What It Means to Be the Chief

Visionary leadership isn't enough to chart a course; you must have the right tools and environment to achieve the desired outcome, says Jim Silvernail.

So, you want to become the chief? What are the chief’s true responsibilities beside wearing five crossed bugles, shaking hands, and kissing babies? Most importantly, are you taking the job for the right reasons? To begin, you must first understand what this “top” job really entails. The job of the chief is to steer the ship and set course direction. To accomplish this task, the chief must be able to envision the ideal destination and have the means to get there. Visionary leadership is not merely enough to chart the course; you must have the right tools and environment to succeed on your path toward the desired outcome.

What kind of person becomes a chief? Was it destiny, or was it through the process of elimination? People who take on the top job do it for a variety of reasons. Some are looking for notoriety, fame, and fortune (only to find out they really don’t want the notoriety, the fame is negative, and the fortune is nonexistent). Others began the first day on the job with the intent of, “Someday, I will be the chief.” Or, better yet, no one else would do it or I didn’t want “that person” to be my boss. Your intentions and motivations as the head of the organization will set the agenda for your tenure in the top role.

What Are Your Intentions?

Wrong intentions do not set the true course toward the ideal outcome and desired growth of an organization; in most cases, they set a course toward personal agendas and maintaining the status quo. Status quo does not promote organizational growth. In today’s climate of constant change and increased public demands, stagnation is the precursor to an unhealthy decline of the organization. A chief’s personal agenda will only promote “rogue pirates” who will either insert their own agendas, revolt with other means to set their own course for growth, or find ways to sabotage and be noncompliant.

You’re the New Chief; Now What?

The Commander’s Intent

Don’t Be THAT Guy! From a Chief Who Was

Chiefs must understand that their role, as with all leadership, is extremely selfless. It is not about you; it is about them. When I became a chief officer, I lost my first name not because I think that “I” am owed it but because I think the organization has earned the respect. The people who held the position and steered the course before me earned the respect. The decisions that I make are not for me but for the many I swore to lead. However, I am in a great role that has a huge impact on many lives. That is where the “I” has relevance in being a chief.

Public education is an important function of any fire department because it exists for the protection of its stakeholders, reaffirming our commitment and main mission.

(1) Public education is an important function of any fire department because it exists for the protection of its stakeholders, reaffirming our commitment and main mission. [Photo courtesy of the Kirkwood (MO) Fire Department.]

Right intentions are at the very core of true leadership and the foundation of visionary leadership. Without a great starting point, how do we find a great ending point? The chief’s intention or main motivation should be to progress and improve the organization for the stakeholders. I hate using the word “stakeholder” because it sounds so corporate. We aren’t in the business of making widgets, so let’s make the word “stakeholder” more tangible.

Who are the stakeholders in the fire service or in your organization? It isn’t as simple as identifying who currently reaps the benefits or your organizational delivery. Look at this term from a past, present, and future perspective.

  • The past.
    • Those who came before us, dedicating their lives to service and careers in the fire service. As chiefs and industry leaders, it is up to us to maintain their honor and the integrity of our organizations. If we allow our organizations to falter or become stagnant, we disgrace what they stood for and their meaning.
  • The present.
    • The people we have sworn to protect—our citizens and community. This could be a family who goes to bed at night feeling a sense of safety because you are there, a mom who meets you in the front yard with her house on fire at 3 a.m. screaming that her child is still on the second floor, or the 60-year-old wife who is begging you to save her husband of 35 years because he is having a heart attack.
    • The policy makers and officials—the people who set expectations and to whom we report.
    • Our people—the fire service personnel. This should be, without question, the chief’s greatest priority. You must create a culture that promotes safety and positive morale. You must also provide the tools and environment to ensure they go home safe every day. They must not only go home but go home free of any exposures that may cause long-lasting issues into the future for both their mental and physical welfare. Lastly, you must create a culture and work environment that encourage a complete “buy in.” Leaders don’t make their employees work; they find ways to make employees want to work and better the organization.
    • The fire service industry. Our actions within our organizations can have an impact that extends past our communities. Each of us represents the fire service and is responsible to uphold the strong integrity that we have sworn to uphold.
  • The future.
    • As chiefs, it is our duty to leave the organization better than how we found it. We must provide all future stakeholders with an opportunity to have a healthy organization that can meet the demands of all those who come after us. We weren’t the first, nor will we be the last who stepped through the door. It would be highly irresponsible and arrogant to think that the organization will cease to exist after we leave.
Visionary Leadership

Chiefs must be visionaries who understand the future they desire for their organizations. Visionary leadership starts from a beginning point, forecasts the road ahead (including hurdles and opportunities), and steers toward the ideal organizational outcome. Gimmicks and shortcuts don’t work. Many individuals will tell you that they are visionary leaders, especially during their assessment processes. But what does that truly mean? Do they “walk the walk” or “talk a mean game”? A true visionary leader will build a road map and communicate it effectively to the people who implement the essential components. They will also communicate it effectively to every stakeholder in the organization. For the visionary leader, the road map is the organization’s carefully developed strategic plan.

