Captain’s Corner: Characteristics of a Bad Officer

By Mike Hennigan

In a recent column, I listed the following characteristics of a good officer, as offered to me by my students: supportive, willing to mentor, motivational, experienced, selfless, decisive, consistent, calm, knowledgeable, able to communicate, empowering, possesses integrity, and is fun. It’s a long list for sure, but the point is that our firefighters expect a lot from their leaders. Given that good officers share certain positive characteristics, there must also be the antithesis of a good officer, an officer who will have the characteristic that is the single most deadly sin of an officer–micromanagement.

I envision this column being slipped under the door of an unsuspecting officer or two! But read on before you execute your clandestine plot. Is it possible that you may have created this monster?

“No way,” you say. “This is purely the trait of a weak and inept supervisor! There is no way it could be me. I exhibit all the traits of a good officer in abundance!“ So much for humility! The bottom line is that if a supervisor is scrutinizing you, you are failing to convince him of your ability to get the job done. So how can you defeat this menace to leadership? It occurred to me that if I could anticipate what the chief wanted even before he knew, I could stay ahead of him, and he would not have any reason to micromanage me. I would make it quite obvious that his time would be better spent micromanaging someone else.

I asked myself, “What does the chief want from me?” This gave me a whole new perspective on my job. I was putting myself in the role of the battalion chief and, for the first time, I was thinking about the captain’s job from the top down instead of from the bottom up. So, what is it that the chief wants from his captains?

I decided that he wanted the following:

  1. A company that meets administrative goals such as inspections and reports. This means turning in reports that are timely, neat, complete, and thorough.
  2.  A company with high morale. 
  3.  A well-trained and disciplined company.

This was the easy part. Now, I had to figure out a way to demonstrate to the chief that I met these requirements. In San Francisco, a truck company’s biggest challenge is a 50-foot wooden ladder that weighs nearly 500 pounds and normally takes six people to raise (two on the beam, two on the foot, and two on the poles). In almost every multicompany drill in which the truck participates, the chief will ask the truck to raise the “50.” This is a sure-fire way for the chief to see if the truck company has been taking care of business.

We trained hard in anticipation of the opportunity to prove ourselves at the next battalion drill. So, it was no surprise when the chief asked us to raise the “50.” What he did not anticipate was my reply: “Sure, chief. Six-person raise, five-person raise, four-person raise, poles, no poles, chute raise, courtyard raise, flat raise, or hill raise?” Believe me, the chief had never been given so many choices, and I knew that my bravado had invited a challenge for which I had better be prepared to deliver the goods.

To be honest with you, I do not remember what he chose, but we delivered! The crew was awesome. We made it very clear that we were a well-trained and disciplined company. What about morale? I promise you, if you train hard and can execute like that, morale will never be a problem.

And I made sure my inspections and reports were always well-written and turned in before they were due.
The chief gave us the break we were looking for and stopped micromanaging us, but I also knew that if we ever dropped the ball and did not meet his expectations, we would be back under the microscope.

The problem may not be an inept and weak supervisor, but a captain who is not meeting the chief’s expectations. If you are unsure as to what those expectations are, ask, and then exceed them. And remember, you must continue to give your chief reasons to believe in your competence.

Michael Hennigan retired as a battalion chief from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department after served 35 years with the department. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from the University of San Francisco. He is certified by the California State Fire Marshal to teach management and tactics. For the past 10 years, he has taught numerous fire departments throughout northern California and is a part-time instructor for City College of San Francisco. He can be reached via e-mail at

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