Burning Issues: Ineffective Chiefs or “Egos Eat Brains”

By Lauren Keyson

An Interview with Rick Lasky, Chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

One way to identify ineffective fire service managers is to identify their style: Are they leaders who enforce values or are they managers who enforce rules? Chief Lasky believes that to be effective, you have to be good at both, and the scale needs to be tilted on the side of the leader rather than the manager.

According to Lasky, an ineffective chief is someone who is out of touch and has allowed his ego to run amok. When Lasky says, “Egos eat brains,” he means that if people allow their egos to control their lives, it will eat at their brains and the commonsense that they use to make good, sound decisions. He explains that once the managers and officers forget where they came from-when they forget what it’s like to be on the fireground, sleep in the fire station, and work shift-or, if they’re volunteer chiefs and they’ve forgotten what it’s like to drill and do things away from family and make that commitment, then they lose out. They lose touch with their people, they don’t make headway in their goals, and their work life becomes a “them vs. us” scenario.

Lasky acknowledges that, unfortunately, there are a lot of chiefs out there that (1) get to a point where all they do is talk bad about their guys and (2) think that they are the reason their department is so successful. “Those chiefs who feel that way really have their heads up in the clouds because their department is successful because of their firefighters, not necessarily because of the chiefs,” says Lasky. “You can be the best fire chief in the world, but if your guys don’t buy into what you are trying to do, then you are just going to be spinning your wheels in the sand.”

In the fire service, there are chief officers who think that they are the reason their department is successful. They want to be president of this association or head of that project, and that is good if they are there to truly make an impact and not just build their resume. “A chief officer forgetting where he came from is like a football coach who has never held a football before,” Lasky explains. “He may be good at some of the things, but he’s not truly going to understand what it’s like to get out there and get beat on during that whole game.”

LAUREN KEYSON, FIRE ENGINEERING: What makes an effective manager?

RICK LASKY, LEWISVILLE (TX) FIRE DEPARTMENT: If we’re starting off with the fire chief in particular here, we are talking about someone who needs to be open to ideas but still remains chief. Someone who trusts his people and allows them to run with things and do their job. A good chief officer is someone who will keep his members’ best interests at heart. Keep them first, think of them first-it’s pretty hard to screw up as a fire chief if you can keep your people’s best interests at heart.

But it all comes back to what kind of leader you have: Do you have someone who believes in core values? If you have someone at the top who has no integrity-then everything is a loss, because everything we do is built on integrity.

LK: What if you don’t have a chief who supports regular training, for example? How do you get around that?

RL: There are a lot of different chiefs and leaders in that position-whether it’s training or apparatus maintenance or whatever-who are maybe weak in a certain area and so will tend to draw back to an area where they are comfortable. If they came from fire prevention, then you will see that they go back and are really into code enforcement and those types of programs. If they were mainly into training, then they’ll go back into training. If they were into apparatus maintenance, they’re going to go back into that.

As for regular training, the problem is that a lot of bosses are afraid to teach people working for them everything they know. Here is what they are thinking: “If I teach him everything I know, then he’ll be as smart as me. ” Well, what they need to realize is that that will happen anyway. And if we were truly serving as mentors and building our department, then we would try to share as much as we can with those working up toward us or alongside of us. That’s up and down the experience ladder. That’s everybody working to get to the next level or at least educating each other so that we stop killing and injuring our firefighters. Perfect people and know-it-alls can get you hurt and killed.

Sometimes you might have a bad chief. I’ve been there before, where I’ve had a chief who was solely out for himself, and if there was any attention given to any of his officers, he would be jealous. He walked around in this constant world of paranoia, because he lacked confidence in himself. A smart manager would realize that he should surround himself with good people who will make him and his team look good. The company officer can accomplish the training whether the chief wants it or not. He might not be able to say, “OK, we’re going to send you to FDIC this year.” But that company officer can go out there and throw ladders, pull hose, do SCBA training and learn building construction, tour the district, and just work on skills. That’s one of the things we pay them for. They are responsible for their guys. So there is a way to get around someone who doesn’t support training. Just do it. Keep in mind our training is the backbone behind everything we do and how effectively and safely we operate on the fireground.

LK: How can chiefs get back in touch with their firefighters?

RL: A lot of chiefs from big departments can’t get out to everyone. But there are ways. There is a mechanism out there that will allow you to reach out. There is your staff, your battalion chiefs, and those line officers.

LK: What could happen if a chief lets his ego rule and he loses touch with his personnel?

