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16 rules for a new company officer

What matters most is that we continue to work on ourselves every day – these rules can help us stay on track

In the second verse of his song, “Deeper than the Holler,” Randy Travis sings, “There’s at least a million love songs that people love to sing, and every one is different, and every one’s the same, and this is just another way of saying the same thing.”

That’s what we’re doing today, sharing 16 rules for the company officer. You’ve probably heard each of these nuggets at some point in your career, maybe explained in a different way, but they are all tried-and-true rules that stand the test of time.

Ultimately, leadership boils down to observation, relationship building, setting expectations, accountability, mentoring and self-improvement. We’ve all had our successes and our failures. What matters is that we continue to work on ourselves every day. These rules can help us stay on track as company officers.

Complete the form on this page to download a copy of the rules to keep at your desk and share with colleagues.

Rule 1: Lose at cards

In the 1994 movie “Maverick,” there’s a scene in which the lead character, Bret Maverick, played by Mel Gibson, asks to enter a game of poker. To entice the players at the table to invite him in, he states, “I promise that I will lose, for at least an hour.” And he does. But why would he offer to lose at high-stakes poker, and how is that applicable to you as a company officer?

There are two benefits to losing at cards. First, you’re playing cards. You’re spending time with your crew in a relaxed setting that allows everyone the chance to take a breath and open up. Second, by losing, you take the focus off yourself and put it where it belongs, on your people. That’s what Bret did. Because he wasn’t trying to win each hand, Bret was free to observe the other players, in this case strategically picking up each player’s “tells.” The motive is different for a company officer, of course, but you’re still shifting focus to your members to better understand them – their strengths, weaknesses, interests and attitudes.

Rule 2: Break bread

Anytime my family members or friends host an event, it is clear where people will congregate – wherever the food is located. Countless studies support the simple fact that meals provide an opportunity to come together, strengthen ties and build better relationships. This not only applies to your family at home but also to your fire station family.

Mealtime allows members to share their stories. As the company officer, find ways to engage with these stories and model your department’s values in your own stories and responses.

Rule 3: Put away your own dishes

As a company officer, you are not royalty. Your badge does not buy you respect. Integrity does that. You have expectations of your firefighters. Cleaning up after yourself is a simple way to show them that you hold yourself to the same standard.

Another way to put this is, “Never ask of someone what you would not ask of yourself.” Granted, there are times when the duties of the company officer require that you leave your mess for others. Your firefighters understand that. They understand when you have to start on the run report for the second-alarm fire you just cleared rather than help reload the hose. But, they only understand this if you have put in the time and built some leadership capital.

Rule 4: Buy ice cream

As firefighters, we pride ourselves on humility. We say things like, “I’m not a hero” or “I was only doing my job,” when presented with a commendation or even a simple thank you from the community. Firefighters are humble, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be recognized for doing good things. Show your appreciation, your gratitude, for a job well done. This could take a shape of buying your members ice cream or something similar they would enjoy.

Rule 5: Share what you do and don’t know

We’ve all heard the phrase “knowledge is power,” but let’s not misinterpret this to mean that we must hoard knowledge or bring it out only when necessary to curry favor. Further, we must view power in the context of reputation and influence, not rank or authority. In order to achieve good reputation and influence, we must first be trusted. And trust is gained by acting in the best interest of others, along with yourself. A rising tide raises all ships, after all.

If information is shared freely, it can build the reputation and influence of the individual. Freely sharing information with those around us can, and does, lead to better performance in all aspects of the job. The NIST/UL studies on fire behavior is a great example of knowledge shared freely for the benefit of all.

Finally, remember that it is not feasible for one person to know everything. Share what you don’t know with your crew and allow someone else to step up to fill the void.

Rule 6: Turn discomfort into opportunity

Nothing meaningful happens when we are comfortable. If you want to run a marathon, you don’t train by sitting on the couch watching TV. No, you lace up your sneakers and pound the pavement for months. It can be downright painful, but aren’t you happy when you accomplish your goal?

Let’s consider a company officer example. Perhaps your department avoids vertical ventilation because of the increased risk to firefighters, even though there are times when it could have improved fire conditions. Rather than continue to use the same tactics, you find a class on vertical ventilation. You talk with the instructors about how to safely train on this skill. You bring the lessons to the training division and offer to be the lead. Sounds like a lot of work, right? Yes, but, if done properly, it could help reduce risk to firefighters and, more importantly, improve the survivability profile of trapped victims.

Rule 7: Give credit and take blame

This builds on the principles of extreme ownership laid out by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their books, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win and The Dichotomy of Leadership.” The key is to recognize that no one exists in a vacuum. That means the successes in your lifetime are the result of not only your efforts, but of the support of those around you and many more. Give them the credit they are due.

Likewise, if you experience failure, you most likely had a hand in it. Accept your fault and offer a solution to fix your part. Others will follow your lead.

Rule 8: Praise in public, punish in private

Give credit when it is earned. Do that publicly. Let others know. Share the good news. This will show appreciation for a job well done and encourage others to do the same.

On the flip side, there are times when you will need to make course corrections. It can sometimes be cathartic to have an emotional outburst, but this can damage your leadership capital. Instead, take the individual who needs the “correction” to the side and have a measured conversation that provides possible avenues for improvement. This approach shows respect for your subordinate and can build your leadership capital.

