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8 ways a company officer can exhibit exceptional leadership

“If you can stare down a hallway and look the devil in the face, surely you can walk into an office and talk to the chief”

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“The role of the officer is, in its most core definition, to be there for their members,” writes Pribyl.

Photo/FDNY

With rank comes privilege. That privilege is leading firefighters. It has absolutely nothing to do with you, yet everything to do with YOU. You have now become both somewhat irrelevant and the most sought-after person at the station and on the fireground.

A leader is everything to everyone. As the face of the company, you are required to be front and center for any situation that may arise. You will have an endless list of responsibilities, and you must remember, that is no one’s fault but your own. YOU asked for this. YOU wanted this. And it’s the greatest job in the world.

THIS is the time to demonstrate exceptional leadership. Here’s how to do it.

1. Build positive relationships

The role of the officer is, in its most core definition, to be there for their members. Above all else, the members are the reason you are there. Of course, you need to have technical acumen and firefighting proficiency, but as the leader of the pack, you must develop relationships. Can you be the person they go to for any issue, not because they need to, but because they want to. You must know your members’ families, relationships, career goals, upbringing, desires, favorite coffee – anything and everything. You are the one who shares in the responsibilities of their professional development. The responsibility you have extends far beyond the third rung.

Another part of developing these relationships is allowing them to vent up and to present ideas. Do you remember being in their shoes? How long has it been since you were the rank and file?

Members need an outlet, and that outlet is you. They need to feel as though they are being heard. While putting the department’s baggage in the street is not ideal, you can create an environment where they can come to you and air grievances. Sure, it won’t be all of it, but allowing them to be heard will reduce some of the anxiety they have by holding it all in. It could be petty; it could be big. Either way, you are in the know, and you have just cut a 6x6 hole, cooled down the room, and all without ever stepping foot on the roof.

As we grow older, we often believe we have all the answers because we have supposedly seen it and done it all. However, some of the best ideas come from those who think without the abundance of knowledge. Allow your members to be a part of the solution and you will see tremendous results. Remember, you were once the member who nobody listened to because your main job was to take out the trash. Could you imagine what would have happened had someone asked you, “What do you think?” It would have made you feel welcomed and part of the team even faster. A simple question like this could re-ignite a flame in an underachiever, perhaps even transforming them in into a superior achiever. Sometimes people just need to feel heard.

2. Master time management

All of this takes preparation. Your responsibility turns to accountability in a heartbeat. A few minutes up front saves you hours on the backend.

Although it goes without saying, you can’t spell officer without office. Use your time in the office to create detailed training plans, community outreach projects, station and truck maintenance schedules and, most importantly, one-on-one time for your members.

When you meet with your members, they need to feel like you care, not because you’re paid to care but because their lives are in your hands. You need to be able to convey what you see them becoming and how they can get there. All of that takes time. Managing it will be one of the biggest challenges you face, but it can be done.

3. Keeping up morale

Morale should have four letters because it is often said with a negative connotation, but it doesn’t have to be like this. Yes, it is human nature to want to be liked. We feel better, communicate better, walk better, sleep better. However, you are not put into your position to be liked. If you want to always be liked, become a barista.

As an officer, you are both a mentor and disciplinarian. Keeper of the standards. If you are fair, impartial and consistent, then you are doing your job. A clear expectation that everyone is equal and treated fairly will build morale. That is not saying everything that is done will be seen as fair, but if you practice sound judgment, you are in the ballpark. When you arrive home at the end of a long shift, training night or difficult call, you can rest assured that things are being done correctly.

Positive morale is possible. Just ensure you are making it attainable and sustainable.

4. Focus on training

The race to the South Pole – Amundsen vs. Scott. This is the story of two leaders racing to the South Pole and what became of their teams. At the end, you will see that preparation is key. I’m not talking just the fundamentals. One of them decided he would prepare knowing that they would encounter unfortunate events, yet he systematically designed his training to reduce the role of outside forces, and he even developed contingency plans. His philosophy: “You don’t wait until you’re in an unexpected storm to discover you need more strength and endurance. You don’t wait until you’re shipwrecked to determine if you can eat raw dolphin. You don’t wait until you’re on the Antarctic journey to become a superb skier and dog handler. You prepare with intensity, all the time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength. And equally, you prepare so that when conditions turn in your favor, you can strike hard.”

The men and women you are sitting at the kitchen table with depend on you for their safety and well-being; so do the residents of your district. Sure, go ahead and cut that corner, penciling in a nice little check in the box to signal that training is done. Or grab that oversized felt-tip marker and let the ink bleed through the paper and declare that you trained your team for the unknown. You made it worth it. You made it relevant. You made it difficult. You trained them. Earn your paycheck and live up to your title.

5. Build earned confidence in yourself

By this point in your career, you should have confidence in anything you do, right? However, I would argue that sometimes that is lost when career progression is dictated by tests only or, worse yet, the good ol’ boy network.

