‘LeaderMent’: The fire officer’s intersection of leadership and management

6 ways to avoid the unfortunate transition from a “respected leader” to a “disconnected manager”

Management is a word that has developed a bad reputation. This is especially true in the fire service.

Throughout my career, I’ve heard firefighters talk about the disconnect between the leaders in the field and the managers at headquarters. This is problematic because in order to run a department effectively, we need people who are able to manage, and manage well. This problem can be overcome as new leaders move up into those management roles, but only if the task is taken seriously.

There is a way to align leadership and management – a concept to embrace in all positions: “LeaderMent,” the place where leadership and management meet.

Top: A lieutenant leads cadets during a live-fire propane drill. Bottom But sometimes, chiefs must manage instead of lead, like in the case of new station design. Chiefs become managers when they get to the construction phase of a new station project.
Top: A lieutenant leads cadets during a live-fire propane drill. Bottom But sometimes, chiefs must manage instead of lead, like in the case of new station design. Chiefs become managers when they get to the construction phase of a new station project. (Photos/Austin FD)

The LeaderMent Model

It is my belief that the individuals who are successful as company officers are good at leadership.

Forbes describes leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, toward the achievement of a goal.” This definition captures the spirit of the modern fire officer. They are in charge of a group, and they need to “influence” them to be a team capable of addressing an ever-growing set of problems. This is why our most respected officers work out with their crews, enforce dinner time as a crew, and often participate in social functions off duty. Their responsibility to the city they serve and to their crew is to maintain a cohesive group that trusts and believes in their leader.

These effective leaders are often the ones that rise through the ranks and find themselves in a position that requires a different skill set altogether, the skill of management.

According to Henri Fayol, one of the fathers of modern management, “to manage is to forecast and to plan, to organize, to command, to co-ordinate and to control.” These are the less glamorous and often less popular responsibilities of those individuals in charge at the highest strategic levels of the fire service. It is this transition from a “respected leader” to a “disconnected manager” that firefighters have identified over the years.

With this in mind, I have developed a model called LeaderMent. I keep this concept in mind as I work through issues that fall into my span of control. The model uses six general concepts that are designed to help a manager be successful in the field of public safety.

1. Cross the management bridge backward

The first concept is very similar to the idea of an inverted pyramid. It involves remaining oriented to your position at the bottom, serving those in your command. Picture someone crossing a bridge backwards. They are advancing toward a goal while remaining aware of and in contact with the rest of their team.

When I was assigned to my current position over Logistics, one of the first things I did was to meet with everyone on the team, one on one. The purpose of the meeting was twofold: It served as an opportunity to share my vision and expectation for our division; and more importantly, it was a way for me to get to know the members on my team. I asked them to tell me about their families, their career goals, and even to share a something that makes them unique. As I was establishing myself as their Division Leader, they learned that I was someone that cared enough about them to connect personally.

2. Measure your LeaderMent in relationship movement

The second concept is to measure your success in relationship movement. The basic idea is that no one’s success is theirs alone. To become a success in any organization, you need to have built relationships along the way and have a network of trusted allies. If you are doing things the right way, those relationships should remain in place and will often flourish. You need to ask yourself if the relationships you built are still producing fruits. If they are not, you need to focus more on the relationship than the results in the short term.

Strong relationships are critical to the success of those in management. I maintain relationships outside of our work environment with members of my department at every rank. I have heart-to-heart discussions with them regularly about the direction we are going and why decisions are being made the way they are. These conversations are built on the trust I developed long before I was placed in an executive position. They help me to have a good feel for the pulse of the department, and it helps them to trust that the decisions being made are not done in a vacuum without the input of the men and women in the field.

3/4. Sometimes you shouldn’t lead; sometimes you shouldn’t manage

The next two concepts are two sides of the same coin. They are the foundation of LeaderMent.

Put simply, there are times to lean on your leadership skills and times to lean on the management skills. As an executive, sometimes you shouldn’t lead. When an important decision has to be made, you may need to focus on your management skills. These decisions may require you to forecast and plan, organize, command, coordinate and control.

There are also times to lean on your leadership skills. This is important to remember when things are not going the right way, but there isn’t a crisis. In this situation, the best managers will rely on leadership to get things back on track.

As the chief officer responsible for the renovation projects at our fire stations, I use both of these concepts at times. It is critical to involve the crews in the design of the station. Their input allows us to get the end user perspective and allows us to solve logistical issues with their help. I act as a leader in this part of the process, guiding the team toward the goal of a great station that is built to last for the next 50 years. I become a manager when we get to the construction phase. Here, decisions become very expensive both in time and money. When we reach this point, I make the decisions and keep everything on track as a true manager.

5. Listen hard

The fifth concept is possibly the most important one to your continued success. In order to know how you are doing in LeaderMent, you need to “listen hard.” This means listening free from distractions to the people under your control.

The first person that knows a leader is failing is not the leader. It is someone in their command. While you should ask for honesty, remember that it is unlikely that people will give you the full truth in what they tell you. It is your responsibility to listen for clues and ask follow-up questions. You do not want to miss the opportunities to fix issues early, and you can identify those by listening.

I make it a point to speak regularly with my section heads for this reason. Even more important, I talk to the uniform staff and civilian employees in the Logistics Division every time I see them. We have a lunch together as a team every few months. At these informal settings, I have the opportunity to speak with anyone on the team and to keep my finger on the pulse of the division. Listening hard must be intentional, and sometimes even scheduled to be successful.

6. Be replaceable

Finally, it is important to be replaceable. It is a great loss for any department when they lose someone who went out of their way to take what they knew with them. True success for an organization is when someone leaves and the department doesn’t miss a beat. This has been described as the “big red machine continuing to move without you.”

Being replaceable is a critical element in LeaderMent. You are not your position. The position you work in should always be getting set up for the success of whoever follows you. As the division chief over Logistics, I set up a folder for all of our files to live electronically. In the past this information only existed in emails. Whenever someone else takes my role over, all the important information will be available at the push of a button.

Staying connected while leading

I believe strongly in this model of LeaderMent. It has served me well in my career and has allowed me to be seen as a competent leader, not a disconnected manager. The trust that I have built with the members of the Austin Fire Department is my foundation. I continue to build upon that foundation, and I know that it will give my department great success as we continue to grow.

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