By Ron Kanterman
Think and Act Strategically
Part of thinking and acting strategically is consistency in how you handle your people when things go right or things go wrong. It’s most important when things go wrong. Inconsistent thinking can ruin a department, whether it’s allowing four different shifts to operate four different ways or it’s preferring charges against one of your volunteers when two of them committed the bad act. Consistency is critical to keeping the ship not only afloat but upright, on course, and moving forward at all times. Leadership makes the world move in a positive direction, so contribute.
Train the Troops
Develop Your Staff
Your immediate staff is the group of people (or in small department, the person) who will help deliver your message or, more importantly, your vision. This group of senior officers are the ones that you rely and depend on each and every day whether or not you’re in town. If you haven’t developed them to your level, you’re cheating them and yourself. Bosses that have “held back information because they can’t know what I know” need to get out of this business. You must delegate for development purposes and stand behind them in case they should trip and fall. Be there to catch them, stand them up, and guide them forward. There are many tools that you can use for staff development. Consider the following:
- Clear goals and objectives: Establish annual goals and objectives for the staff. Have them give you input on what they think is important to the department and to moving it forward.
- Constructive feedback: Set up a system of constructive feedback. Telling your staff or even your line firefighters they “screwed up” on an operation without specific information accomplishes nothing. Constructive feedback changes behavior and sets things in a positive direction.
- Reward performance: Start out with a thank you now and then or even handshake for a job well done. Reward groups of people (tour, shift, bureau) as well, not just individuals. Everyone at all levels wants to know they did a good job and to be acknowledged. A pizza, a meal, a cake, a bowl of fresh fruit on the firehouse table does wonders. Start a trend.
- Training and personal development: Encourage your staff to train at the highest levels whether they attend conferences, the National Fire Academy, or other meaningful training. It doesn’t have to be firematic all the time either. Maybe your deputy chiefs need a report writing class and an “English tune-up.” Send them.
- Be flexible: With as many folks as you can but especially your staff. People have problems and sometimes the leaders in an organization have to put on the old problem-solver hat too. Maybe someone needs steady days for awhile for child care or to take care of a sick family member. Do what you can to accommodate the staff within the guidelines of your rules and regulations.
Communications is perhaps the cornerstone of good leadership. You must connect with people to move the wheel forward. Communication has to be clear and concise in order to be effective. It’s almost like trying to give fireground command orders over the radio. Almost. You must be consistently open and effective in order for you to maintain your level of leadership. Part of this is the dignity and respect issue and, yes, treat people like you would like to be treated. Take the high road. Even when the team manager is kicking dirt on his shoes and screaming profanity, the umpire quietly takes his hand and points to the top of the stadium indicating “You’re out of here.” I’m not saying to throw them out, but to remain calm, evaluate the problem, and quietly and effectively deal with it. Screaming matches don’t work and you’ll bring yourself down to lower levels where you needn’t be. Show patience and courtesy even when the other person is not. Here’s where your leadership skills really kick in again.
“When I must criticize somebody, I do it orally; when I praise somebody I put it in writing.” Lee Iacocca. (Make sure you put something in a person’s file for a job well done that may help them achieve the next level sometime down the road.)
What Do You Want Them to Say About You?
What do you want them to say at your retirement party or your funeral? Most of us never really think about that. The standard one word or few word answers that I’ve heard are:
Remember that “followers are needed, leaders are necessary.” REK
Ron Kanterman is a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and is a career fire chief in southeast Connecticut. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and serves as chief of operations for the annual Memorial Weekend ceremonies each year in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He lectures on a variety of topics around the country.