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Leadership isn’t easy, but stop making it so complicated

Tips for company officers to simplify their approach to leadership and lean into what matters most – the people

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“To maximize effectiveness, leaders must understand the scope of their influence and realize its effect on others,” Linnenburger writes.

Photo/Steve Johnson, University of Arizona Health Sciences

Leadership is harder today than it has ever been – at all ranks. Many of our company officers are facing challenges for which they simply have not been trained, particularly as they try to focus on “big picture” issues that are beyond their scope, both on the human resources and operational sides of the firehouse.

Operations are becoming more complex, and the expectations and scrutiny to perform have never been higher. Then, from the inside, we tell our people they are at a higher risk of cancer, mental health issues, sleep issues, substance issues, divorce, and on and on and on. This is impacting all our members, but we often forget how these pressures compound for leaders, especially new leaders, like company officers. Company officers are experiencing all the same pressures and anxieties as our firefighters, while being expected to guide, develop and protect them in these turbulent times.

First- and second-level line officers are THE most important positions in any fire service organization. They have more direct influence over the people within an organization than any other rank. Unfortunately, many company officers underestimate their own influence and importance. It is easy to become disenfranchised about the issues over which we have no control. This happens frequently at the company officer level where engagement and responsibility increase but organizational change or policy-making ability is not typically in the job description.

For any leader to reach their full potential, they must understand the purpose of their position and where their influence exists. While company officers should not take it upon themselves to fix our big picture issues, they are key to the success of our operations and the overall culture of an organization. It simply comes back to a matter of focus, particularly because so many of us tend to lose focus on the important things, especially during tough times. It is easy to chase the squirrels and fixate on the external emotion-generating factors, instead of focusing on our most important responsibilities – our people.

With this in mind, it’s essential that we train our company officers for their role – and what matters most. We oftentimes make things more complicated than they need to be, and we self-impose challenges and dissatisfaction. Company officers can thrive in this complicated environment by following these three tips to simplify their approach, focusing on what matters most and where they have their greatest impact.

1. Appreciate the influence

Company officers have tremendous influence. The problem: Many of them do not realize it.

Envision a time you worked for a great boss. You would walk through walls for that person. It did not matter what the chief was doing or how the city or district government was mismanaging from the ivory tower. The words and actions that came from the great boss, that first-level direct supervisor, were the marching orders that would be followed and emulated. Our newest firefighters do not know any different. Most think the company officer is all-knowing.

On the flip side, most of us can think of a time we worked for a bad boss. Anyone ever experienced a sense of impending doom thinking about returning to work for their shift? The shift drags on and your attitude progressively worsens as you hide out in the bunkroom Googling other employment options. It is the same job, and can even be at the same station, but one person can impact your entire attitude about it. This leads to decreased performance and service delivery whether you realize it or not. This is culture-defining influence.

Leadership is just influence – for good or bad. Do not take influence for granted and ensure that it is earned the right way. In a recent podcast, General Stanley McChrystal was talking about leadership influence and how to earn followers. He talked about leaders using “cheap leadership tricks,” such as vilifying others, especially upper-level leaders within the same organization, to gain followers. This is an easy and provocative way to gain followers but will not be sustainable and is not healthy. We all have baggage, especially those of us who have been with an organization for a significant amount of time. It is not fair to make other people carry your baggage along with their own. Be an influence for good.

2. Raise them like family

Do not treat your members like children, but you should protect and care for them like they are. This does not mean enabling or shielding them from hard things. However, problems that do not concern them need not be their problems. Anyone who has grown up in an unstable home full of fighting or worry understands how stress is absorbed. Good leaders, like good parents, will shoulder unnecessary burdens so their people are free to thrive and grow. Good leaders have the humility and courage to fight for their people and fire companies behind the scenes without bragging about it to them, all while keeping the team mission-focused.

The family approach should also be applied to the onboarding of our next generation of firefighters. Yes, the next generation coming into the fire service is different. Just as we were all different from the previous generation when we arrived. We should not be surprised by this. Our job is to build teams, and the company officer is crucial in this.

Get to know your firefighters and learn what motivates them. What do they need for their development and confidence? Do not assume they think the same way you do or have the same priorities or goals. Learn to meet them where they are and bring them to the place you want them to be. At the same time, you must hold them accountable if they are not performing. Do not create a problem for someone else or allow a poor performer to put the team at risk. This is a huge responsibility and crucial for the health and performance of our organizations. Keep it simple: Raise them as you would want your own child raised, and do not tolerate a crew culture that acts otherwise.

3. Control the narrative

Lastly, officers must keep their company mission-focused and protect their firehouses from the noise pushing in from the outside, particularly as the polarization of politics and our society is expanding at a rapid pace. We live in an amazing country that allows us freedom to believe how we choose. However, we need to keep our firehouses apolitical and focused on the mission. Remember, our job is to build teams, not divide them.

The officer can keep the team strong and focused by clearly defining and re-defining expectations and modeling the expected behaviors. Focus on values, service and mission. Celebrate good performance, both team and individual, publicly. Have tough conversations and correct deficient performance face to face, behind closed doors. This job is taxing and affects everyone differently. A good officer stays engaged and knows when to step in and re-center the team. The best do this without anyone even noticing it happened.

We control the narrative in our firehouses by how we treat people and the stories we tell. Are you telling stories about how superior your leadership is and how inferior everyone else is, or do you appreciate it when others succeed and show grace when they make a mistake? It does not instill security in your followers if you are always speaking behind the backs of others. Words matter, especially from the leader. Oftentimes we should say nothing, but that is hardest of all. Temperance is a virtue we should all strive for, especially when we have people hanging on our every word.

Our people depend on it

Leadership is a great responsibility, and it is not easy. To maximize effectiveness, leaders must understand the scope of their influence and realize its effect on others. The great leaders at the line level thrive in the day-to-day grind by leaning into what matters. They put others first by caring for them, developing them and protecting them. They humbly bring consistency, security and predictability. The fire service needs values-driven, service-oriented leaders, especially at the company level.

Do not lose focus on your own health and development in the process. Set a good example and take care of yourself. Do not become a liability. Keep your skills up. Prioritize your own professional development, and set a good example for others. Seek development opportunities outside of your organization. This job is too dynamic to think you can learn everything you need from your department’s training division or during the confines of your duty shift.

When things get challenging, you will never go wrong to simplify your approach and lean into what matters. Focus on your people and the areas over which you have control. Understand how your actions impact others and capitalize on it. Resist the noise and the impulse to react emotionally. Fire officers who appreciate their sphere of influence, and the responsibility that comes with that, can maximize their influence, ultimately becoming a leader whom others beg to follow.

Eric Linnenburger is a 24-year member of the Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department, currently serving as interim deputy chief of operations. With the WFD, Linnenburger has served as a firefighter, paramedic, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in applied science with a business of government specialization from Regis University and an associate degree in fire science technology from Aims Community College.