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Lonely at the top: Strategies for newly promoted firefighters

Setting boundaries can protect your existing relationships, while forging new connections can help you cultivate different avenues of support

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“Managing friendships following a promotion in the fire service may not be difficult for every fire officer, but it poses challenges for the majority of us,” Ian Emmons writes.

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For anyone in the fire service who is preparing to promote or has already promoted, there’s a maxim I’m sure you’re all familiar with: “It gets lonelier the higher you climb.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with this saying, it refers to the idea that each time an individual promotes, while their circle of influence may widen dramatically, their circle of friends and internal confidants likely shrinks correspondingly.

Managing friendships following a promotion in the fire service may not be difficult for every fire officer, but it poses challenges for the majority of us, and there are good reasons for it—some self-imposed, others that happen naturally through interactions and experience. By the time a person achieves the rank of fire chief, it can become very lonely at the top.

But does it have to be? And if not, what can be done to prevent it?

Why Relationships Can Be Difficult as an Officer

Picture this: You’re a lieutenant with a tightknit crew one day and the next day you’re a battalion chief. You’ve gotten the big promotion, and with it comes more responsibilities, expectations, and formal authority. The promotion puts more eyes on you and subsequently your decisions, interactions, actions, and sometimes inactions. While this type of scrutiny shouldn’t be a problem for any of us because of that little thing called integrity, managing friendships following a promotion in the fire service can be challenging to say the least.

A promotion doesn’t have the same impact on everyone’s relationships; there are many variables that influence friendships following a promotion, such as where the rank falls in the chain-of-command, the size of the department, and the organization’s culture. For the overwhelming majority of us, things change, and that change can be hard at first. This is because our obligations to the organization, its members, and the community also change. However, we should keep in mind that our friends, former partners, and former crew members may have an even harder time appreciating the change that must occur for us to fulfill our new role.

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The reason why friendships can be tricky as we promote, especially to the rank of fire chief, is because we may be expected to act or react in the same way we did as a firefighter or officer of a lower rank, but we now have different obligations to the organization and community. Friends may not understand why you’ve “changed,” and this is often where the saying, “He or she forgot where they came from” is coined. But did you really forget where you came from or are you just fulfilling the expectations of your new role? This is where the water gets muddy, and where friendships may become strained.

Some officers are fortunate to strike the appropriate balance in their friendships right away; others may abandon them all together. Still others may throw all advice to the wind and continue to act just as they did before their promotion. Each fire officer must choose their own path; however, treating your relationships as if nothing has changed with your promotion will eventually catch up to you, forcing you to make decisions between what is best for your role and organization and what is best for your friendships.

Rarely is this because a friend is trying to take advantage of the relationship, although, this, too, does happen. Instead, there is often simply a disconnect between the new expectations of your role and how your friend or former crew member expects you to react.

Strategies for Maintaining and Expanding Your Support System

Losing friendships—both inside and outside of work—can feel daunting, but it’s important to realize you don’t have to end friendships to move successfully into a new leadership role. It’s true, your friendships will inevitably change, but they do not have to vanish altogether. There are many successful approaches for preserving some relationships as well as developing newer, long-lasting relationships with colleagues both inside and outside of the organization.

The key to preserving existing relationships is to set boundaries and expectations as early as possible. I mentioned earlier that your obligations change with each additional bugle, and with this comes the fact that your decisions will not make everyone happy all the time. By creating these boundaries and expectations early and having frank conversations with friends about your new role, you can set the stage for future decisions you’ll unavoidably be making. This alone doesn’t prevent or relieve you from the fact you’ll be making unpopular decisions at times, but it does help facilitate an understanding with your friends.

As you promote, you will find yourself relying more and more on your in-rank peers and your immediate boss. This cadre will likely make up the bulk of your internal confidants, to whom you can safely bounce ideas, bend ears, and ask questions. You will no longer be able to share details of organizational issues and events with people you may have previously confided in, which can be a hard habit break but one where there is no wiggle room.

Be sure to foster these peer relationships early and often since as an officer you rarely work side-by-side with your peers, other than at training and on emergency scenes. As a fire chief this can be particularly difficult, since you have no direct peers within the organization. The fire chief must seek out conversations with their lower-ranking officers and develop a working relationship with their boss, who is often a township administrator or city manager.

At some point, especially as you climb higher toward and finally achieve the rank of fire chief, you’ll need to cultivate relationships with colleagues outside your organization. This is usually accomplished through regional and statewide meetings, trainings and conferences, as well as on social media platforms such as LinkedIn. These relationships are vital for creating a support network where you can safely share situations, ask for advice, or simply vent. These relationships often become the cornerstone of your professional network and provide perspective to your situations and decisions. Having relationships with colleagues across the region, state, and country is rewarding and allows you to grow as a leader.

Continuing the Climb

So, to circle back to our original question: Does it have to be lonely at the top, and if it doesn’t, what can you do about it? While it may certainly feel lonely at times, especially during the difficult decisions where you know you’re going to upset the masses (but for the right reasons), you don’t have to—and shouldn’t—isolate yourself. Setting boundaries can protect your existing relationships, while forging new connections can help you cultivate different avenues of support. Together, these strategies should help you feel a little less alone as you ascend the chain of command

Ian Emmons is the deputy chief of operations in Sarasota County, Florida. Emmons received his MBA from the University of Cincinnati and is a current EFOP student at the National Fire Academy. He sits on the Board of Directors for the Safety, Health and Survivial section of the IAFC, is an IAFC Professional Development Committee member, serves as the Education Committee Chair for IFE-USA, and sits on multiple NFPA technical committees, including 1001 and 1021. Emmons has been designated as a CFO and CTO through the CPC and received his MIFireE status from the IFE.