‘I now lead as myself’: What it’s like to be a female captain supervising an all-male crew
Finding a supervisory style rooted in authenticity creates an environment of trust and common ground
A contractor for a project next door to the firehouse walks in through the firehouse back door. I get up from the kitchen table to greet him, asking how I can help him.
He looks past me to the three men seated at the table and says he needs to talk to the captain. I introduce myself as the captain and again ask how I can help him. He continues to stare past me, expecting one of the guys to get up. Finally, one of my guys points to me and says, "Our captain is asking how she can help you."
The man looks at me for the first time, shakes his head and walks out, mumbling to himself, “They let women do anything these days."
Unfortunately, this type of public reaction is relatively standard in my experience. When I was a firefighter, I got a lot of, "You do the same job as the guys, really?” or “You pull that hose into burning buildings?" Nowadays, I get more, “You're in charge of these guys, really?" Just the other day, a board-up contractor on a fire scene asked one of the guys where the “cute fire lady” he was talking to had gone. My firefighter said, "Oh, you mean my captain? She's over there.”
I supervise an all-male crew. For our department, it's a numbers game. We have 600-plus suppression personnel with just 24 of those positions filled by women.
Do gender differences create some challenges? Of course. Men and women approach situations differently. But we can all work together as a team, each bringing a different strength to the equation. As I have grown into my role, I believe understanding the person is more important than focusing on whether they are a man or a woman.
Finding my supervisory style
At the beginning of my career as a captain, my supervisory style was all over the place. Fireground operations were not the problem; you have your training, standard operating guidelines (SOGs), Incident Command System (ICS), and the Manual of Operations to fall back on. It was the day-to-day challenge of different and complex personalities, and how to get the best work from my crew, that I found more challenging.
For me, crew cohesiveness and teamwork are huge. How can you be a successful supervisor when you have to be the heavy with one guy, gently guide another while pulling the third back from crossing the line for the fifth time of shift? How do you deal with a male dynamic without being labeled a [insert derogatory word here]? With some guys, you don't, no matter what you do. The label will come regardless, a result of their insecurity. The key is not to give it energy. In my opinion, it's the supervisor's job to learn what motivates each member of your crew to be a better firefighter and challenge each person to be their best selves – and then have fun in the downtime.
I spent a lot of time contemplating my supervisory style after my first few years as a captain. I read fire department supervision and military leadership books, which offered some great advice. I just found it hard to incorporate some of the concepts into my leadership style. Then a friend recommended Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly,” and that lead me to her book “Dare to Lead.”
This quote from Theodore Roosevelt used by Dr. Brown in “Daring Greatly” changed my outlook: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It was like a lightbulb. I had set expectations for myself through what I had read before, but something was missing. I had never given myself permission to fail.
In the fire service, women are often judged differently than men. Failure is not an option. I found that I brought that baggage from my early fire career, searching for a way to be “one of the guys,” which I never will be. Yes, I can kick ass, but which persona or incarnation will I be today to fit in with the crew?
In my first couple of years as a captain, I tried supervisory styles like trying on different hats. I wasn't comfortable, and I found myself stressed out, still trying to be accepted and trying to prove myself to these guys, instead of supervising and leading.
Taking all the knowledge I have gained, I now lead as myself, not a version of myself I think my firefighters want. I have taken off my armor and am genuinely me – take it, leave it, work for me, or transfer out if you can't handle it. I have a “strong back, soft front and wild heart,” as Brown would say, being both fierce and kind while not giving in to the BS.
When I am assigned a probationary firefighter or have a new firefighter assigned to the station, I have a packet of my expectations written out, so there is no misunderstanding. These are my basic rules, and the crew will follow them; the rest is up for discussion. My supervisory style is coaching, democratic and bureaucratic, with a bit of the autocrat thrown in, especially on the fireground. I enjoy the discussion during pre-fire planning or general talk around the table. When crews share ideas, we all benefit. Everyone looks at issues differently and brings something unique to the table.
Handling overtime assignments or supervising other crews that I do not typically work with can be challenging. You can feel a shift when you walk in, and they are all on guard. I used to worry that they weren't comfortable in their own house just because I was there. I would go out of my way to make sure they were comfortable around "the woman."
After "taking off my armor," I no longer go out of my way to make them feel comfortable. If a guy has an issue with me for being a woman, that's his issue. I will be happy to discuss it with him and strive for a connection if possible. Unfortunately, some guys don't like being led by a woman. It is too far outside their comfort zone. I no longer choose to take on the burden of proving to them women can do the job. It's too exhausting with little to no positive outcome.
Management modes, including ‘Captain Mom’
Many years ago, I read somewhere that men in the fire service will see women in one of three ways – as a girlfriend, a sister or a mom. Looking back over 30 years, I would say this is relatively accurate, particularly from my experience with the younger crewmembers with whom I can sometimes feel more like a mom than a captain.
The other day, one of my guys said of another member, "I love it when you go all mom on his ass." It's OK. I'm comfortable with it. Everyone can relate on some level: Do your job, and you won't have to deal with my "Captain Mom" side. It’s all about the rapport you build with your crew without focusing on them being male or female. And let’s face it, some members need more "parenting" than others.
When it comes to the fireground, there are several supervisory modes that can emerge. For example, for my crew, wearing an SCBA on a car or dumpster fire is a normal SOG. I recently had to send a guy back to the engine to grab his SCBA for a car fire after I have made it clear en route to the call that the crew will mask up. "But I was staying upwind; I'm fine,” he said.
I no longer bother to argue. I can look at him and ask if he would like to disregard a direct order, explaining we can discuss it in my office when the rest of us finish and send him to sit by the rig.
One time a guy wore his bottle but didn't mask up. My sarcastic side popped up, and I inquired whether he thought I just wanted him to wear the extra weight or if he considered using his mask to save his lungs might be a better option than just carrying it around. I don't recommend passive-aggressive supervision, although, in some situations, it has its place. Some days keeping these kids safe is just like parenting my teenage son.
The crew wants to be here
My station serves a large portion of the local homeless community. Our station motto is "We make house calls to the homeless,” and our logo is a shopping cart with fire gear in it. It's not for everybody, and I have high expectations regarding customer service for every person we encounter, regardless of their situation.
This can lead to a high turnover with crews. Adding a female supervisor to the mix on top of the homeless is too much for some guys. I see this as a benefit. The firefighters who work for me want to be here. The positive attitudes and fun we have as a crew make the shifts enjoyable.
Dare greatly and learn from mistakes
As the saying goes, “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life!” Don't get me wrong; it's not all sunshine and roses. You must find your supervisory style and embrace it. Taking off my armor allowed me to grow and become the leader I am today. No longer am I confined by the limits I put on myself to feel safe in a "man's world."
Leave room for improvement, learn from mistakes and failures, and own them. Nothing will put off a crew more than the captain throwing someone under the proverbial bus so they can save face. Go out there, dare greatly, knowing there will be a time you will fall on your face. The key is always to get back up and do better!
7 ways to develop future fire service leaders across the generational chasm
Facing the reality of diverging leadership styles – and evolving your leadership style with the times