Rule 9: Learn to lead up and down the chain of command

You are a middle manager. You must be able to lead up and down the chain of command. Remember, power is rooted in reputation and influence. By knowing the job of those above you, you can find opportunities to make their job easier. That means completing your daily, monthly and annual objectives in a timely manner without being prompted, writing thorough run narratives and fully completing other reports necessary to the department, and responding to and managing emergency responses in a professional manner, among so many other duties and tasks. If your boss doesn’t have to worry about you, then you will be empowered to manage your crew as you see fit and probably get good assignments, too.

That’s leading up the chain, but what about down the chain? Your firefighters should have the same goal of supporting their boss (you) as you do of yours. If you know the jobs of those below you, you can better ensure they know their own jobs inside and out. Then they can support you by doing their job without constantly checking in, which frees you up to do your job, continuing the support up the chain.

Rule 10: Be a Tetris master

The goal of the tile-matching game Tetris is to organize oddly shaped pieces to make solid rows of blocks, which then are deleted. If the pile grows so high that it reaches the top of the field, the game is over. Successful company officers are essentially playing a game of Tetris. Each piece is a particular skill that one of your firefighters possesses. By properly setting the pieces, you will build a more capable crew.

Rule 11: Tell them bedtime stories

The fire service has a long-standing tradition of building itself upon those that have come before us. Through lessons learned, we hone our strategies and tactics. By sharing those lessons, it becomes easier for each crew to successfully serve their community. The best way we know to share lessons learned is through our stories. Share your stories and the stories of those that came before you. Be a foundation that your firefighters can build from.

Rule 12: Set clear expectations for your crew

“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.” This line comes from a pre-battle speech given by General George S. Patton to the troops of the Third Army in 1944. Patton sets very clear expectations for the Third Army. The fire service has mission, vision and value statements, standards of cover, and several other documents that set expectations for all members of the department. As a company officer, you should also set expectations for you and your crew. We are not likely to hit a target if we don’t know what we are aiming at. Give your firefighters a target and ask them to define a target for you. After all, shouldn’t they have expectations of you as their leader, too?

Rule 13: Show empathy

Many departments list empathy as one of their values. Overall, I believe we do a good job of being empathetic to our customers. However, it seems we are less forgiving when it comes to our brothers and sisters in the service.

For example, when I am having a bad day and/or performing below the standard, I expect others to understand. But when the roles are reversed, I sometimes find myself thinking, “His attitude sucks today” or some other derogatory thought to explain away bad behavior. What I need to remind myself of is that others can have bad days, too.

So, when a firefighter doesn’t want to train or cuts a corner on a task, try not to jump to the conclusion that they are lazy or do not value the task. Instead, consider that they might be grappling with some other issue. Take the time to understand what is happening in that firefighter’s life.

Rule 14: Develop a “safety third” mindset

I like to argue that we need to be risk aware, not risk averse. When we are aware of risks, we tend to find ways to mitigate or minimize those risks. This can make us safer by default while still working to accomplish the goal. When we are risk averse, no action can be taken. Aversion is more likely to completely reduce risk, but it does not contribute to meeting other goals and is not a realistic way to navigate life. Risk aversion is certainly not feasible in the fire service.

With this in mind, Mike Rowe suggests the concept of “Safety Third.” In short, when we overhype the “safety first” mindset, we can become complacent. We have to take ownership of our own safety and not assume others are doing it for us.

Rule 15: Make being good your daily goal

We all want to be the G.O.A.T of something, but I would offer an alternative for our goal-setting: Work to be good at what you do every day, not great, just good. If we aim for greatness, we have a long way to fall when we miss the target. And we will miss from time to time. If we miss the mark at being good, there is less ground to make up when we fall. It will be easier to return to the path when we slip. And remember, a SMART goal is one that is achievable.

We also see those who exemplify greatness around us, plus those who are coming up behind us as competition. If we are competing, then it is much more difficult to recognize what we don’t know, learn and share knowledge. By aiming for good, we shift from adversaries to partners. We see what the great ones before us have done and work to replicate and improve. We also see that those great ones never did it alone and realize, neither can we. That opens the door to sharing knowledge with those coming after. If the goal is to be good, then there is no fear of ever being bested. We will all be better in the end, and that is true greatness.

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Rule 16: Keep a fool’s mindset

In Tarot, reading the Fool represents new beginnings, having faith in the future, being inexperienced, not knowing what to expect, having beginner’s luck, improvisation and believing in the universe. I use the fool’s mindset to remind myself that I am not without fault, and to stay grounded and humble. The fool’s mindset also tells me that nothing lasts forever, but the future holds new opportunities. It reminds me that I am not an expert at most things and when I am successful, it isn’t just me; mostly, it is the support of those around me, but sometimes it is just blind luck. And sometimes, it is OK to let the cards fall as they may, to change what you can control and accept what you cannot.

Really, the serenity prayer sums it up nicely: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Work at the rules every day

These 16 rules for the company officer may sound simple but they take work to apply on a regular basis. Few can say they have truly perfected the rules, but we work to be better, every day. I will continue to work on it, and I hope you will, too.

Complete the form on this page to download a copy of the rules.

This article, originally published on September 24, 2021, has been updated.

Ben Willey entered the fire service in 2003 and has served as both a volunteer and career firefighter. He currently serves as a captain of training for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Willey is a co-founder of the Firefighter 3 Project, a mentorship initiative that aims to help the next generation of firefighters learn the firefighter life skills needed to be successful in the fire service.