The New Officer: Your Leadership Journey Begins

Portsmouth (VA) firefighters respond to a large fire affecting two residential structures in July 2021

You have just been called to the chief’s office after a career of preparation and months of a grueling promotional process. You put in the time to study for the test and passed with flying colors! You have prepared your training file, composed an exemplary professional history portfolio, sat through your oral interview, proven yourself to the panel of internal and external interviewers, and breezed through your scenario-based assessments and it has all paid off in a major way! You are about to make the most challenging and rewarding transition of your career. Congratulations, you are finally a company officer! Now what?

To some new company officers in the fire service, having a title or new shiny badge automatically makes them leaders. They may be quick to point out that they have more “trumpets” on their collar or lead by the “because I said so” mentality. Is it really that simple? Is this the best way to lead?

For some, being a new company officer could be the most challenging time in their career, but there is hope. Accepting that you still have a lot to learn and understanding that you will make mistakes are mandatory. As a leader, you will not make the right decision every time and that is okay. A major part of your leadership journey is learning from your mistakes and not making them twice.

Two years ago, I was investigated for misconduct as the officer in charge. I was brought up on formal allegations because of my absence of leadership responsibility and went through a grueling investigation that lasted more than a year. Ultimately, it was determined that I had violated the organization’s conduct policy.



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Officer Development: Filling the New Officer’s Toolbox

This experience as a new officer was very eye-opening and career altering. I was brought up in a department where everyone was mostly friendly all the time and officers handled discipline in house, most of the time without the knowledge of anyone else. Formal discipline was almost unheard of. Those days are long gone.

Learn from Failure

As I reflected on the situation that I had just gone through, I asked myself, “How did I get here?” and “Where did I go wrong?” These are difficult questions to answer, because they require you to realize and admit to yourself that you failed.

Admitting failure is challenging, but it is the first step in changing. I thought long and hard about what I did wrong and this experience, although a mental and emotional challenge, was hands down the most defining moment of my career. You take the lessons you learned and become better. If you have been through a situation like this, you can understand that your recovery is what defines you. You cannot let failures define your career.

There is no doubt that my own personal decisions led to this unfortunate, yet important, experience but to add to that is the fact that I received very little to no professional development or leadership classes from my department. If your experiences are anything like mine, you have received overnight a tremendous amount of authority, responsibility, and influence over a new crew without so much as a hint of training specific to leadership other than those required classes to get promoted. Sure, your career experiences and training have prepared you for the operational role of a company officer, but for many officers in the nation, this is only a very small portion of what you will face every day.

Your leadership within the firehouse will make or break you. Responding to calls is the easy part; leading and managing your personnel day to day in the fire station are the true challenges.

Leadership is a lifelong journey; you never perfect your leadership traits or style. You will be forced to learn different ways of leading based on your experiences, your superiors’ expectations, your crew, and the type of people you are charged with leading. My leadership journey has brought me down some great roads and some bad ones too. I continue to have some struggles, but trust me, it does get easier as you continue. Here are some lessons I have learned over the years that would be beneficial for new officers.

Respect Is Earned

Your title or your rank does not magically make you a leader or automatically give you the respect of your crew. I have found that your actions or inactions speak louder than your badge does. You will not get anywhere by throwing your rank in the face of your subordinates. Of course, there are times when it is simply required for your subordinates to do what they were told to do but, as a standard practice, I have found that this does not work well anywhere but on the fireground.

You should do your absolute best to lead by positive and productive actions. You must set expectations early and consistently hold your personnel accountable for their actions whether through counseling, mentoring, or the dreaded formal discipline. The absence of these behaviors in a leader will likely lead to personnel actions that require immediate correction or formal discipline.

Do not forget that your personnel’s actions reflect on you, your crew, your company, your station, your department, and your locality. Remember, you may be held accountable for the actions of your personnel!

You’re the Boss

By far, your biggest challenge as a new officer is to remember that you are not there to make friends. Of course, it is acceptable to be friends with your crew; after all, the fire service is built on the history and tradition of “brotherhood.” But, regardless of your relationship with your crew, you are their boss. You will face making tough decisions and possibly disciplining your crew; you cannot let friendships get in the way of that. You may not consider some individuals on your crew as friends, but you must treat them consistently across the board. Hold everyone to the same standard. Remember, if your crew truly considers you a friend, they should have enough respect for you to not put you in situations that require you to be the boss. Luckily, I have been blessed with a crew in which I call everyone a friend; because of that, we have a mutual respect among us that keeps us all going down the right path.

