How to build a successful fire service organizational culture

It starts with a strong focus on individual roles, team empowerment, and honing leadership skills among your department’s “influencers”


By Matthew Caward

Changing an organization’s culture is a monumental process.

You must first build a strong executive staff that is empowered to develop great policies and that understands the importance of organizational culture. The next step is developing a mission that is easily definable and achievable, followed by a vision that encompasses the organization’s ideals – ideals that are greater than yourself and the members that make up the organization you lead.

As a chief, you need everyone performing with 100% effectiveness within their specific role – including you.
As a chief, you need everyone performing with 100% effectiveness within their specific role – including you. (Photo/Getty Images)

Growing this culture within the organization requires members to not only understand the mission and vision but buy-in to them as well. How can you get the entire organization to buy in to the culture? Here are a few key concepts that will help.

Do your job, understand your role

As a chief officer, you must focus on developing the vision and direction of the organization. It takes years of training, education and experience to build a unique skill set enabling you to craft such vital elements of your department. Well-crafted SMART strategic plans, goals and the objectives necessary to achieve these plans take time – time and skill that few possess.

Key to this process is recognizing that everyone has an important role to play within any team or organization. Each role is critical to the success of that team and, ultimately, the larger organization. Fire chiefs must build a culture in which everyone in the organization knows their specific role, and the members are constantly reminded of the expectations of that role and how their role affects the entire organization. You cannot allow yourself, or anyone else in the organization, to deviate from their role within the organization. Such extreme accountability is one of the highest responsibilities, not just of the chief but every leader at any level of the organization.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is one leader who has had sustained success at the highest levels of the NFL. One of the secrets of Belichick’s success is rooted in the culture he built within the organization. He calls it “The Patriot Way,” which, simply stated is, “Do your job.” Belichick knows that everyone within the Patriots organization has a role to play, and that role is so important that only one person can do it. That role takes 100% of their efforts. If even one person within the organization does not attack their role with 100% effort, then there is an opportunity for them to underperform. Every member must do their individual job with 100% focus and effectiveness. That will allow the next member to do the same, which affects the next member and the next division and so on. Every position affects the other, positively or negatively.

The same can be said about the fire service. Every position within the organization affects the other. If the medic shows up late or is not operating at 100% of their skill level, they affect the entire team. If the Logistics division does not get requested supplies to the station, that will affect the medic and members of their small team. If the officer doesn’t order supplies on time, that will affect their small team and so on.

This affect is not cumulative; it is exponential. The same is true when we have success. That success multiples within the organization.

“Extreme ownership”

In the words of retired Navy SEALs and best-selling authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”

In their book “Extreme Ownership,” Willink and Babin highlight that the most important and critical factor in any organization’s success or failure is leadership. If there is any failure within the organization, that failure must be delt with at the leadership level where the failure occurred – and then moved upward. A failure of your personnel, at any level, is the direct result of failed leadership of their immediate supervisor.

Willink and Babin teach that the first tenet of leadership is “taking extreme ownership in your role as a leader.” If anyone is to blame, it is the leader. Ultimately that is you, the chief. You failed in empowering whichever leader who was responsible not taking extreme ownership of the problem. Therefore, when you encounter a problem, start with the immediate supervisor, not the employee. Allow that leader to take accountability of the problem and deal with their subordinate accordingly. Challenge that leader to come up with the solution for their team. Next, deal with that supervisor’s supervisor. Allow them to deal with their subordinate as well. Ultimately, this cycle will take you all the way to the top. Adopt this level of extreme ownership, and you will empower everyone to focus on their job with the highest levels of accountability and effort imaginable.

Company officers, your greatest influencer

Company officers are hands down one of your greatest assets. These small team leaders are your greatest influencers, especially when it comes to building organizational culture. These officers represent and lead most of the organization’s members. And these officers and members have the most contact with our customers. Company officers have far more opportunity and are in a far superior position to dictate the culture of the organization than anyone, especially your executive staff. As such, spend the most time developing your company officers.

Build a culture in which every leader believes in the power of accountability and extreme ownership. Do this by being the strongest advocate for the company officer. Set the tone and expectations of these officers to focus on their role within the organization and encourage them not to step out of their lane. Let them know just how critical they are to the culture of the organization and how important it is for them to support it. Further, these officers must be given the tools to influence their companies to “buy in” as well, fully understanding the mission, vision, polices, practices and culture that your executive staff has developed.

As a chief, you need everyone performing with 100% effectiveness within their specific role – including you. Lead by example for your chief and company officers. After all, a successful fire chief doesn’t measure their success by the number of faithful followers they amass within the ranks of the organization, but rather by the number of leaders and positive influencers they help to develop. Don’t build followers, build leaders.

Leadership is a skill

Don’t buy into the cliché of a born leader. There are no born leaders. Every leader must be made. Leadership is a skill – a complex one at that. Like any other skill, it must be taught, practiced, and constantly developed.

The born leader cliché comes from the simple fact that leadership may seem like it comes much easier for some people. Don’t let this fool you though. Even the greatest leaders fail at leadership from time to time. The greats, however, don’t let this stop them. The greats understand that they never stop being developed. Even the most gifted and seasoned leaders will tell you that they are still developing their leadership abilities 20 and 30 years into their careers. They know that they must be taught, developed and constantly tested. It takes many years of practice, success and failure to become good at leadership. While many are better at this skill than others, everyone can learn more and improve their leadership skills.

In summary

Build a culture of extreme ownership that underscores the importance of each member doing their specific job.

Recognize the company officer as the greatest influencer within your organization. This in no way diminishes the importance for executive leadership. However, your company officers influence and directly lead the largest number of members. They are also the ones who will carry out your lofty mission, vision, and goals.

Take advantage of every opportunity to interact with your company officers. Because these moments are so infrequent, they are far too valuable to be wasted. Make these moments count in three ways:

  1. Remind the company officers of their importance within the organization as your greatest influencer and asset when it comes to the culture.
  2. Remind the officers of the importance of the culture, mission and vision.
  3. Listen to their responses. Make them feel the fact that you are truly listening by interacting with them. This will ensure that they know how valuable they are to the culture and the organization.

Lastly, understand that leadership is a complex skill – one that must be taught, trained, practiced and developed. You didn’t simply arrive at your position as the “all-knowing chief officer.” Someone invested in you. Someone developed you. Someone trained you and, ultimately, someone believed in and trusted you enough to offer you the position you are in now.

About the author

Matthew Caward is a captain with the Bernalillo County Fire Department in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Caward has 18 years with BCFD and 21 years in the fire service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration as well as a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology. Caward is the first Credentialed Fire Officer in the state of New Mexico. He is also the founder of the Duke City Gladiators professional arena football team in Albuquerque. He can be reached via email.

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