ReIGNITE Quick Take: What I wish I knew before becoming a chief

Two chiefs share nine tips they wish they knew before taking the top spot


“If I had only known ….” It’s a fairly common sentiment no matter what your profession.

We all wish we could go back in time and impart our current knowledge to our younger selves. Fortunately for fire service leaders, Tom Jenkins of the Rogers (Arkansas) Fire Department and Jake Rhoades of the Kingman (Arizona) Fire Department are hoping to help new chiefs avoid some of the common mistakes that seemingly all chiefs face in their tenure in the top spot.

Chiefs Jenkins and Rhoades presented “The Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became Fire Chief” at the IAFC ReIGNITE virtual conference, sharing stories of lessons learned and common pitfalls from a position that they described as a paradox – rewarding but draining, social but lonely, connected but isolated, with a lot of decisions being made in the gray.

Chiefs Jenkins and Rhoades share an insider's look at what they wish they had known when they were first promoted to chief.
Chiefs Jenkins and Rhoades share an insider's look at what they wish they had known when they were first promoted to chief. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

Know someone who is making the step up? Download the tip list to help them on their first day.

Memorable quotes

“Being a leader of these very dynamic organizations that sometimes have to thrive in an environment of cutbacks means that your career oftentimes is going to be riddled with bad decisions, sometimes misappropriated trust and confidence in people that work around you and with you, a lot of good intentions that don’t always pay out.” – Chief Jenkins

“Being a fire chief is tough …. We just simply aren’t prepared for some of the things that are facing us in today’s world. It’s not stuff that you learn in books. We have to learn as we go in some cases.” – Chief Rhoades

“Once you get the bugles, there’s no giving them back. Once you’re a chief, your decision-making echoes in eternity because somebody will always reflect back on those decisions that you made.” – Chief Rhoades

“It’s important to decide based on your actions and how you manage whether you are going to be a memory or a legacy. It is a legacy that I hope you want to be – that you want to make a difference and your positive impact lasts forever.” – Chief Jenkins

Top takeaways: 5 mistakes of new chiefs

The chiefs first outlined five mistakes new chiefs tend to make, often related to a simple case of expectations vs. reality.

1. You’ll try to make everyone happy. Don’t do this; it’s impossible, Chief Rhoades cautioned. It’s a fact that you’re going to have to tell people no, and people will talk negatively behind your back. Sure, you can try to make as many people as possible happy through sound decision-making, but it’s never going to encompass the entire department.

2. You’ll subscribe to the BISS mentality. Most chiefs don’t like or want to be the “because I told you so” chief, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes chiefs just have to make a decision.

Chief Jenkins explained that involving people is worthwhile but finding good input can be difficult. “As a fire chief, you get a license to lead. And while you don’t want to be aloof and certainly don’t want to be some form of a public safety dictator, you do want to involve people, but sometimes we just have to cut the options in half and make a decision and keep the trajectory of the department moving in the right direction.” In other words, make a decision and move on!

3. You’ll forget the target. What this really means is that you’ll lose focus on why you became a chief in the first place. It’s so easy to get caught up in the small, inconsequential elements of the job and the personnel issues that chiefs sometimes forget about their overall mission at the department and duty to their members.

Another tip Jenkins shared: As much as you may want to resist the political aspect of the job, it is one of the key aspects of being fire chief. Admit it, you are a politician!

4. You’ll overinvest in trust. Chief Jenkins explained that trust is an essential value as a fire chief, but it needs to be used sparingly and be very targeted: “You’re probably going to get burned. Every good fire chief I know has been in situations where we misappropriated trust. We invested in people, we trusted them and unfortunately, they either let us down or had bad intentions.” One antidote to this is to have a support network in place so you know who you can trust.

5. You’ll forget to continuously size-up the organization. “Is the view from the top really the same from the bottom?” Chief Rhoades asked. Chiefs need to keep a constant pulse on the culture of the department and work to understand the mood of the members.

Top takeaways: 9 tips all chiefs should know before taking the job

The chiefs then detailed nine tips they wish they had known when they took the top job.

1. Get some friends. It’s important to have internal relationships that you can count on – people with whom you can test the water and gain some insight about how things are going at the department, for example. However, as Chief Jenkins explained: “It’s also important to have friends that don’t know anything about a ladder company or what standing fireground orders are and that have a life outside of the fire service. The mental health aspects of being a fire chief are probably underappreciated and understudied.”

2. Enjoy the good. “This is the best job in the world,” Chief Rhoades emphasized, and it can be easy to sometimes lose sight of this amid all the stress and work. But remember, your members are more thermometers, not thermostats – your attitude has a significant impact on their morale. So remember to stay positive and to celebrate when things go right.

3. Embrace the power of a non-response. As a chief, you’ll face many situations where you are frustrated. It’s important to temper your emotions and not be too quick to respond. “Sometimes no response is a very appropriate and powerful response,” Chief Jenkins said, adding that it’s OK to sleep on it, to take your time and to consult others in the interest of making sound decisions.

4. Sweat the small stuff. Books may tell you to not sweat the small stuff, but as a chief, you need to pay attention to the issues impacting the rank and file. Chief Rhoades explained that chiefs are so often wrapped up in big issues like budgets that they miss the “small stuff,” like a problem with uniforms or gear – and it means a lot to the members when the chief shows the members are heard.

5. Get acquainted with your ego and learn to admit mistakes. It’s only natural for new chiefs to gain some ego when they promote. The problem, Chief Jenkins said, is when “their ego kinda eats their brain.” It’s important that chiefs know how to accept blame and admit when they were wrong – but also know how to move on and not dwell on it. “There are very few things that are more important than knowing that the people who you lead trust you to make mistakes and that they trust you to own your mistakes,” Jenkins said.

6. Ignore the blowhards. Let’s face it, not everyone has good intentions, and you’ll never be able to win over all the people all the time. Some people will just be negative or criticize your leadership no matter what. Don’t let these voices contaminate all the good that you are doing, though. Ignore them.

7. Don’t become paralyzed. Great things don’t originate in our comfort zones, Rhoades assured. No decision can be worse than making a wrong decision. Understand that it’s OK to fail, so continue to push ahead and be innovative.

8. Talk carefully. As chief, you’re in a top position so be careful with your words. In fact, “always assume you’re being recorded,” Rhoades advised. It will help keep you out of trouble. Further, be careful about complaining – and mindful of who you are complaining to, as your words can impact morale.

9. Never assume: Never assume that people understand your expectations. “Authorized micromanagement” should be common, Rhoades said, as it gives everyone the opportunity to ensure expectations are clear and make adjustments to a project, for example, along the way. After all, it’s better to check in throughout the process, rather than realizing after the fact that expectations were unclear and the project needs to be redone.

Editor’s Note: What do YOU wish you had known before becoming a fire chief? Share in the tips below.

Follow FireRescue1’s ReIGNITE virtual conference coverage at firerescue1.com/fri.

New chiefs: 9 tips to know before taking the top job

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