Retirement ceremonies represent the tradition of the fire department and honor members who have dedicated their life to its calling. We shall never let their reputations be tarnished.

(2) Retirement ceremonies represent the tradition of the fire department and honor members who have dedicated their life to its calling. We shall never let their reputations be tarnished. [Photo courtesy of the Kirkwood (MO) Fire Department.]

The pinning ceremony represents the chief’s pledge to keep his firefighters safe during their tenure and is the most solemn duty a chief can fulfill.

(3) The pinning ceremony represents the chief’s pledge to keep his firefighters safe during their tenure and is the most solemn duty a chief can fulfill. (Photo by author.)

Strategic Planning

As stated earlier, road maps begin with a starting point. Before you can get to where you are going, you need to understand where you are. Critical items that you must know include your mission, vision, and core values. Once you fully understand your mission—or the why—you can use your identified core values to help develop the vision. The vision should be the outcome that the organization desires. To get from the mission to the vision, you must navigate the course through identified objectives that you develop through the strategic planning process.

Strategic planning is not an exact science, but you must do it realistically with researched data and intel. In the business world, this information is conducted through a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. So, ask yourself the following questions as they relate to the internal and external conditions of your organization.

Internal Conditions

  • Strengths: What are the current strengths of the organization that will assist in identifying strategies?
  • Weaknesses: What are current weaknesses that you must avoid, overcome, or improve for strategic achievement?

External Conditions

  • Opportunities: What are current opportunities within your environment that can be used for strategic achievement?
  • Threats: What are current threats within your environment that must be avoided or answered for strategic achievement?

Once you have conducted a realistic and thorough SWOT analysis of your organization, you can develop strategies to achieve desired objectives. This is typically achieved by strategically changing or enhancing identified opportunities and threats by using the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.

The Tools of the Visionary Leader

Not all leaders are suited for visionary leadership. In addition, many organizations are not ready for visionary leadership. Many attempt to lead through gimmicks and simple management. Gimmicks and fancy sayings may work in the short term, but they are not strategic. Chiefs must not only have the ability to lead through a vision but also the means to adequately implement strategic objectives.

Strategic plans, if not carefully executed, can fail on implementation. Communication and organizational buy-in are critical. Often, you can attribute failure of plan implementation to bad communication or a bad communication medium. Visionary leaders must have the right organizational structure in place that complements their leadership style. A structure that allows for clear objectives to be delivered to the divisions and flow without being misconstrued is ideal. When a chief is handicapped by lack of divisional support or is “in the weeds” as a micromanager, he often finds himself at the technical level and not able to accurately gauge progress. The chief will then find himself altering the objectives to fit the tactics.

As previously mentioned, communication is essential. However, the right people must be in place to hear the message. If personnel at critical levels do not embrace the “big plan” or have faith in the path to the vision, they will not be onboard and not follow through. Chiefs who are attempting to enforce a vision without personnel having faith or comfort in the leadership approach may have a more challenging road and have to implement motivational techniques and even institute discipline.

One critical aspect that a chief must remember is that his organization is only as good as its main resource: the human resource. Nothing can get accomplished without the productivity of the workforce. Without strong morale within the ranks, a chief’s direction will take a wrong turn, and the organization will not achieve the desired direction. It is essential that the chief maintains a healthy relationship with labor, the local International Association of Fire Fighters shop. Maintaining the agency’s morale should be one of the top job duties within the chief’s job description.

Finally, visionary leaders must have the ability to be efficient and understand how to fiscally support their objectives and projects. A good chief understands how to get the most out his budget. We often budget in less-than-desirable economic environments, requiring us to be creative. This can require a different budgeting technique, differing from the traditional line-item type budget. Performance-based budgeting can attempt to be more efficient by prioritizing funds toward items or actions that make large impacts toward the achieved objectives.

