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Chief Insights: ‘Deeply engage in your job’

What you do, how you act and the relationships you build now matter down the road, so get out of your comfort zone, put in the work and enjoy the ride

The following content is part of the Fire Leader Playbook, an initiative aimed at helping new fire service leaders increase their effectiveness, enhance their leadership KSAs, develop trust among crewmembers, and build confidence. Through a handful of questions presented by FireRescue1, fire service leaders reflect on their early days in leadership roles and offer advice, while newer leaders detail their experiences taking on a new position. Email to offer your insights for the Fire Leader Playbook.

Eric Linnenburger, battalion chief with the Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department, shares these insights about his journey as a chief officer.

What was the incident or person in your career that put you on the path to becoming a chief officer?

There was no single “a-ha” moment or person but more a culmination of the many seemingly ordinary, yet valuable, relationships and experiences that can turn out to be path-altering if you stay engaged and play the long game. Oftentimes, the significance is not realized until many years down the road. One of those moments happened long before battalion chief was even a consideration while as a lieutenant contemplating the captain’s test. I loved being a lieutenant and was happy to spend the rest of my career there. At that time in my organization, the captain rank came with some politics. Thankfully, things have since changed, but it made pursuing the rank less desirable.

A trusted mentor heard about my apprehension and asked to meet for coffee. He was able to shift my perspective to see the opportunity for long-term leadership growth and organizational influence, rather than instant comfort. He knew I could navigate the politics and essentially told me to get out of my own way and become an active participant in change. Without that subtle push at the right time, I would have likely bowed out. Had I not pursued that promotion, I would not have transferred shifts where I would work through some of my biggest leadership challenges, I would not have been first due on arguably the most impactful fire event in our department’s history, nor would I have learned to be an acting battalion chief. That culmination of experiences is what introduced me to the battalion chief position and gave me the confidence to see myself in it.

The battalion chief who bought me that cup of coffee over 10 years ago is now our fire chief, so it turned out to be a great mutual investment.

Looking back, what did you want to accomplish, improve or make better in your first 30 days as chief officer, 6 months as chief officer and year as a chief officer?

The first 30 days were centered around building relationships and trust, both with my crews and the command staff. I wanted to be present and put any preconceived perceptions and biases aside. There were deficiencies in my mind I wanted to improve upon, but I first needed to make sure I was seeing things correctly by doing more listening than speaking. I was taking over a well-functioning shift from a respected and long-tenured battalion chief. My biggest challenge was not how to come in and fix a bunch of broken things. It was earning the shift’s trust so I could lead my authentic way, knowing it was different from what they had experienced the previous 18 years.

Within the initial 6 months, I wanted to enhance relationships by actively exercising them. As an officer group, we would leverage real emergency incidents, trainings and personnel challenges to foster trust and predictability. This meant after-action reviews, sharing lessons learned and facilitating interactive training to encourage collaboration.

My ongoing goal is to foster a mission-focused shift culture that does the right thing while caring for one another, the community we serve and the fire service. At the one-year mark, I pulled the officer team back together to reevaluate. It is easy to be biased by our ideal vision and fall prey to blind spots. I was reassured when it was not all head nods and positive feedback. Some even pushed back on things, which proved people were engaged and felt safe within the team.

What is the best advice you would give chiefs in their first 30 days on the job?

Remember it is not all about you! The train was moving right along before you arrived and will continue to do so after you are gone. Be organized, have a plan and communicate your expectations, but stay flexible enough to adapt. Exercise patience and do not try to change everything overnight. Those you are leading will not always share your level of understanding, enthusiasm or organizational engagement, but they are all equally important to the team’s success and the mission. Meet them where they are and guide them to the place you want them to be. Also, be patient and expect setbacks. Try not to take it personally when things don’t go exactly as planned or people make mistakes. I internalized missteps and viewed them as a reflection of my leadership. There is a healthy place where ownership and growth occur, but self-deprecation stays away.

Next, take care of business in your personal life. This includes your physical health and the health of your relationships. Hopefully, this work is being done well before the first 30 days. Prepare your family for what you are all embarking on because it very much affects them. In my experience, a strong partner relationship at home can be an absolute superpower as a leader. Becoming a chief officer is consuming. It entails turning on and off regularly and a different level of engagement. Sometimes this is necessary and sometimes self-imposed. Find those healthy boundaries and learn to detach.

If you could go back to your rookie/probie self, what would you tell them?

There is no excuse for getting bored in this job. Deeply engage in your job. Be present and take it all in. Learn from those who came before you – the things to do and not to do. Get involved beyond your normal job duties. Take on special projects, go to outside classes and conferences, and be curious. Build a full, diverse body of work that forces you to widen your focus and gain perspective. Also, trust in yourself and your experience – and share it with others. There is no magical number of years or structure fires that dictate your value.

Focus on controlling the controllable factors, and don’t get sucked into the vortex of negativity or what you or your organization does not have. The grass really is not always greener. Think for yourself and be skeptical of the loudest most confident-sounding voice in the room with all the answers. What you do, how you act and the relationships you build now matter down the road. Get out of your comfort zone, put in the work, and enjoy the ride.



Lightning Round Leadership

What is a leadership book, podcast or seminar you’ve found invaluable?

This is like choosing a favorite child. Here are two that have served different purposes:

  • As a young lieutenant, Simon Sinek’s work was very impactful as I navigated my first leadership position, particularly, “Leaders Eat Last.” He articulates such practical human-centered ideas that seem so simple and intuitive yet are not so common, especially at that time in the fire service.
  • Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” is the one that will forever sit on the nightstand – 2,000 years old and still so relevant. It is not a direct leadership “how to” but more a way of being.

How do you organize your schedule and stay on schedule?

  • A combination of handwritten notes and digital calendars. I keep a list of day-to-day priorities in a Bullet Journal format that get checked off as they are completed. I always have a plan going into the shift that can easily be pieced back together when it inevitably blows up.

If you knew the budget request would be approved, what’s a big purchase you’d make for your department today?

  • I would pour money into our aging stations where our people spend one-third of their lives preparing to serve others. The upgrades would be centered around all things health, wellness and development. This would include focusing on sleep, fitness, training and crew spaces designed to encourage human interaction with the best kitchen tables to solve the world’s problems.

At the end of the workday, how do you recharge?

  • I use my hour-long commute to tie up loose ends, have some quiet time and begin the transition to home life. When I get home, the priority is coffee and a workout. I also do a lot of reading and woodworking, and I love to get outside on my mountain bike, go for a run or head to the river with a fly rod in hand.

Eric Linnenburger is a 24-year member of the Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department, currently serving as interim deputy chief of operations. With the WFD, Linnenburger has served as a firefighter, paramedic, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in applied science with a business of government specialization from Regis University and an associate degree in fire science technology from Aims Community College.