‘A weakness is a strength carried to an extreme’: A lesson for fire chiefs

No one wants their strengths to work against them, but they can have that impact if applied in excess

All leaders have strengths and weaknesses. Their weaknesses, in particular, may come from two sources – deficits or excesses.

Leadership weaknesses that result from deficits in skills or knowledge can have serious consequences but are also fairly simple to remedy. Training, experience, self-study and other focused interventions can fill the gaps.

Weakness that results from excess is a bit trickier. Someone once said, “A weakness is a strength carried to an extreme.” No one wants their strengths and abilities to work against them, but they certainly can have that impact.

Weaknesses that result from strengths may be difficult to identify and manage, especially for those in senior ranks.
Weaknesses that result from strengths may be difficult to identify and manage, especially for those in senior ranks. (Photo/Getty Images)

Examples of strengths-turned-weaknesses

For example, one fire chief might be known for being extremely detail-oriented. They can be counted on to notice even small errors in reporting or planning, and is sure to attend to every element of any given project or incident.

This is good, right? But what happens when this attention to detail turns into micromanagement? What if this person can never let go of any aspect of anything they are involved in, and are unable to delegate to others? This is where attention to detail can begin to look like inefficiency at best and distrust at worst.           

Or consider battalion chiefs who make a point of being friendly and accessible with firefighters. The troops feel comfortable with these chiefs and will let down their guard and share confidences with them. These are the kinds of relationships that lead to highly functional teams – unless they go too far.

What happens if battalion chiefs are seen by themselves and others as “just one of the guys”? Will they be able to step in and change the trajectory of inappropriate behavior? Will they even notice it? How effective can they be as disciplinarians if they are perceived to be part of the problem?

Many people make a point of setting high standards for themselves and others. This is good; people need clear goals and tend to rise to meet standards that are set for them. But when taken too far, adhering to arbitrary or impossible standards might kill morale and make a leader seem inflexible and out of touch.

Likewise, honoring tradition is an important part of fire service culture and identity and a source of strength. But taken to an extreme, it can also become a way of resisting change.

How to identify the problem

Weaknesses that result from strengths may be difficult to identify and manage, especially for those in senior ranks. It can be hard for someone to see that they are going too far with one aspect of their leadership style or focus.           

The unfortunate truth is that the higher in rank that people achieve, the less spontaneous and unvarnished feedback they tend to get, especially from those who work directly for them. In most cases, it would be too risky for a company officer to give critical feedback to a deputy chief. Yet that company officer may be the one person who sees something important that the chief needs to hear.

Keeping communications open at all levels is vital for the success of any organization. Those in senior positions need to understand that they are not likely to hear criticism from their subordinates, even if they ask directly for it. Therefore, they need to find other ways to hear what they need to know.

Be creative. Are there ways that members can provide input about organizational effectiveness that doesn’t directly threaten or accuse any individual? How can you make it safe for people to speak up?

Additionally, those in senior positions need to have trusted confidantes with whom they can share concerns, ask questions and seek advice. Professional groups can fill this role, and members of those groups do not need to be exclusive members of the fire service.

Continuing education and professional development at the chief level are also critical. This is one of the best outcomes from attending the National Fire Academy or other national or regional programs – the ability to share experiences with others and seek their insight in a safe environment.

Those who achieve senior leadership positions in the fire service have worked hard to hone their strengths in order to get to that place. It is valuable to engage in self-reflection now and then to be sure that those strengths have not somehow become detriments to effective leadership.

Editor’s note: Can you think of other examples where a fire chief’s “strength” ultimately became – or was seen as – a weakness?

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