The socially distanced chief: Problems abound when the chief lives in a bubble

It’s time to emerge from the office and do a little ‘Leading by Driving Around’ to connect with members

Over my 43 years of working in three different fire departments, I have seen and worked for some chiefs who practiced social distancing long before it was required.

Some might joke that these chiefs were ahead of their time. They were in a bubble, and very few were allowed to enter the bubble.

But these chiefs were not concerned about the spread of an infectious disease. No, these chiefs were socially distanced in the sense that they never came out of their office and interacted with their firefighters – and that is the wrong kind of social distancing.

In their own world

In case of one fire chief I knew, the only time he came out of the office was to go to lunch or go home. And in the case of some battalion chiefs I knew, the only time they came out of their office was to go on a run or eat. Thankfully, these battalion chiefs had a bathroom and bed in a room connected to their office; otherwise they would have had to leave their cocoon even more.

Chiefs who practiced social distancing before it was required are out of touch with what is happening in their departments, divisions and battalions. They never have a finger on the pulse of what is important to their firefighters or the issues occurring in their department until it becomes a major issue. What was once a small issue that could have been nipped in the bud was allowed to grow and fester because of lack of attention. In other words, they are reactive instead of proactive.

No knowledge sharing

The other opportunity they miss is the ability to serve as a mentor or coach. There is no opportunity to sit down and talk with their firefighters to share their experiences and knowledge or even opportunities to learn from them.

Socially distanced chiefs seem unapproachable, distant and, to some, intimidating. They build walls around themselves and isolate in their office. Usually, only the privileged few are allowed to enter this sacred space. But if you build a wall around yourself as a chief, members of your staff won't gain from your knowledge and you won't gain from their experience. Worse still, you'll be unable to spot and deal with problems before they become serious, and you'll miss out on the key information that you need to make sound decisions.

Disconnected chiefs are mostly caretakers, warming the seat until the next promotion or retirement, never providing the direction or motivation members seek.

I have been blessed to work for some chiefs like this in the past. Yes, blessed. I was able to witness the incompetence and ineptness of their leadership, and it taught me that their actions were not true leadership.

Leading by Driving Around

Fire departments are not your typical business environment where the CEO may be in the same building as all the other employees. Fire departments are decentralized, and firefighters can be widely dispersed in many work sites. And the larger the department and stations, the more decentralized they are. The only exceptions to this is the single-station department where administration and all firefighters are in the same building.

The business world uses the management phrase Managing by Walking Around (MBWA). In the case of fire departments, this would be Managing by Driving Around (MBDA). Still others advocate that the word “managing” should be replaced with the word “leading,” since we should be leading people and managing things like budgets, payroll and fleets. That means for us, the phrase is really Leading by Driving Around (LBDA).

As a chief, there are many advantages to Leading by Driving Around to fire stations and responding on calls. I know of chiefs, and I do it myself from time to time, who jump on an apparatus and respond on a call with the crew. I also know of chiefs, including myself, who will eat lunch and/or dinner with their firefighters, or maybe get some ramp time with them as they wind down after a day of training and chores.

These actions make you more approachable and create an opportunity for great discussions and communication.

Many problems I have confronted in the past were solved by smart firefighters who shared an ingenious way of solving the problem – something that wouldn’t have been possible without open lines of communication. I have always said, firefighters are smart. Give them a problem and they will find a solution. It is no different than any call. They are faced with a problem when the arrive on the scene, and they will find a solution to deal with the problem.

One of the keys to Leading by Driving Around is to listen and observe more than talk. You cannot hear and learn while your mouth is running.

I also suspect that you will hear things that will upset you or make you mad. Hearing what is wrong is sometimes tough for chiefs who think they run a pretty tight ship. My advice is to accept what you are hearing and gauge the quality of what you are hearing. If one person is saying something is wrong and no one else is, or it is something that will benefit them personally, the quality of what they are saying is not of significance. However, if you are hearing the same problem over and over from multiple firefighters, that is something you should pay attention to and deal with.

Of course, during these unprecedented times of a pandemic, it is challenging to provide true Leadership by Driving Around. Purposeful social distancing is recommended, making it difficult to visit your firefighters. However, chiefs these days are using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other videoconferencing platforms. Some chiefs are recording video messages to their firefighters and sending them out via email or loading them into the training software. Some chiefs are still visiting stations, but the visits are limited to standing in the parking lot, with everyone wearing masks and remaining six feet apart. 

Learn from all the chiefs around you

I have learned many wonderful things about leadership from some amazing chiefs whom I have had the opportunity to work for and who took the time to coach and mentor me. They taught me to interact with my firefighters, get out of the office, and learn first-hand what is happening. It will help you immensely in your leadership role. I am also extremely grateful for those socially distanced chiefs who showed me what NOT to do by their example.

Editor’s Note: How much do you, as a chief, get out to your stations or spend time with your members? Share in the comments below.

[Read next: What fire chiefs gain from reverse mentoring]

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