Trending Topics

Leading with stewardship: Cultivating excellence and trust as a new company officer

How to shift your leadership style from one of crew ownership to stewardship


Photo/Shelburne (Vermont) Fire Department

By Kory Tope

It is often said the company officer has one of the most important jobs in the fire service. In fact, some even compare this role to mortar, which holds a course of bricks steadfast, and therefore the entire wall [1]. In simple terms, the company officer is critical to the success of an organization. For the new company officer, this responsibility can feel quite daunting. Thankfully, some of this stress can be relieved if these challenges are viewed through the right lens.

Ownership vs. stewardship

Over the past 10 years, a heavy focus within many leadership circles has been on the concept of ownership. In essence, taking the utmost responsibility for all aspects of your own actions, those of your team and the results of those actions. This, indeed, should be understood and applied liberally. Accepting personal responsibility for any action is critical for the success of a company officer.

However, there is a darker side to the definition of ownership, specifically when we start to see team members as possessions. I’m sure you’ve all heard an officer say something like, “MY members” did this or that or “MY crew” can take care of that, etc. While these terms can be a form of endearment, recognizing the close-knit relationships that form among crews, company officers must be careful to fight the pressure to “possess” their crew or members.

Don’t get me wrong, I use these terms as well, but it’s important to judge our own motives. When it comes to the crews we are called to lead, instead of using a lens of ownership (referring to possession, not accountability), I encourage us to lead with a lens of stewardship.

Stewardship is defined as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care – really every aspect of our job as company officers revolves around this concept. The lens of stewardship creates an environment in which we understand things are given to us through an act of trust (because of our role as a company officer) and accompanied with an expectation for the utmost care of them.

Another way to think about stewardship is to examine our relationship to the those entrusted to our care. Are we primarily focused on accomplishing our own goals and objectives through those we lead, or are we willing to unselfishly put their needs ahead of our own? [2] Similarly, do we view the less tangible aspects of our job in ways that lead to organizational progress or with selfish ambition?

Let’s work through a few examples of leading with stewardship.

Our people

As company officers, absolute trust is given regarding the most valuable assets our departments and communities have to offer – our people. There is no doubt this aspect of the job is the most fulfilling – and simultaneously the most challenging.

A good way to think about the people we are blessed to work for is to consider them “on loan” to us with a finite amount of time to cultivate growth and serve in meaningful ways. If I view them as something to be possessed, then at the end of our time together, the sentiment around their growth will sound like, “look what I did for them” or “look how well I trained them!” But if I view them as someone to steward and care for, then the sentiment will be, “look how hard she worked” or “look at all he accomplished!” A good litmus test for where you fall on this continuum is to watch where the credit goes. An owner keeps it, but a steward gives it away.

During your time together, their needs must be your needs, and you must demonstrate this in meaningful ways. It’s important to remember that this will often require sacrifice. For example, you may find yourself up late finishing your work because you poured into a member’s training need during the day.

Our influence

Once promoted, you will inherently be granted some measure of influence. While this type of official influence (simply because of designated rank) will only get you so far, and is arguably the least effective type, it still carries responsibility. I must remember that this influence is something that has been given to me to wisely care for. If I use it in ways that are selfish and do not promote the wellbeing of others, I will quickly lose it. However, if I use my influence to advance the mission and vision of my organization, to meet the professional needs of those working with me, and to create deep relationships, then my influence will grow.

This type of influence is called referent power and means that I am earning trust and respect through the care I demonstrate [3]. When we value our influence as something to promote growth, we are stewards of it.

Our opportunities

Each opportunity we are given as company officers comes with a decision point – this could simply be deciding the training for the day or something that carries much more weight, such as facilitating a career development plan for members assigned to our care. Regardless of the opportunity, how we choose to see that opportunity matters. Will it lead to growth and trust? Will it enhance the operations of our crews? Will it support organizational goals?

In many cases, we are given many low-hanging opportunities that we either fail to notice, or face with little to no consideration. For example, we are asked to give the third station tour of the day and we still haven’t been to the store to shop for dinner. Our choice is to realize the impact we can have on the group of young students, showing them what service means and helping them learn vital safety skills, or we can grudgingly do the tour without a single smile, and then complain about it after it’s over. What message did we just send to the junior or probationary members? What message did we send to the community risk reduction (CRR) team that asked us to help with the tour? What message did we send to the parents and teachers who attended the tour? Seizing an opportunity like this is an easy win. Each opportunity comes with a chance to either make a deposit or a withdrawal, and if we don’t approach them with stewardship in mind, we will find our accounts empty in no time.

Our failures

Failure isn’t fun, but it is essential for growth. If we are stewards of our failures, we understand that each failure is actually a gift that is entrusted to us. Our options for facing failure are black and white – learn and grow or don’t. Remember the F.A.I.L. acronym, which stands for First Attempt In Learning.

As a new company officer, you will make mistakes, you will miss deadlines and you will make the wrong decisions. You WILL fail, but don’t let these failures define you. Instead, remember that you are a steward, and you get to decide how you respond. Have a heart that is willing to accept advice and feedback during these times; after all, others have failed, too, and can now pass on the lessons they learned.

Have a mind that can analyze and improve your decision-making process. Don’t let your ego think you will do everything perfectly. Have eyes that are willing to look at root causes and not superficial outcomes. Don’t be afraid to soul search and be honest about the part you played in your failures.

Of all the things in my career for which I’m most thankful, my failures are near the top of the list. They have allowed me to grow in areas I couldn’t see for myself and allowed me to be a steward by sharing the bumps (sometimes more like huge mountains) I’ve faced and overcome along my journey.

Where the rubber meets the road

The truth is, it’s not easy being a company officer, but it is also incredibly fulfilling. On every shift, every call, every meeting, every tour, I have a choice to make: Will I be a steward by caring for those I work for, or will I pursue selfish ambition? Will I realize that my influence can build unshakeable trust, or will I squander it pushing my own agenda? Will I seize every opportunity to build others up and meet their needs, or will I complain about the inconvenience? Will I be bold in facing my failures or will I hide in their shadows. None of this is easy, but remembering that I am a steward of these things, and countless others, will create a framework for success. Leading with stewardship will make the path to excellence much clearer, and it will demonstrate to those who believe in you a reason to entrust you with even more.

What matters most is that we continue to work on ourselves every day – these rules can help us stay on track


About the author
Kory Tope serves as a lieutenant with Windsor Severance Fire Rescue (WSFR) in Colorado and is assigned to a truck company. With over 20 years of fire service experience, Tope is currently assigned as a Rescue Specialist and Heavy Equipment Rigging Specialist with Colorado Task Force 1 and is the WSFR co-lead for Special Operations. Additionally, Tope is a regional instructor for the Front Range Fire Consortium’s Leadership Encounter program and module lead for WSFR’s Acting Lieutenant Boot Camp. Tope holds a bachelor’s in sociology/psychology from the University of Northern Colorado and is currently pursuing a master’s in organizational leadership from Colorado Christian University. Tope is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Managing Officer Program and holds the Fire Officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence.