Trending Topics

Leadership competencies: 4 ways battalion chiefs can best develop company officers

Key focus areas include after-action reviews, expectation-setting, daily learning opportunities and openness to difficult conversations


Photo/John Odegard

By Chris Paskett

When scanning the landscape of the U.S. fire service, the positive momentum feels palpable. Leaders are building bridges and collaborating on solutions to shared industry challenges. Professionalism and accountability are widely celebrated as virtues. Science and data are increasingly more supported, blending with tradition and being communicated in a way that considers the lived experiences of firefighters on the line.

Many of these advances stem from fire chiefs leveraging broad leadership competencies to grow themselves, their organizations and the fire service as a whole. So how do we continue to build on this momentum and take the next step forward? One area we should examine more closely is the development of our company officers, instilling in them a wider range of leadership competencies.

Company officers have tremendous influence on department culture and make up the pool of future decision-makers and, ultimately, fire chiefs. Developing this group as well-rounded leaders has the potential to not only help advance their careers but also model thoughtful decision-making and intentional leadership actions across the organization. One way we can do this is through encouraging battalion chiefs to provide focused development opportunities that highlight underutilized leadership skills and proficiencies.

Battalion chiefs who mentor company officers provide an amazing opportunity to move beyond the operational setting and teach a more comprehensive skillset. Emergency operations are the lens we are often viewed through by the public, not to mention the reason most of us got into this profession. But engaging stakeholders, strengthening public trust and effectively managing employees helps build, fund and safeguard the entire profession for the long term. Furthermore, company officers who develop broad leadership competencies can use those skills to demonstrate intentional leadership actions and make better decisions.

While there are many ways to develop, mentor and grow company officers, let’s review four that battalion chiefs or mid-level managers can execute now that will pay dividends down the road.

1. Vulnerability through AARs

The after-action review (AAR) is a process of critically examining a recent operation and extracting both the positive aspects and areas of potential improvement (Paloniemi, 2006; Willing, 2022). While AARs have been established as a best practice in the fire service, battalion chiefs can use them to model the competency of leadership vulnerability through a truthful and transparent review process. Modeling vulnerability has been demonstrated to be a powerful leadership tool to normalize critically examining performances (Bunker, 1997). It shows that leaders are willing to be accountable for their actions and rejects the notion we would gloss over the rough spots in our own performance to paint ourselves in a better light.

One way for the battalion chief to model vulnerability is to listen to the audio recording of working incidents where they established command, then highlight what they personally did well and what they would have done differently. This could include how precise communication was, how much airtime they took, and how successful they were driving a clear strategy and incident action plan. Modeling how we can improve as supervisors can create safety to have more positive and transparent conversations with your team about their performance.

2. Trust through expectation-setting

Setting expectations early as a supervisor can lead to high performance and building trust. Setting high but achievable expectations have been shown to correspond to improved performance in both education and the military (Kierein & Gold, 2000). Realistic expectations also have the potential to develop trust between supervisors and employees. When employees meet or exceed expectations, they feel good about their work performance. The supervisor also feels good because the employee demonstrated the ability to listen, understand and execute the stated mission. This execution allows the supervisor to spend the bulk of their future interactions giving positive feedback, coaching and delegating tasks because they trust the work will be completed the right way.

It is important for developing leaders to see their supervisor model the process of setting and meeting expectations. They may notice their supervisor does not micromanage them because of the trust this process created. They might also notice the opposite to be true if expectations were not clear to begin with. Without clear expectations, it is hard for employees to know if they are meeting the mark, which in my experience is what most firefighters strive to do. When expectations are set and subsequently met, supervisors should acknowledge how the supervisor/employee relationship was strengthened through this process. Whether it’s how fast we get out the door, how we deploy on an emergency scene or how we treat one another, setting clear and realistic expectations is a gateway to building trust.

3. Personal and professional development through daily learning

The premise of FireRescue1’s Better Every Shift podcast is exactly what the title indicates: fire service professionals continuing to grow and develop as lifelong learners. Leaders who model the value of daily learning are planting seeds that will help increase operational effectiveness in the short term. However, the downstream effects of this practice can be transformational for an organization.

When leaders model lifelong learning, they are saying personal and professional development doesn’t end with promotion. In fact, in most cases, a promotion is the gateway for an entirely new curriculum to study, ponder, test and apply. Leaders who prioritize their own learning and development are demonstrating the importance of personal and professional development for their teams. This could include attending outside classes, pursuing higher education, critiquing their own calls, or refreshing skills through active drilling and training (size-ups, mayday training, etc.). Ongoing professional development also assures that leaders are making decisions based on the most current information.

An organization that learns effectively at all three levels (individual, group, organization) is in a better position to outpace political and industry challenges because there will always be someone with their eye on potential emerging solutions. When chiefs and other department leadership demonstrate a commitment to the leadership competency of personal and professional development, they are showing company officers what the organization supports and values. More likely than not, a fire department where company officers are widely engaged in personal and professional development is going to be on the right track.

4. Openness to difficult conversations

If I had to choose one area above all that hampers our ability to fulfil our potential and achieve excellence, it would be the inability or unwillingness to have difficult conversations. There are many reasons for this (fear, lack of skillset, lack of understanding), but the result is usually the same: a problem occurs that could have been avoided earlier if the supervisor would have course corrected the action when the issue was in its infancy.

The fire service needs to teach leaders of all ranks and tenures how to support accountability though properly executed difficult conversations. In the book “Crucial Conversations,” the authors acknowledge that “human nature is to back away from discussions we fear will hurt us or make things worse (Patterson, et al, 2002).” Unfortunately, in most of these cases, the behavior or issue will only persist or worsen if we do nothing. Supervisors need to be trained in the principles of effective communication under difficult circumstances, and in turn train their teams.

Battalion chiefs who teach company officers how to have difficult conversations in a respectful and thoughtful manner will help them build skillsets that transcend the work environment and bring value to every facet of their lives. Leaders who model the ability to have difficult conversations on work performance, firehouse friction and career development aspirations are demonstrating this approach as an organizational value. In many cases, showing vulnerability, setting expectations and continuous personal development are primers for difficult conversations. This is because these competencies help create an environment in which talking about hard things has been normalized, and making these conversations easier on the front end may reduce the need to have them later.

Final thoughts

The fire service will continue to be met with very real political, environmental and budgetary challenges. We will need to prepare the next generation of leaders with a comprehensive skillset that addresses these challenges. Specifically, we need to advance leadership competencies such as vulnerability, expectation setting and personal development that accelerate trust, and help us to act with daily efficiency. The less time we are spending backtracking on difficult employee issues and missed opportunities for hard conversations, the more time we will have to do what we want to be doing – supporting, guiding and cheering for our emerging leaders as they advance this profession to new heights.

Hear more from Chris Paskett:

The Eugene Springfield (Oregon) Fire battalion chief details the importance of a shared vision of learning and training at every organization


About the author
Chris Paskett started his career in the fire service in 1998. He currently works as a battalion chief with Eugene Springfield (Oregon) Fire, and has served in training, as chief of logistics and safety, and as acting deputy chief of strategic services. Paskett holds a doctorate degree in Organizational Leadership, Learning and Innovation from Wilmington University; a master’s degree in Fire and Emergency Management from Oklahoma State University; and a bachelor’s degree in Health Promotion from the University of Utah.