Do not sell your subordinates short. You must be confident – earned confidence. You must be decisive and quick-thinking in your day-to-day interactions. You should be prepared for almost any situation and act without hesitation. You are now responsible for the lives of everyone on your truck. Their families depend on you. Your team will face dire situations, fire with overwhelming odds against escape, loss of civilian life, loss of a firefighter, hazardous weather conditions and similar perilous situations. You are the one who must make decisions that will impact the lives of many. You must be the light at the end of the hallway as the ceiling is coming down. Simply obtaining the title of officer means nothing. You must live it.

Becoming an officer is easy, being an officer is the hard part.

6. Lead by example

Do you lead by example – the correct example?

How often do we pine over how we would do things better? There is the officer who comes to work late and never gets written up. The one who doesn’t attend training. The one who only responds to the “good” calls. You see where we are going with this.

You are now what your 5-year-old self always wanted. Are you making him or her proud or embarrassed?

PPE checks, trucks checks, SCBA checks, radio checks, hygiene, fit/form/function of your mask, the list is endless. Do you ensure they are done and at times do some of them yourself?

It’s easy to point fingers and say “do.” It’s easy to say I have done all this before. Guess what? Everyone knows and nobody cares. Your members need to see you get your elbows dirty. They need to see you take part in the checks to make sure they fully trust that you know what you are doing. It seems small, but it makes a tremendous impact when the boss is in there, doing.

Do you assist with other chores or tasks? Nobody expects you to do it all, but they need to see that you care and abide by the same rules and standards they do. Something as simple as grabbing a bag of trash serves as a reminder that you are in it with them, and you know where the dumpster is, too. Not to mention, if the officer takes out the trash, it’s a simple reminder that someone else didn’t do their job. Keep them on their toes, and remind yourself why you’re there. It’s for them.

7. Maintain physical and mental fitness

Do you have a plan in place for your members’ physical and mental well-being? Are you open to the pitfalls of them not being fit for the job? We tend to look past ourselves and only worry about the community we serve. As noble as our devotion to service is, we can only serve the community with the level of effectiveness they expect if we are physically and mentally sound.

Endurance to prevail is difficult and exhaustive, both in the summer and winter. We lose a lot of great firefighters to heart attacks that can be directly attributed to poor health. “Nah, Tommy is fine, he’s been doing it like this for years.” Is that what you tell Linda when she comes to the station with Tommy Jr. and Rebecca to collect their fathers’ personal effects? He didn’t die in a valiant rescue. He died walking up a flight of stairs because his weight turned out to be too much for his heart.

Now, do you really want to be a big strong tough leader? Tell Tommy that you are going to help him get on a plan and stick to it. Can you put in the budget a membership to the local gym or, better yet, funds to create your own gym in the station? All that out-of-service stuff you keep around makes for good weights and functional fitness. Be different, not boring.

Some members may not be ready to talk about mental health, but it’s time. Gone are the days of drinking away our demons. It may have been acceptable for the Greatest Generation, but today, we are smarter. Not better, smarter. We have resources available to us at the click of a button. We understand that taking someone to the hospital for a broken leg is normal, so why do we dismiss someone having a hard time coping with the terrible pay, long hours, demanding home life, seeing multiple patient heroin overdoses, CPRs on infants, pins, entrapments, burning homes, etc.?

You call yourself a leader, then LEAD. Do you have numbers on hand to assist with a member’s mental health? Do you abide by NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health and Wellness Program and explain the benefits of seeking the proper counseling?

We need to be flexible, agile and immersed in the well-being of the people whom we lead. If your team thinks that you do not care about their well-being and use their mental health as a negative mark on their reviews, then you should resign this instant.

8. Exhibit courage

I heard the saying recently, “Fire is easy, people are difficult.” How do you tell a 15-year veteran that they need to slow down? Seems easy, right? Sometimes it’s not. They are the person who everyone looks up to. Maybe a little salty, they have the scars and the stories to back it up. Yet they need to maintain the standards set forth just like everyone else. It’s easy to let them run free; heck, they can turn a closet ladder into an aerial with only a few modifications. But it can be dangerous, and before too long, it is dangerous.

Again, you are there for the members. Are you the right person for the job when it comes to discussing tough issues with the chiefs? Can you get behind a closed door and discuss with the senior member of the department that the new policy is handcuffing their members? Nobody needs a “yes man” when things are difficult. As an officer, you are a trusted adviser to seniors and juniors alike. You must be able to set aside any future aspirations and have the difficult conversations. If you can stare down a hallway and look the devil in the face, surely you can walk into an office and talk to the chief.

When you’re not present …

At the end of the day, it’s not so much about whether people listen to you or follow the directions you give. It’s more about what they do when you’re not there. Have you immersed yourself in your role enough that your members want to make you proud and believe in what you preach when you aren’t around? Anyone can yell and scream and give orders. It’s the intangible effects that really determine whether you are an effective company officer.

Lastly, you can’t talk about leadership without talking about eating last. That’s right, your members eat before you. Don’t like it, grab a protein shake or get in your car and drive around the corner to eat by yourself. Leaders eat last.

Lead, motivate, inspire.

This article, originally published on March 10, 2023, has been updated.

James Pribyl is a captain with Turkey Creek Fire Rescue in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, and has served with the department for 5.5 years. He is also a retired Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 3.