BY JAMIE M. MITCHELL
Pump panel leader (PPL) relates to the position of the new company lieutenant or junior officer and even the senior firefighter. The PPL directly interfaces with the troops. The focus of this position is not as broad as that of captain or chief.
In today’s fire service, there is a large, individual focus on strategy and tactics, the management of a fireground without much integration of the personnel side of leadership. We have become too much a “certificate service.” The goal is to bring this type of education back to the level of the junior officers and senior firefighters. I want to be able to deliver the tools PPLs need to resolve the issues they face.
PPLs often must overcome personnel issues as they relate to execution of the mission-in short, the “establishment” of their position. Through intrapersonal problems such as jealousy over promotions (bypassing “deserving” personnel on the seniority list) or their own confidence, PPLs have pressure from above to make an immediate impact. Often, this relates to worrying more about how we are doing individually and what the chief thinks vs. directing our focus to positively impacting our people. The fact is that the latter will truly take care of the former.
Although this information is not new, it is necessary to review it because the initial advancement often occurs with little preparation for the responsibility.
Leadership is a topic that runs through every firefighter’s mind. It is discussed at all levels and is incorporated in all training. It is absorbed into all we do and has direct and, many times, dramatic impact on firefighter recruitment and retention. Above all else, the quality of leadership affects our readiness and has direct implications for our mission capabilities. Many principles of leadership are held true by our service and across the spectrum. Some more important principles have stood the test of time, tradition, and heritage. Those principles are discussed below.
Vision has taken a beating. It has been driven down our throats and pulled out of our ears. The principle resides in textbooks and online and has become too easy a term to toss around without truly understanding its purpose or meaning. The basic idea of vision is sound. It remains the compass for understanding effective leadership. As PPLs, we need to know in which direction the department is going and what it will look like in the future. We must develop realistic, explicit goals measurable by those we lead and those we follow. In the scope of leadership, the vision must be communicated early and often, and it should be talked about more than leadership. Once the vision is realized, it will be much easier to foster buy-in.
Buy-in can be defined as consensus; the vision has been delivered, it is understood, and is it is believed to be attainable. It doesn’t just happen with the delivery, though. We need to take the time to know our people personally so our delivery meets them on their level. Also, as PPLs, we need to be a direct part of the mission to attain the vision. “Side by side” illustrates the mutual movement toward attaining a goal. It shows we will be there for the wins and the losses. This premise to buy in provides a unifying theme at the pump panel. We need to take the opportunity to solicit and foster expression, get a view of the vision from a variety of perspectives, and be able to describe it in terms our people can understand and believe we understand their points of view. Once this mutual understanding is attained, delivering the vision early and often from all levels helps gain acceptance at the pump panel. It makes it possible for the vision to gain permanence and positively affects the behaviors in the absence of leadership. At this point, patience and mentoring and being the leader will carry our people through to the change “buying in” on our vision creates.
Change happens. Whether it’s standard operating policies or standard operating guidelines, regulations, or even personal attitudes, change happens. The economy, the political and sociological environments, personal need, and technology along with a myriad of other factors drive change on all levels, especially at the pump panel. As PPLs, we need to react proactively to a changed environment. We need to be the example of embracing change. We need to demonstrate the importance of understanding those values and traditions in our firefighting culture that have lasted through the years because without them, “we” would not be who “we” are. At the same time, we need to reinforce the importance of change in benefiting our culture. This will develop and display a symbiotic relationship between tour time-honored history and the future of our profession while tying both to our departments’ core values, our established goals, and the attainment of our vision.
At the panel, a lot is happening. We have to reassure our people that attaining goals does not happen overnight. As PPLs, we must be satisfied with little measurable steps toward the realization of our vision and the goals. The small successes need to be rewarded. We must also be prepared to own the failures and determine the reasons for them. We must reassure our people that failure is only a setback and is present in any undertaking. The only way to get this message through at the pump panel is by training and feedback. Build allowances for failures into the process and feedback mechanisms to capture mistakes so they are not repeated. Demonstrate the opportunities failure provides and show how failure is simply a redirection back on the path of goal realization and vision attainment. We need to provide the direction and oversight that will allow problems to be solved at the panel.
Strong leadership inherently drives empowerment. As PPLs, we need to create opportunity for autopilot. We will not reach our collective goals without it. We will not be able to breed the leaders of tomorrow if we keep our thumb on our people at the panel. Creating solid policy, treating each individual fairly and as a key part of the whole, and actually forcing execution of the mission to the pump panel will build faith in responsibility, faith in leadership, and contagious delivery of your vision beyond the panel. Empowerment is the nutrition for young leaders. By offering good, clear guidance coupled with quality instruction and training, those at the panel will do what they do best. Fluid communication is the capstone.
Poor communication is embodied in every conflict. PPLs must actively communicate with those at the panel. Too often, at all levels, we fail to do this or do it so poorly that the panel disengages. Rumor, innuendo, and misinformation become the scene. Regardless of how hard we try, these barriers are difficult to overcome. The caustic effect on morale and readiness or the erosive effect on trust is difficult to avoid when poor communication radiates to the panel. The PPL must rely on, foster, and maintain fluid levels of communication. It affords us the opportunities to set expectations, reward successes, and correct mistakes through constructive feedback. Communication is a skill often overlooked in many leadership discussions and is often pointed at when it’s too late.
There is no secret formula for effective leadership. However, there are principles and practices that demonstrate qualifiable and quantifiable results. As PPLs, we must be able to build tomorrow’s leaders by giving them an image of success. Show them what tomorrow holds. Those at the panel will begin to believe and buy in to your image when they see you take a vested interest in who they are. They will follow you through change without hesitation if they know you’re there with them. They will become tomorrow’s leaders if they are given the ability to effect the change and the responsibility to make the decisions necessary to move forward. As PPLs, we will foster strong roots of trust if we can demonstrate an ability to communicate regardless of the level or nature. We must keep these principles and practices close and alive at every panel.
● JAMIE M. MITCHELL is a lieutenant in the Brunswick (ME) Fire Department. He has served in the fire service for 16 years, 10 as a career firefighter. He is a naval officer in the U.S. Navy Reserves. He has a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership.
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