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5 significant risks to your development as a fire service leader

Don't let your professional network, or yourself derail your career path: Examine these five perspectives to map out your path to being a great leader

By Bruce Moeller, Ph.D.

To lead successfully, you need a comprehensive perspective on the people in your professional world – those around you. And within this professional world, there are sometimes risks to your professional development. Identify the five types of influence on your path and how to deal with them.

1. Fire service leadership: Those in front of you

Identify the five types of influence on your path and how to deal with them. (Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography)
Identify the five types of influence on your path and how to deal with them. (Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography)

This group consists of the current leaders in your organization, especially your boss and your boss’s boss. One of my favorite quotes is, “first-class people hire first class people; and second-class people hire third-class people.” Hopefully you work for a first-class leader. If you do, life will be good. You will have a mentor who helps develop your talents and offers guidance when difficulties arise.

However, in anybody’s career, there are times when you must suffer working for a second-class individual. When you find yourself in this situation, there are two significant risks. First, the second-class boss will try to get you to do things which you believe are wrong or unethical. The second is that you will make sure everyone else knows about your dissatisfaction. Both are wrong!

We work in paramilitary organizations. As such, when our boss tells us to do something, we need to get it done – as long as it is not illegal, unethical or places others in harm’s way.

However, if you disagree with an instruction strongly, you should first talk to your boss and express your concerns while proposing a different course of action. If they still wish to follow path A rather than your suggested path B, then it is their decision. Carry out plan A or follow the chain of command to further express your concerns.

Going over the boss’s head is always a heavy decision to make – and one I always told our people they were free to do, only after informing their boss of the intent to do so. Even if you don’t agree with the plan, your job is to carry it out without prejudice. You don’t have to own it and be the cheerleader, but neither should you try to torpedo the plan.

2. Colleagues and co-workers: Those to your right

You have colleagues in your organization, those who have similar roles or levels of responsibility who are your co-workers. If you are a fire captain, this means other captains. If you are a fire chief, this means other department heads in the city/county government. As part of a single organization, and arguably with similar responsibilities, these are the folks with whom you often collaborate to make things happen.

The risk is that sometimes colleagues are in competition with you. They may desire larger budgets – as seen in many communities between police and fire departments. Or perhaps, you both are looking at the same promotional opportunity.

There are two issues you should consider. First, you need to have a good working relationship with your colleagues. This requires communication and a certain amount of trust.

Second, your colleagues may not embrace these same values. They may not share important information with you, and see any perceived competition as a reason to deceive. For these times, I embrace the old adage – “trust, but verify.” Over time, you will soon learn who is a true colleague, and who simply works in the same organization.

3. Professional peers: Those to your left

If colleagues are those from within your organization, peers are those similarly situated from outside your organization. Peers are often professional relationships you develop from local fire associations, college courses or those you meet at professional conferences. Peers are those with whom we often share our experiences and discuss challenges.

They also provide a sounding board, often offering advice on how to handle a particular situation you may be facing – therein lies the risk. Because peers do not have a clear understanding of the organizational culture and political environment specific to your organization, their advice may not be applicable to situations found in your agency. You need to balance the perspective of those outside the organization with your own.

4. Up-and-coming firefighters: Those behind you

On almost a weekly basis, as I speak with young fire chiefs and officers, they voice a frequent complaint about the lack of mentorship available as they were striving to make their department stronger. As the discussions continue, I am often surprised at the times they acknowledge not providing the very mentorship to others they craved when they were attempting to climb the organizational ladder.

The risk in this group often comes from not having strong leadership role models and mentors to help develop the next generation. The remedy should be self-evident – what are you doing to help those coming along after you?

5. Your role in your fire department

If the above groups can be seen as points on a compass – then you are at the center of this professional world. And herein also lies a risk. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What have you done to professionally prepare yourself for a greater leadership role?
  • Do you have both technical training and a college education?
  • Are you making sure to get the experiences that will help inform your future decisions?
  • Most important, what are the guiding principles or moral compass you employ to keep yourself grounded and focused?

Too often those in front of you, or to your left and right will seek to push you in one direction or the other. Are you staying on a stable path, exhibiting those characteristics of someone who can weather the pressures of leadership? Do colleagues and peers see you as someone who demonstrates courage, and can speak truth to power, or do they expect you to simply follow the crowd? Do those behind you in the organization seek your counsel and mentorship?

Being successful in leadership requires great people skills, and a reputation for principled and supportive interaction with others. Examining your professional world from these five perspectives will help you map out how to be a great leader.

About the author
Bruce Moeller is a senior consultant with Fitch & Associates with extensive experience in both the fire service, and city and county management. He served as fire chief in multiple departments, including Broward County, Fla., and later was city manager in Sunrise, Fla., and executive director for safety and emergency services in Pinellas County, Fla. He can be reached at bmoeller@fitchassoc.com.

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