Priorities Must Change

As a new officer, your priorities must change; you are no longer the center of your world. The personnel who are now assigned to you as subordinates are your number one priority. I have found that I spend more time handling issues (positive or negative) for my people than I do for myself. Your priority should be to teach your crew as much as you can. Training is the number one way to make sure that you are doing all you can to ensure your crew gets to go home at the end of their shift. Knowledge is power, and to have a strong crew you must be willing to share your knowledge with your crew.

My goal is for my crew to have all the knowledge they can possibly have, not withhold it for my own personal gain. Some leaders struggle with letting go of knowledge for fear of being shown up; as a leader, you cannot get caught up in this mindset. How do you expect your personnel to succeed and progress in their careers if you don’t teach them? The greatest thing you can give your personnel is the knowledge to advance. Push your crew members to better themselves by supporting them while they attend school or training. Show them that you are absolutely there as a resource and asset for them, not a brick wall.

Why Do We …?

Do not shut down your crew when you hear the all-too-often-asked question, “Why?” Most of the time, they are not asking you defiantly; they want to understand the thought process and reasoning behind decisions. There is a time and place for asking why, so that should be clearly stated, but do not run away from the question or become defensive when it is asked. You want to empower your crew to ask questions. They should not fear asking questions but be encouraged to do so.

Keep Learning

In addition to teaching your personnel, be a student yourself. There is absolutely no excuse to stop learning when you get promoted. Continue to attend classes and training events. Learn from your crew. I have found that personnel have a lot to offer no matter how long they have been in the service. For example, the senior member assigned to me on our truck company has six years in the department but has been a contractor for 21 years. Who better to have with you on your crew than a building expert? In addition to that, I have a firefighter with three years in the department, but he is a captain in his volunteer department. He brings his own experiences as an officer to our team and is an asset even though he is still a “rookie.”

Discover Hidden Talents

Discover what your crew has to offer to the team and use them to their fullest extent. It creates trust and underlines that they an important part of the team. Someone once told me, “Without your crew, an officer is nothing; without an officer, your crew is nothing.” That could not be any more accurate. Be a student of the fire service and a student of your crew and never stop learning. As a fire officer, you should be in a constant state of learning and adjusting your style based on your experiences.

Another key change as a new company officer is having to enforce policies and procedures that you may not agree with. As a firefighter, I found myself not paying close attention to a lot of what I considered to be not-so-important policies. I can tell you from experience that you will absolutely be held to the policy, regardless of how important or unimportant you think it is. The front-line supervisor is the first line of policy enforcement. Regardless of whether you agree with the policies, you must enforce them and hold your personnel to them. This is often difficult to do, especially as a new officer because just a short time ago, you yourself were not following the policies as a firefighter.

As you progress in your leadership journey as a fire officer, you can easily forget where you came from. You will hear, “You’ve changed!” and that is okay. As an officer, you must change, but that does not mean that you forget what it was like when you were riding the back step as a firefighter. Remember the expectations you had of your company officers on the way up; don’t be afraid to ask your crew their expectations of you. It is such a humbling experience when you allow your crew to freely express to you their expectations. It shows that you too are willing to change to meet them. Knowing what your crew expects from you is just as important as their knowing what you expect from them. You should respect your crew enough to let them know when they are not meeting your expectations, and you should expect your crew to let you know when you are not meeting theirs. They should not fear punishment or reprisal from you. Maintain the line of communication between you and your crew; this way, nothing will come as a surprise to you.

These are just a few lessons I have learned along the way. You can succeed in your leadership journey; I hope these lessons help you or at least get you thinking about your own journey and how you can improve. Put your people first, spread your knowledge, never stop learning, establish and uphold expectations, empower your people, and never forget where you came from.

Ryan Gray, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant with the Portsmouth (VA) Fire Rescue & Emergency Services and a deputy chief with the Smithfield (VA) Volunteer Fire Department. He has an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from Columbia Southern University, and a master’s degree in organizational leadership with a concentration in fire/rescue executive leadership from Waldorf University.

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