranks of a department.
Good chiefs maintain contact with personnel at all levels of their departments. Chiefs who enjoy a good rapport with the troops also enjoy the respect of others, and their department members display openness, positive attitudes, and good participation. Such results require effort and originate in leadership that recognizes that all things that occur in a fire department must happen through personnel. Such leadership understands that good things happen only through good, honest, open communication; interest; and participation from its leadership on down.
Leadership sets the tone of the working relationships within a fire department. Set a tone of isolationism, and you are sure to be rewarded with what will become constant turmoil among rival factions. Conversely, set a tone of interest in the department’s success and the activities of its members, and your chances of better camaraderie and healthy attitudes increase dramatically. There is no guarantee that adversity will vanish, but “staying in touch” certainly will improve the chances of developing healthy relationships.