2 ways fire chiefs are incompetent

Incompetence can be part of the learning curve, or it can betray a lack of ability that will crush a career and damage a department

All of 13 the career crushers are just about equally important; any one of them can bring much trouble and woe. However, there are a few that stand out. If fallen into, these deep leadership potholes make career longevity all but impossible.

Being incompetent may well be one of the toughest personal defects to overcome. Generally, incompetence gets noticed early, often and by just about everyone in the department.

There are two distinct categories of incompetence.

First, if the person has the skills, knowledge and abilities to learn and improve in their leadership role, the incompetence is temporary and generally short-lived. In those cases, personal improvement is rapid and hardly a stumbling block for the emerging leader.

The J-curve theory comes to mind when describing this situation. As the person or team learns and applies new skills or processes, the work output takes a dip below average for a short while. Just when it seems like that specific change was a bad idea, the output improves remarkably.

Generally, the time to learn one's job, or gain experience in the position, is the missing ingredient — not the leader's ability. Learning to be organizational effective in a more responsible role is a must when climbing the career ladder in a fire department.

The second type of incompetence is much more difficult to successfully resolve. When an individual is selected to a leadership position and lacks the requisite skills, knowledge and abilities, trouble is a-brew.

When this type of person is not able to handle the job, it is like watching a train crash from a distance. The collision is identified long before the point of impact without the ability to change the ultimate devastating outcome.

Case study one
The national list of examples of this horrible behavior is significantly long. The hope is that you will expend the effort to conduct some additional research into these case studies to learn what not to do. Remember, all leaders must be readers, so let this research assignment be a challenge to you.

The first case study is perhaps one of the best examples of fire service leadership incompetence.

The leadership triad (director, elected official and chief) of a fire department assigned in-service fire companies to various intersections in crime-ridden neighborhoods to deter the local thuggery from acting out.

The leadership team truly believed that a fire truck in a neighborhood with its motor running and emergency lights on would stop the bad guying in their tracks, solving years of criminal conduct in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

There were many holes in this misguided crime-prevention plan. First, there was no evidence of any kind that a fire truck with flashing lights would become a deterrent to crime.

Next, there was no written policy as to what the fire companies were to do while assigned to these soft posts. No policy meant that there was no crime-prevention training or protective equipment. There was also no communication and coordination with the police department regarding this poorly planned and highly questionable program.

Some readings suggest that the soft-posting assignments were used to punish and retaliate against outspoken members who were critical of the director and chief. As a reminder — never use the power of your position to retaliate against anyone in your organization for anything.

Case study two
The second bizarre case study is equally interesting and with horrible results. Further, it is just as demoralizing and destructive to the entire organization as the previous case.

After three or four ambulances fires, the public safety director accused the workforce of intentionally setting the ambulances on fire. The media questioned the executive and characterized the incidents as "organizational sabotage."

One newspaper story said the public safety director would call in an outside, independent fire investigative team to determine how the ambulances caught fire. It was this senior-ranking official's hope that no employees were involved in setting these fires, the article went on to point out.

The investigation revealed that the city's vehicle maintenance shop was under intense pressure to repair the air conditioning systems on many of the ambulances. It was a long, hot and humid summer and the weather was taking its toll on the undersized, under-maintained and overused fleet.

In the shop's haste to follow the director's orders, street sign materials were fashioned into "heat shields" in a feeble attempt to remove some of the engine heat from the air conditioning compressor area under the hood.

The rest, as they say, is history. Making such a radical design change under the hood caused the ambulances to burn.

Hard-learned lessons
In this case of quickly pointing the finger at the workforce, two fingers are pointing back — the external fire investigation team and the accused employees. When an organizational leader is not sure what is happening, he should stay quite, be patient and investigate the situation quickly but thoroughly.

Inaccurate speculation will demonstrate inexperience and incompetence and tipping one's hand that they do not have necessary abilities to perform the job — the essence of an incompetent leader.

There are so many case studies where incompetence is demonstrated for all to see. It is easy to recognize, and the root cause is generally close at hand. I would submit that in both of these case studies, leadership ability was lacking by all involved.

When political favor or popularity is the only qualifications that one brings to the table, organizational disaster is just around the corner. The best solution is to select, appoint or vote folks into leadership positions based on their skills, knowledge, abilities and experience.

If the organization fails to focus on what is important, high-quality leadership, organizational disaster will strike sooner rather than later. An early career crusher discussed never hiring idiots, thugs or military misfits; these two cases are living examples of the results of a poor leadership selection process.

As you can tell, the impacts and effects of the above actions were never considered in any form. True leadership will look at all of the direct and indirect impacts of the actions they take and the effects they have on the work of the agency. 

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