7 ways fire chiefs can manage their bosses

Be it an emergency director, mayor or town manager, we all answer to someone, and managing that relationship is key to career success


We all have bosses and we all want them to respect us. Yet, managing bosses is one of those skills that is not routinely taught.

And those who do the best job of managing their bosses command, not demand, respect from that boss.

That respect adds up to more than public accolades and “atta boys.” It adds up to more security, less stress and the ability to do more over your career.

Here are seven ways to better manage your boss.

1. Be supportive

You must be positive and supportive of the boss’s ideas. Comply with all reasonable requests quickly and find the good things in your relationship.

Try not to keep work-related secrets from your boss. Let them know that you are on their side.

Much of this get-ahead attitude can be rather simple; do what your boss needs done, when they need it done and to the best of your ability.

2. Build trust

Building trust is a critical success component in all relationships. Interpersonal dynamics is a key skill to advancing in the fire service.

Ruffled feathers come along with close collaboration; it’s bound to happen that one person will rub another the wrong way. When someone on the team is bugging you, speaking directly to that person builds trust.

Talking behind the boss’s back does nothing to build trust with the boss and destroys your credibility with your partners.  

If you are ever in a situation where people are bad-mouthing your boss, let him or her know. This will help your boss to trust you and know you are to be trusted.

3. Choose the battles

There will come a time when you need to confront your boss. But you can’t pick every fight. Don’t have a new bone to pick with your boss every day.

Think long and hard about the battles you want to fight and if these battles will be worth it in the long run. At the end of the day, this is your boss, not your friend. It’s work. Don’t take it personally.

Some people avoid the uncomfortable discussion and let their anger and resentment build until it explodes. That almost always leads to damage that’s more difficult to repair than the original irritation.

4. No surprises

Bosses never like surprises, especially if someone they work with knows critical information before they do. Deliver bad news when you know trouble is brewing. It is a cardinal sin to allow your boss to be surprised by a question without information that you have in your back pocket.

There is no shortage of issues that can spell trouble for the boss, whether that person is a fire chief, mayor or town manager. These can include equipment delivery delays, budgeting problems and inappropriate firefighter behavior.

Don’t allow the boss to be blindsided by issues that may embarrass the fire department, its members or the municipality. And don’t be the source of that embarrassment.

It is essential to your career success to learn how to deliver bad news, as well as how to receive it.

5. Be empathetic

Whether the boss is a chief or municipal official, it is difficult to understand that person’s duties and obligations if you have never held that position. And even then, that understanding will not be complete.

Before you embark on any decision-making, put yourself in your boss’s shoes. This starts with observing how your boss deals with crisis.

Think how he or she would manage the situation in light of their responsibilities and pressures — and then act.

It speaks loudly on how to approach your boss. It will go a long way in helping you understand how to deal with them better.

It is also important to understand the boss’s personality. One must be able to read the boss’s mood after seeing their body language.

This will help choose the right moment to talk to your boss and approach them with your ideas. The best thing you can do for your boss’s mood is to be unaffected by it and act as you normally do. Be the consistent force they can rely on.

6. Be the solution

If you're the go-to person for your boss, be ready, be happy about it and celebrate the privilege.

You will always be valued by your boss if you come with solutions along with the problems. Your solutions may not work, but your boss will be mighty pleased that you are taking the initiative.

Think about what you can do to make your boss look great.

7. Play the long game

Your relationship with your boss today isn’t necessarily going to be the relationship you have with your boss a few years from now. Don’t get too hung up on the current relationship.

You never know how this person will play a part in your life, who they will put you in front of or the opportunities they could lead you to. You want to have people in your life who can speak highly of you, talk about your professional capabilities, who can recommend you and your boss can potentially be that person.

The best thing you can do is be consistent — personality-wise and work-wise. 

About the author

Chief John M. Buckman III is Fire Chief's editorial advisor. He served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Ind.) Volunteer Fire Department. He has served nine years as director of firefighter training for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Chief Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. He is a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders and is the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. Chief Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board.You can reach Chief Buckman at John.Buckman@FireRescue1.com.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Thanks! You've been successfully signed up for the Fire Chief Newsletter!

logo for print