Beyond tactics: What makes a good officer

Being an effective leader off the fireground means developing these characteristics and practices

In a recent article we examined how a firefighter should prepare to become a company officer, or first-line supervisor. In that discussion, I focused on developing the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to be a good tactical leader for fire and EMS service delivery.

Let's look at the job competencies beyond those of the tactical leader necessary to be successful a company officer. The late James O. Page in his book, "Effective Company Command" wrote that an effective company officer is, "one half supervisor and one half teacher." I've been a firm believer in those words since I first read them as a newly promoted company officer way back in 1985.

What follows are not suggested training programs or college courses — the "how" — but rather the "what" of being an effective company officer.

A company officer must manage both sides of the coin. If you feel your employees are right, you definitely go to bat for them with your supervisor. Yet, be sensitive to and usually act in support of your supervisors' interests. Additionally, you need to have the ability to present bad news in a strategic way and establish good relationships with superior officers.

It is also important to managing external relations. A good officer can resolve conflicts with those outside the department in a collaborative manner. Part of external management is involving other supervisors and divisions in your planning process.

Team building
A good officer knows how to build and manage a team. This involves selecting well-qualified and capable people for the job to be done. When making assignments, try to make the best use of your employees' skills and abilities.

In work-group meetings, make sure that there is a frank and open exchange of ideas. Emphasize a team approach in accomplishing work. Managing the team means facing up to and attempting to resolve conflicts constructively between those who directly report to you.

A good company officer also promotes involvement by clearly communicating goals, objectives and responsibilities. You should solicit facts, opinions and concerns from employees about their work.

This allows you to build supportive relationships with employees, rather than remaining distant and impersonal. A good officer will establish trust and mutual respect and take a personal interest in the employees.

Part of this means emphasizing cooperation over competitiveness among employees. It is important to pay close attention to and seek to understand employees when you are talking to them.

Laying this groundwork is critical when it is time to managing performance problems. Your employees can be completely open with you in telling you about their mistakes.

It is then important for you to face up to and take appropriate action regarding poor performance. And it is just as important to admit when you've made a mistake.

To be a sound company officer you will need to modify your management style or practices so that different situations can be handled in the most effective manner. 

Part of flexible leadership involves giving employees an opportunity to openly express their disagreement or to voice objections to your proposed actions and decisions. Be open to and listen to your employees' suggestions as to how you might improve your performance.

Encourage your employees to submit new ideas and suggestions for improvement. Be sure to give employees full credit for their ideas.

Strong leadership means projecting yourself, which means that you perceive yourself as a leader based on your employee's observations of your actions and statements.

It also involves providing clarity. Give employees clear-cut decisions and establish organizational work group goals. Set an expectation for accomplishing high-quality work within established time limits.

Be aware of unspoken and significant issues (hidden agenda) in your relationships with others. That means anticipating controversial issues and political questions and dealing with them effectively.

Teaching people
The first step in teaching is learning. Be a committed to life-long learning. Seek to diversify your knowledge through study and experience.

Follow this up by creating a work environment that is conducive to learning. View your role as that of a teacher and actively seek out teachable moments in your workday. And encourage your subordinates to pursue educational opportunities.

These key traits have been in my head since I completed my fourth and final applied research project to successfully earn my Executive Fire Officer Program certificate from the National Fire Academy in 2001. In the course of my work on that project, I came across some really good stuff being done at the time, in both the public and private sectors, regarding job competencies.

One of my biggest take aways from that work was that we can make significant improvements in the performance of individual members and the organization by developing good job competency lists for every position in the organization.

Why? Because when people know what's expected of them in a position they're going to have a clear idea of what they need to know. And that can only help them in their pursuit of how to learn those things.

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