Following are what you can consider to be tools for visionary leaders:

  • A realistic and thoroughly developed strategic plan.
    • Mission.
    • Vision.
    • Core values.
    • Strategic objectives.
    • Tactical interventions.
  • Communication.
  • The right organizational structure.
  • Personnel/organizational buy-in.
    • Motivation.
    • Discipline.
    • Charismatic leadership.
  • A positive organizational culture.
    • Morale.
    • A healthy labor-management relationship.
  • Efficient budgeting.
Chiefs Make Decisions

The worst things that a chief can do to lose credibility, kill morale, and demonstrate ineffectiveness is to not make timely, critical decisions. Your decisions will not always be 100 percent correct, and they definitely will not be 100 percent popular. Leadership isn’t always comfortable. However, if a chief doesn’t waiver and commits to an informed decision, he will maintain or gain more respect than trying to appease the masses with an opposite decision.

Chiefs attempt to make consistent and fair decisions. Often, these decisions are based on established protocols and guidelines, rules and procedures, or organizational norms. However, consistency isn’t always achievable or realistic. There are situations that will fall outside of the “norm” and require your discretion or common sense. I have been often asked, “Aren’t you afraid that you are setting a precedent?” My response is no; if this situation were to happen again and I don’t feel that it is under the same circumstances or I was previously wrong, I shut it down. You are the chief—you can say “no” as long as it is for the best interest of the organization and you didn’t create unfair or disparate conditions. You are allowed discretion. If you weren’t allowed to make discretionary decisions, a robot or computer could take your place.

Adaptive vs. Technical Leadership

As the person who is responsible for leading the direction of the organization, the chief must be at the “3,000-foot view.” The chief must be able to see the whole battlefield and make the overriding decisions that affect the hearts and minds of all stakeholders. Hearts and minds are what accept the mission, see the vision, and navigate the road to victory. Adaptive change is the goal for any leader who is guiding the direction of an organization.

It is preferable for organizations to have a command structure that allows for technical decisions and actions to be made at lower leadership levels. However, not all organizations are afforded this luxury. Many smaller fire agencies cannot account for these middle leadership levels, mandating that the chief will perform technical level roles. The key is to not lose focus of the big picture and have a holistic view of the organization. Have faith in your leadership, and let your leaders lead! Micromanaging doesn’t fit well with visionary leadership and is more technical than adaptive.

Allow me to make a quick disclaimer: There is absolutely nothing wrong with a chief getting dirty. Once in a while, throw on your gear and go down into the trenches. It is great to show your people that you, too, are deep down a firefighter and not above rolling up your sleeves. It shows that you are still in touch with service delivery and are human. The distinction is that you aren’t consistently doing the job of those who have been appointed to make the technical decisions.

“I Protect Them”: A Chief’s Main Motivation

I believe in the fire service. I believe what we are doing has necessity and extreme meaning. I believe that our predecessors were phenomenal visionaries who saw the expanding need of emergency services and adapted to fulfill those needs. I also believe that the fire service, however it may appear, will be around as long as there are people who inhabit this planet with needs that we can fulfill.

The common love for the job will help us set the course for strategic planning and meet the needs of our citizens, not only maintaining relevance for our industry but also continuing the tremendous honor of those who came before us in this endeavor. As a leader, this is my motivation. I have faith that this is the motivation of many who pin on the same collar insignia as I do. Do what is right and protect those you have sworn to protect. Also, protect your people because they protect those who are our most critical priority in the fire service: our community.

I think it is only appropriate to end this article with the following account. The hardest job that I have is on pinning day. I make one of the greatest promises that a person can make: I guarantee the safety of a loved one to a spouse, parents, and even children. “I will keep your loved one safe” or “I will make sure your parent comes home.” That may keep me up at night, but that is what being a chief is all about.


JIM SILVERNAIL is a 25-year fire service veteran and chief of the Kirkwood (MO) Fire Department. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program and is internationally accredited as a Chief Fire Officer (CPSE). Silvernail is the author of Suburban Fire Tactics (Fire Engineering, 2013) and the co-author of the video Suburban Fire Tactics from the Right Seat (Fire Engineering, 2016). He was a lead instructor at the St. Louis County Fire Academy, specializing in truck company operations. Silvernail has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering, has been a workshop instructor at FDIC International since 2011, and presents at various regional events. He served on the board of the ISFSI and as a member of FEMA US&R MO-TF 1 as a planning team manager.

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