How to Be a Good Company Officer

By Jerry Holt

Fire departments have not always done the best job of preparing the leaders of tomorrow for leadership roles in their departments. Sure, some of the bigger departments have Officer Candidate Schools that prepare firefighters to succeed when they make the leap to company officer, but far too many departments do not require officer training before the promotion. Do you want to be a better officer? Do you want to be better prepared when you get that position? Make sure you have a good grasp of the core competencies, and develop a leadership sense. Leadership sense is not rocket science. It is simply looking at things from different views—what your actions will look like from your boss’s view and from the view of the people you lead.

The old method of officer development is simply ineffective. I know many fire officers who learned how to be an officer solely by observing the behaviors of officers in their departments: They model the good behaviors and are sure not to repeat the bad behaviors. There is some good in this method—it is highly desirable not to repeat the mistakes of those who have gone before—but the failure in the system comes when we repeat actions that have not been identified as being undesirable.

Think of it: Many good training officers modeled the behavior of training officers they admired. Unfortunately, part of that was the continued abuse of trainees in live-fire conditions. A training fire was not deemed “good” unless helmets were burned, shields were melted, and the trainees truly learned what “too hot” was. Fortunately, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Live Fire Training Evolutions, changed that, albeit too late for some who decided that there was probably a better way to spend time or make a living or, worse yet, were otherwise injured under the guise of training.

SIX STEPS TO BETTER LEADERSHIP

Here are six principles that will allow the experience of being an officer to be a more enjoyable one for you, your boss, and the people you serve. Some of the lessons are almost too easy.

1. Treat people the way they want to be treated. I once had a conversation with Chief Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department about the difficulty I was having with getting officers to do what I wanted. He asked me how I was treating the troops. I was quick to answer him that I was treating them just like I wanted to be treated. He listened to me explain how I was doing everything for them that I would want a boss to do for me. When I completed my explanation, Brunacini said, “There’s your problem.” I was shocked. How could I be so far off base that he could tell me in just minutes what my problem was? After all, I was modeling the behaviors I had seen that I had liked and I was staying away from those I didn’t like.

He asked me to again repeat how I was treating the troops. I again repeated that I was trying to treat people with respect. I was telling them what I wanted and then I was trying to get out of their way, giving them the necessary tools to accomplish the task and trying to make sure that I removed any barriers they encountered along the way. I was treating them the way I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes. Brunacini once again repeated that I had identified the problem. After much discussion, he asked me a question—one so simple that I am embarrassed to say I had never thought of it until that moment: “What if they don’t want to be treated the way you would want to be treated?” How simple. What a concept: Don’t treat people the way you would want to be treated. Treat them the way THEY want to be treated.

This is such a simple concept but one that may go against the way most of us were brought up. It takes much more work to identify how those you serve and how those people who serve you want to be treated. This is especially true when you identify that they want to be treated vastly different from how you want to be treated. As long as their choice does not violate departmental values or policy, an honest effort should be made to accommodate the desired behavior.

2. Show up when you are at work. One of the easiest ways to be an effective officer is to have your head and heart in the job. Most of us can identify with an officer at some point in our career who showed up to draw a check, but that was about all. When he was at the fire department, all he could do was talk about how he would rather be somewhere else.

I’ve seen officers who had all of the knowledge necessary to be effective, but they really did not want to be there. Their part-time job, hobby, or other interest was just more important to them than their fire service job. It seemed the work they were being paid to do was simply a nuisance to them. Even the very reason they were there, emergency calls, seemed to inconvenience them. Unfortu-nately, this attitude bleeds over into training, preplan development, and a general lack of interest in those they serve and those who serve them. It is hard to believe that your boss has much of an interest in your career and your well-being when he does not show any interest in his own fire department career or the job at hand.

The fix for this problem is also simple: When you are at work, demonstrate a commitment to the position by taking an active part in your career development as well as the development, problems, and concerns of those who serve under you. Hobbies and interests outside of the fire service are essential to make us well-rounded individuals. It should be okay to discuss outside interests at the fire department as long as fire department objectives are met first. Be sure to put outside interests in the proper perspective.

When you are at the fire department, fire service delivery should be job one! Demonstrate a desire to improve the service delivery of your company by having your head and heart in the job. Be happy in the work, or find ways to improve your satisfaction. Care about your job.

3. Don’t become part of the problem! An easy trap to fall into is that of the “they” syndrome. New officers and, at times, veteran officers use this to shift the blame from themselves to others for problems that the officer has not addressed or will not address. Typically, “they” becomes the fire department officer staff. “They don’t treat people right” and “They won’t do anything about that” are common statements made around fire department kitchen tables every day. The irony is that oftentimes the people making the statements are the very ones who have the power to do something about the problems. As an officer, you are THEY!

Maybe one officer in a bigger department cannot facilitate change throughout the entire organization, but he can sure change the way things are done in his company! If “they” don’t treat people right, make sure that YOU do. Officers should identify their sphere of influence and make sure that they do everything possible to have a positive influence within that sphere.

Although one officer might not be able to facilitate change throughout the organization, he should make an effort to identify system problems and possible solutions and take that information to the boss. Many times officers complain about “they” and the officer identifying the problem never even brings the problem to the attention of the appropriate person. How do you know “they” won’t change a procedure or tactic if the problem has not been identified to the appropriate staff? If a problem is big enough to gripe about, it is big enough to spur you to action. Avoid the defeating attitude of “they are not going to change that.” If you identify a problem, take actions to resolve it.

