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Competition or cooperation? Don’t be afraid to show your cards to the competition

How helping your competition will position you for the next level of leadership


As leaders, our desire to move up the ranks should be rooted in the hope that we’ll make our departments better.

Photo/Ben Thompson

Last month, I was promoted for the third time in my career, this time to the rank of captain.

I’m proud of what I have accomplished, having been successful three out of the four times I have faced the assessment center. But one thing I’ve never gotten used to is just how competitive we get with one another before the big day – hoarding study material and hosting secret study meetings in hopes of not giving away some imagined “edge” we have on the competition.

It’s a strange atmosphere in a career where we are supposed to treat one another like brothers and sisters.

If we’re family, shouldn’t we want each other to succeed?


Eight years ago, before my first promotional test, I was given a copy of Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – a book chock full of information that can help everyone become a better leader.

For me, one of the greatest takeaways was the belief in mutual benefit or, simply put, the Win-Win frame of mind.

In the book Covey writes, “Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense of the success of others … It’s not your way or my way; it’s a better way.”

This is an easy belief to preach after having been promoted.

But I do believe if we can all learn to embody this practice on our way up, then we will begin to see success at every rank we hold, especially if the day ever comes when we find ourselves at the top.

Building relationships

The bonds we form over our careers are strong because they are forged over shared hardships unique to our business. No one knows the stresses we face better than those we serve alongside.

But just as easily as lifelong friendships can form, bitterness and ill feelings can run amok. This is especially true during the promotional process.

On an emergency incident, we each share our strengths for a common goal. As firefighters, it’s what we do. And by sharing our strengths, we achieve a better way than we ever could alone.

As leaders, our desire to move up the ranks should be rooted in the hope that we’ll make our departments better. Even though we all must face the assessment center alone, by sharing our strengths in the weeks leading up to it, we can.

I’ve always been good at taking tests. It is a skill I have acquired through obsessive study and hours of practice. And I’ve got a pretty strong grasp on EMS operations. But my conflict-resolution skills could always use some work. Also, my experience on the fireground pales in comparison to many of my coworkers.

Rather than go off alone to bury myself in articles and textbooks, I like to reach out to those I see as my greatest competitive threat. After a brief period of sizing each other up, I offer up everything I know. I share study guides, internet resources and study techniques that have worked for me in the past.

And when I’m finished, they show me what they have. Before it’s over, we quiz each other on different scenarios and critique our responses.

It’s a whole lot more fun than sitting by myself staring at a computer screen. Even if we do not become best friends, mutual respect tends to blossom.

Sharing your strengths is the best way to get your competitor to reveal their own. And no matter the outcome you each separately achieve, you will both be better than you were and, ultimately, so will your department.

Promotions do not erase history

Going from buddy to boss is a big leap for all of us. For many the transition is much more difficult than others, because no matter what rank we are promoted to, we’ve got our own professional pasts to deal with.

True leaders rarely wait to lead. It is just something they do. Pinpointing a single moment that separates leader from the rest is a hard thing to do. But if there is one trait that most have in common, it is that they always share.

They share the workload, they share their knowledge, they share the blame, and they always share the rewards.

Selfishness has no place in our industry. By remaining open and available when most people refuse to do so, like a competitive promotional process, we can fight off this perception.

And then when you find yourself riding in that front right seat, your crew will be much more willing to give you their all – because they’ll know you’re willing to do the same.

When that happens, everybody wins.

Ben Thompson is a battalion chief in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2016, Thompson developed his department’s first mobile integrated health (MIH) program and shared his experiences from building the program at TEDxBirmingham. Thompson was the recipient of the 2016 Emergency Medical Service Provider of the Year Award and the 2018 Joe E. Acker Award for Innovation in Emergency Medical Services, both in Jefferson County, Alabama. He has a bachelor’s degree from Athens State University in Alabama and is a licensed paramedic. Connect with Thompson through his website