10 lessons learned for a new battalion chief

Simple yet important lessons for taking on this vital role

By Brian Bonner

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” – General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur

There comes a time in everyone's career when you have to step up to the plate and take some swings. Much of the time, you fail to connect with the ball or foul a few off before striking out. Then there are those rare moments when you make that connection and send one sailing into the outfield for a hit or even a home run.

When we are placed into a leadership role, we have to understand that failure is part of the process, and learning from those failures will prepare us when the next challenge arises.
When we are placed into a leadership role, we have to understand that failure is part of the process, and learning from those failures will prepare us when the next challenge arises. (Photo/Brian Bonner)

The same goes for leadership. We can fail more often than we succeed, but every time, we walk away determined to practice harder, study our opponent more intently, and learn from our failures. Bottom line: When we are placed into a leadership role, we have to understand that failure is part of the process, and learning from those failures will prepare us when the next challenge arises.

Lessons to follow

I heard a quote that served as a driving force for putting together this list of experiences: “Experience is something you have right after you need it.” This is so true when getting promoted within a fire service organization, especially to the rank of battalion chief. There is no comprehensive education or training program that can really prepare you for your new role. This is why I have developed the following 10 lessons learned from my personal experiences as a new battalion chief:

  1. Be consistent in everything you do. There are literally thousands of books and articles that have been written about leadership, and consistency always finds its way onto the list of traits found in some of the world’s greatest leaders. Everyone has a specific style, and it can take time to develop that style. As you move along your leadership journey, applying the hard lessons will help you to develop a consistency within your leadership style. This trait will gain you respect and admiration as a leader up, down, and across the organizational chart.
  2. Not everything is black and white. Most issues are gray. Know and follow your organization's policies. Don’t be too proud to say, “I don’t know.” Take the time to look it up so you can be sure. Policy development is usually a tedious process that takes years to perfect only to find it is already outdated and needs to be updated. As a battalion chief, you have to maintain a working knowledge of operational policies, administrative policies, human resources, labor policies, and the list goes on. Develop a method to quickly reference those difficult policies and cite them in your responses. People will respect that you have taken the time on the front end to get it right. On the back end, following established policies and procedures will undoubtedly keep you out of trouble.
  3. Trust is the cornerstone of being a successful battalion chief. In the January-February 2017 article “The Neuroscience of Trust,” published in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Paul Zak reveals that, “Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.” As a new battalion chief, it is critical to recognize the accomplishments and successes of your crews, give them discretion to accomplish the tasks assigned to them, and consistently and frequently communicate information that fosters a trusting environment.
  4. Be aware of your blind spots. We all have them, and they can be very dangerous. Find one or more people who will be truly honest with you. Don’t let pride be your stumbling block. Surrounding yourself with a group of diverse individuals who are willing to share crucial information can help you reveal those blind spots. This really helps you become more self-aware of the issues that may be right in front of you and will help you connect better with your personnel.
  5. You are responsible for everything that happens on your shift, whether you are there or not. A battalion chief is a 24/7/365 job. I’m not talking about the standard job description or your bubble on the organizational chart. I am talking about your responsibility to the community, the employees and their families at home. This is sometimes referred to as the “Burden of Command,” which is the heavy responsibility each of us carries into every difficult decision, whether it is a response-based decision or a personnel issue.
  6. Understand your crew/personnel’s capabilities and limitations. Don’t expect them to exceed their capabilities and don’t ask them to exceed their limitations. Allow them to succeed and fail on their own. In order to understand your personnel, you have to spend time with them, both in the firehouse and on the drill field. Observing their level of training and skill will help you to make better and more confident decisions with the time comes. If you don’t understand these dynamics, you can place an unprepared officer or crew in a potentially dangerous situation.
  7. Your actions speak louder than your words, but your words carry more weight than you can ever imagine. Remember the saying, “God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them proportionally.” Once you say it or send it, you can never take it back. To paraphrase the words of Gordan Graham, most of the things we will encounter in a typical day allow for discretionary time to think it through. This doesn’t mean that you have forever to make a decision, but it does mean you should take time to reflect, ensure you are being consistent, and review any necessary policies or procedures. A great practice that I started for myself was to write my responses and save them in the “Draft” folder until I was able to re-read them, especially when it involved emotionally charged subject matter. The last thing you need as a new battalion chief is to get the reputation of someone that has knee-jerk reactions. Take your time, slow down and think it through before responding because I can assure you that what you say or write will live on forever.
  8. Never jump to conclusions. Always do your “360 survey” of an issue and try to understand all sides. The truth isn’t always what it seems. We use the 360 on every incident response when practical and appropriate. It allows us to view hidden dangers or potential pitfalls before committing to a strategy and deploying tactics. The same goes for those issues that are not incident related. Usually we are presented with a set of facts, or so they seem. After investigating and allowing all the information to be revealed, we often find the facts presented early on only provide a partial picture of the issue. Take time to investigate and give everyone the opportunity to provide their side of the issue. As the BC, you will often find yourself filtering through different perspectives and attempting to arrive at a common ground that resolves the issue.
  9. Respect isn’t earned by being their “buddy” or acting “warm and fuzzy.” Respect is earned by being consistent, fair, knowledgeable and authentic. Always be truthful and guard your integrity. Nothing can destroy your reputation faster than compromising your integrity or being untruthful to your personnel. They will find out when you lie, I can promise you that and you may never recover from the damage. You have to constantly work on earning respect. This is done through being a student of the craft, demonstrating passion for the job, and maintaining a solid reputation. A related quote I like: “A good reputation will follow you wherever you go, but a bad reputation will beat you there.”
  10. Keep a big picture view and don’t get bogged down in the details. While important, details should be managed at the lowest level possible. Don’t micromanage! Treat others like you would want to be treated. Some will disappoint you and some will amaze you. I believe most firefighters love the job and want to be let loose to help those in need. As the battalion chief, it’s very hard to find that balance between over managing and being completely laissez-faire. As Jocko Willink states in his book “Extreme Ownership,” “When the subordinate leaders and the frontline troops fully understand the purpose of the mission, how it ties into strategic goals, and what impact it has, they can then lead, even in the absence of explicit orders.” Communicating the Commander’s Intent starts well before the incident or the issue arises; it begins with building the relationship through consistency, trust and respect.

About the Author

Brian Bonner is a retired battalion chief with the Homewood Fire and Rescue Service and currently serves as a lieutenant with the Birmingham (Ala.) Fire and Rescue Service. Bonner has been in the fire service for over 30 years and holds a master’s degree in public safety administration from Jacksonville State University. He is a 2008 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

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