The ‘messy middle’: Finding your footing in the battalion chief position
Lessons from one year navigating mid-level leadership
My first full year as a line battalion chief is in the books.
The thought of stepping away from the cocoon and camaraderie of a well-functioning truck company to navigating solo in the fire SUV was a massive leap and one not taken lightly. Being a company officer was the most fun and rewarding position I have held in the fire service. Not only is it a big step moving to a chief-level position for the first time, but in my opinion, one of the more difficult positions to define and understand until it is experienced. You are still putting out fires, but many of those fires are metaphorical in nature.
Everyone comes into a new job wanting the roadmap for success, but we know fire service leadership is far from black and white, especially as you progress through the ranks. This is never more evident than when it becomes your responsibility to lead people who lead others. You prepare extensively for the known job responsibilities by developing a solid foundation in strategy and tactics, incident command, and basic human management and leadership. Having a solid foundation in the known will allow you more space and confidence to navigate the unknowns that come with many new positions.
Some things can only be experienced
Being a battalion chief is the epitome of mid-level leadership. Being in the messy middle is challenging and can feel isolating at times. You are at the top of one hierarchy but the bottom of another. It’s a balancing act serving the people below and above you in the chain of command.
The BC is constantly helping align perspectives. They must understand and advocate for the crews doing the most important work on the streets, informing and influencing the command staff to ensure they get the tools and support they need. The people closest to the problem usually know best what is needed to solve it; they just need the avenue to communicate it.
The BC must also articulate the strategic command and administrative staff understanding and objectives to the line crews so the organization continues to progress and meet expected benchmarks. Everyone is working under the same mission and striving for the same end goals, but we naturally perceive things differently based on our responsibilities and environment. This isn’t a negative or adversarial thing, it’s just human and organizational nature.
The line BC is the one who can touch both sides. The influence of the position is real and can be equally rewarding and demanding, sometimes simultaneously. The sphere of influence expands, and words and actions matter – and they carry further. It’s a big responsibility.
When I first stepped into the BC role, I experienced some imposter syndrome. I was a captain just the day before, responsible for five other people, along with some non-human assets. Now it’s over 40 people, along with many others indirectly.
It was overwhelming, at first, thinking I should have the answers for everything, but I realized quickly that credibility isn’t built on having the immediate answers; however, it will surely be lost if you act as though you do but are unable to deliver. As Battalion Chief Dena Ali eloquently reminds us in a recent FireRescue1 article, it's OK to be a “not-knower.” We can build trust and confidence through humility and follow through. Much of the time people don’t need us to solve their problems but rather want to be heard, and we need to fight our ego’s natural default to immediately fix.
This year has felt a little like drinking from a firehose. In an effort to capture some of the many lessons coming my way, I made a practice of writing down some takeaways from every shift like a mini after-action review (AAR). I revisited all of the shift takeaways and consolidated some of the common themes into a handful of lessons learned.
These experiences are obviously my own, and just barely scratch the surface. Maybe some will relate, others might catch a glimpse of the job, mainly the nuances that are hard to articulate in a handbook or qualification manual. And some of the lessons are obvious and come with the territory of any mid-level leadership position fire service and beyond, but still worth reinforcing for new BCs unsure where to begin in their new role.
Build relationships: We don’t work alone. Whether an emergency scene or a difficult personnel situation, we always work as a team. Build relationships with anyone and everyone; you never know when you may need them. Relationship-building starts with my company officers and their crews, as well as the rest of our command and administrative staff. It also includes our dispatch center, police department, other key city staff, and other battalion chiefs from our automatic-aid region. The time to get to know one another isn’t on the scene of a multi-alarm event.
Get out of the office, be visible, be present and interact. Build relationships naturally by training with the crews, eating meals together, and through impromptu firehouse conversations. If you’re doing things right, they want to see you. They want to show you what they’re working on. You have influence and it matters. Show people you are human and have their best interests in mind, and they will do anything for you. The ever-increasing administrative duties must still get done, but they can usually wait.