RL: There was one chief who allowed his ego to interfere with how he operated. And he got into a position one day where it was him against the city council and him against the city manager. You need to know how to work with those folks. You need to know how to work with your leaders and bosses and how not to allow your ego to interfere with that. This person allowed his ego to interfere with how he reacted with his bosses. So in turn, he could have had the cure for cancer and they wouldn’t have wanted to listen to him, because they were so angry with his tactics in dealing with them. And if he does that with city management, you can just about guarantee he is going to act the same way with his people.

LK: How does an officer work around a chief he believes is incorrectly making use of the department’s time? Or does he just do what he is told?

RL: Yes and no. There are methods that officers can take to communicate their concerns or suggestions. But you don’t want to be insubordinate or disrespectful. Bottom line: The boss is still the boss. You need to remember that bosses are there for a reason. And somebody has put them there, has trusted them to do that.

But there are ways through good proactive human resources or personnel departments or employee relations committees. If you are dealing with a labor group, a good smart chief will meet with that group on a regular basis instead of shun it. To make it real easy, unions are there to make sure their guys are paid and their rights are protected. They’re there to take care of their members. And for a fire chief to fear or “dis” them is not really a progressive thing to do.

When you’ve got a group that has good people on both sides of the wall, it can accomplish almost anything it wants. Look at your departments that are successful out there; look at Phoenix, and look at Lisle-Woodridge, Illinois. You can see that the labor relations between the chief and the president are strong. These are very successful departments because both sides forged relationships that allowed them to communicate. Still, the number one idea is that our most important people are our firefighters. It’s not the people in the white shirts sitting in the offices. It’s the people who are out there who are doing it.

LK: What if there is a definite need for a program in the department but a chief fails to address it? Is there a solution to that?

RL: I think presentation is everything. I think that when you are looking for a particular program, whether you take the avenue of safety of personnel or safety and education to the people, presentation is everything. There are a lot of people with a lot of great ideas who fail because they walk in and say, “Hey, I was just thinking about this, and I’ve got this and that”-whereas if they took the time to sit down and plan out their presentation, they may have succeeded. There are a lot of firefighters out there with some great ideas. We need to tap into them as often as we can.

But you also have to remember that until you climb over to that side of the wall to where you actually start doing budgets, you can’t take into consideration what it takes to do budget, overtime, liability, materials, and time. Sometimes it’s not presentation; sometimes a good idea just can’t be accomplished because of fiscal restraints or staffing issues-but we can always try for it later.

On the other hand, some bosses don’t want to go along with it because it wasn’t their idea. So that brings us back to the presentation. At times we would purposely set things up in our programs and ideas so that the chief could make corrections in them. So there may be times when you might put those things in that the chief can spot and say, “What about this?” and you can say, “Good thought,” and then you can push it through because there are times that the chief is going to want to put his thumbprint on it, especially if he is a credit grabber more than a credit giver. So leave some openings; sometimes it will work.

LK: How do you deal with chiefs who are more connected to city hall than to the firefighters?

RL: One of the reasons this happens is that these types of chiefs have never connected with their own people in the first place, so they need an allegiance somewhere-especially chiefs who are going to talk bad about their guys or the union–they are going to go over there and play into that. I think you need to be able to walk that fine line, which brings you to chiefs who have a hard time because of their egos.

It all comes back to “How much do you care about your people?” There is that fine line you have to walk. You have to stay connected. You have to show your folks that you support them, whether it’s through turnout gear, uniforms, or equipment. Instead of buying all the new widgets, gizmos, and gadgets for yourself, spend some money on the troops. Make sure they know that you are trying to establish that perimeter of safety when it comes to the equipment, the gear they are using, and the fire station.

When people ask why our personnel are enjoying themselves so much, I say it’s because we’re letting them do their job; we’re letting them be firefighters. We’ve also taken the time to sit them down and say we’re going to live by core values-pride, honor, and integrity-and that they need to have that love for the job and truly believe in the brotherhood. This is the way it is. And if they don’t like that, then they need to go stock shelves at K-Mart.

Chief Rick Lasky, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer of the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught for the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in the development of the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC and FDIC WEST advisory committees.

Lauren Keyson is executive editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager for the Fire Department Instructors Conference. Previously, she directed digital and print publishing in high tech and finance. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley and a publishing certificate from Stanford University. If you have a burning issue to discuss in this column, e-mail her at laurenk@pennwell.com.

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