Unfortunately, staff will not change all of the problems you identify. When that is the outcome, it is essential that the officer does not go back to the troops with the “they” attitude. Like it or not, you are part of “they,” and the staff must be supportive of the actions of the group as a whole. Replace “they” with “we,” and pass along the reasons why “we” decided that this is the best course of action.

4. Speak up when appropriate, and do not be a “yes” person. Remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes? No one wanted to tell the emperor the truth. In a nutshell, the emperor looked pretty foolish because his followers did not tell the truth. Leaders do not want to be surrounded by followers who do not challenge them in the appropriate manner. Good leaders do not want to be surrounded by “yes” people. You know the type—no matter what the idea is, it is good if it is coming from the boss.

As a new firefighter, I had the opportunity to see this firsthand. Personnel at our station were sitting at the lunch table discussing the perceived mishandling of a personnel issue—a chief officer had embarrassed a company officer during an incident. Sitting around the table were three or four firefighters and a couple of officers. Who should stop by the station but the very officer whom we had been discussing! Instinctively, this officer had sensed that the troops were not pleased with his handling of the situation. After discussing his handling of the situation, the chief officer asked each person sitting at the table if he had a problem with his actions. One by one, each person answered that he did not have a problem with his actions. I was stunned. Weren’t these the same people who just moments before had been openly criticizing his actions? When the question was raised to me, I answered honestly. It opened the door for an honest discussion as one by one, each of the people sitting at the table reversed their earlier position and clearly communicated their feeling about the situation. Honesty is the best policy.

If a flaw has been identified in a solution or an idea, be sure to point that out at the earliest possible opportunity. Anyone can spot the flaw after an idea has been implemented. It is best to revise the solution or idea so that it is correct from its inception.

Obviously, pointing out a flaw in the boss’s idea may be hazardous to your career. Letting the boss implement an idea that you know is flawed can be equally challenging to your career. The art is in how the message is passed on to the boss. This should be done as early in the process as possible, and never in front of the troops. An honest, straightforward approach is usually the best; however, as stated in principle #1, you must identify how the supervisor would most like to be treated in the situation when his idea is being challenged. This will vary widely from boss to boss.

Likewise, do not allow subordinates to initiate an idea or solution in which you see a flaw. Try to help subordinates and supervisors to succeed.

5. Take responsibility for your actions. We all make mistakes. One sure way to lose the respect of those to whom you report and those who report to you is to blame someone else for your mistakes. One of the best traits of a leader is that when the outcome is favorable, the leader gives the credit to the troops. When the outcome is bad, the leader stands up and takes the heat. Teamwork is key, and this is best accomplished when the leader takes responsibility for his and the team’s actions.

If a mistake is made, acknowledge it, and find a way to keep the mistake from reoccurring. Learn from your mistakes; better yet, learn from other people’s mistakes. You won’t possibly have the time to make all the mistakes yourself!

As the leader, make the decisions that your organization has empowered you to make. Those to whom you report will appreciate the fact that you take the bull by the horns and make difficult decisions. Do not pass a decision up the chain of command just because it is a difficult one. If a decision is yours to make, feel free to gather opinions from other officers, then act. The only word of caution is to be sure that a decision is yours to make. If the parameters of your responsibilities are not clear to you, check with your supervisor before making a decision that you may not be authorized to make.

6. Don’t procrastinate. One of the most talented officers I have had the opportunity to work with failed to adhere to some of each of the principles that have been discussed. Technically, he had all the knowledge he needed to be successful in his position. None of his flaws were as fatal or as powerful as his inability to deliver what he promised. To get this officer to deliver assignments, he would have to be given an absolute deadline. It did not matter if the deadline was two weeks or six weeks, he would only deliver on the day of the deadline. He would always wait until the last minute to get the job done.

The problem was when he realized that his actions could be controlled by those to whom he reported but those who reported to him had little power to change his behavior. If he did not deliver to those above him, disciplinary action would follow. When he did not deliver as promised to those below him, disappointment occurred. He would tell a firefighter he was going to do this or that and never followed through. His reputation was legendary within the department, and most members quickly lost confidence in anything he promised. This issue was discussed on several occasions. He was offered classes on time management and, specifically, procrastination. However, he never decided to address that problem. He could have easily been successful had he addressed his procrastination.

Don’t procrastinate. Do what you say you are going to do, when you say it. Do it now, and do not put off unpleasant tasks. Don’t make promises that you cannot keep.

NOT ROCKET SCIENCE

Making the experience of being a fire officer more rewarding is not difficult. It requires the fire officer to evaluate other points of view as they relate to the officer’s actions. These six principles will greatly enhance the officer’s ability to see other’s points of view. By adhering to the principles, the fire officer can improve his performance. This will result in a more rewarding experience for those who supervise the fire officer; for those who report to the fire officer; and, ultimately, for the fire officer himself.

Jerry Holt has been chief of the Urbandale (IA) Fire Department for the past five years. He previously was the training officer for the Eufaula (AL) Fire Department. He has been involved in EMS for 23 years and the fire service for 20 years. Holt is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds numerous fire service certifications. He is an active instructor in Iowa and teaches in the fire science program at the Des Moines (IA) Area Community College. He is a nationally registered paramedic and has a bachelor of science degree in EMS.

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