Detach where possible: It’s important to find a balance where you can be engaged without getting pulled into drama and emotions. Detachment is necessary in operations and in non-emergency decision-making. This isn’t apathy or turning a blind eye; it’s a very intentional engaged detachment that changes with the situation. Take a step back to broaden your field of view, but also to allow others the space to do their jobs. Navy SEAL and leadership guru Jocko Willink calls detachment a super power. He speaks and writes about it frequently, including in his book, “Leadership Strategy and Tactics.”
On the fireground we can detach by setting up an appropriate span of control and decentralizing our resources. We create clear expectations and job responsibilities before the incident and put the right people in the right places. This allows the IC to avoid getting down in the weeds and to remain strategic. The same applies off the fireground when dealing with personnel or situational decision-making and interactions where we have time on our side. Use that time and be self aware enough to know when the emotion is creeping in and you need to take a step back. Your future self will thank you.
Stay organized: Control the controllable. Anticipate and be proactive. Obviously, this job is centered around reacting to crises, but so much of the chaos can be calmed by having good operational and administrative plans in place. Use calendars, take notes and schedule your days ahead of time as much as possible. Expect that things will not go as planned, which is fine because you will just move to plan B and C. Information starts coming at you fast throughout the shift. Create systems to manage it and follow through. Being in control of the day-to-day processes instills confidence in those around you that also carries over to the fireground.
Just as the day-to-day shift planning is important, so is longer-range planning for the professional development of our individual people and the battalion. Take control of the shared calendar before it controls you. Impromptu training has its place, but thoughtfully curating training to the needs of our people is critical.
Prioritize personal wellness and development: Force separation from the job to focus on yourself. This isn’t only for your sake but also for the sake of others around you. The combination of your role becoming less physically demanding and the dramatic increase in stress can be detrimental to your health. Stay fit and set a good example for your people. Don’t become a liability or a double standard. Win the long game.
Furthermore, don’t forget about your own professional development. When others see you bettering yourself through education, outside classes, conferences, etc., it sets a good example and instills confidence in your crews and your leadership team that you are staying up on current trends and maintaining proficiency. Not to mention the perspective gained from getting outside of your bubble. Focusing on yourself is very difficult, especially in the beginning while you are overwhelmed with just surviving the day in a new job. It’s not only about you, but also important from a succession planning perspective for the highly capable people you’ve trained to step into the role while you’re gone.
Always expect fire and prioritize operations: Emergency operations is why we are here. Being operationally proficient is the well understood part of the job but also what keeps many of us new commanders up at night. There is no other component of the job we want to excel at more than being a trusted and competent incident commander. Keep your mind in the game and expect the next major event is just around the corner. Don’t allow a day to go by where you aren’t preparing. You can’t learn and know everything overnight, but staying engaged with the right mindset and a proficient team will allow you to work through anything.
Some of this may seem obvious, but as you start to settle into these positions, new responsibilities such as projects and committees start to “fill the plate,” especially in resource-limited organizations. These extra responsibilities come with the territory as a chief officer, and are not only necessary for organizational progress but also for our own personal growth. Bandwidth is a struggle for many of us. Say no to things that distract from the ability to focus on operations and the immediate day-to-day needs of your people.
So much still to learn
The ability to support and influence an amazing and selfless group of people toward a mission of service, helping them contribute to something bigger than themselves, is an honor and a great responsibility. It can be a grind, and you don’t always feel the tangible personal success when you are less frequently in the trenches directly delivering the service you came on the job to deliver. However, recognizing successes through others can be even more rewarding.
No faster in a position have I recognized that work-life balance, at least in the manner many people perceive, is not realistic. Being off duty does not mean the work is done. This job requires significant individual and family sacrifice, but it's totally worth it. Influence comes with a price and must be appreciated.
This position has been the biggest challenge and growth opportunity of my career and I am nowhere near having it figured out. As Aristotle said, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” I look forward to many more years of figuring out how much I don’t know.