Dear Chief, A Letter From the Guys July 05 2018, 12 Comments
This is a letter from the guys. It is full of suggestions and reminders of things you may have forgotten or things you don't think we notice. It is written with the knowledge that we are not supposed to know more than you. We are not supposed to be presumptuous enough to tell you what to do. And we are not supposed to remember how you were when you were one of us. But, before we dive into this, it is written with the hope that you realize that all great leaders lead with the knowledge that those who follow are watching everything. You may preach what you want, but we follow the highest example, and that is supposed to be you.
You were not always a chief. We know who you were when you were one of us. And this can work in one of two ways--some people transition to chief very smoothly because they have spent their careers searching for the busiest houses, training when no one wanted to, but also training when everyone knew it was good for them. More importantly, these chiefs have already earned reputations as officers who take care of the guys on their truck, and in their station.
The other chief is the one who uses his badge to legitimize his power and pretends that the badge should be good enough regardless of the reputation they had earned prior to promotion.
Some people are thrust into positions of leadership. Most ask for it. For those that are thrust into these positions a certain amount of forgiveness and empathy is expected from those that follow. But we are not at war in the fire service and the majority of chiefs choose their career path. Very few receive field promotions.
Photo Credit: Michael Dick
The place you can make comparisons to the military is how you performed in battle during your career. Did you lead from the front? Were you aggressive? Or were you timid? Whatever you were, you will have a hard time demanding something different from your firefighters and still maintaining their respect.
Your Current State
Do you still put your gear on? Do you risk the embarrassment of being rusty in front of your firefighters to retain the knowledge of what it feels like to be the firefighter you are commanding? Performing one of the evolutions on a drill as a firefighter is just as symbolic as it is educational. It says without saying a word that the drill is informative, not punitive. It says that you are willing to work with and get dirty with them.
At the dinner table, do you demand to be treated as royalty, or do you set aside your privilege? I had a chief once who was difficult to work for. He was demanding and direct. He lacked tact and was quick to snap you back in line. He was a great strategist and tactician on the fireground and was absolutely unforgiving of those who were not prepared. He was, as my wife would say, 'a pill.' But once a month, without fail, he would cook for us, and when dinner was ready, would make us sit and serve us our meals as if he was our waiter. Then he wouldn't sit until we were all served and eating. And he wouldn't take a dime from us for the meal. That simple gesture still affects me whenever I think about it. The symbolism of it and the statement--the act of selflessness was his way of showing us how much he respected our hard work. Even though, in many respects, he was 'A Pill,' he turned us into a great battalion and I still miss working for him.
Conversely, after that chief retired, I was cursed for a short time with a chief who stayed in his office all day, never attended any company drills, would not eat with us, and would only communicate with us via e-mail directives. He was lazy and a coward. He acted as if "The Fire" would never come and was the definition of a 'copy' chief on the fireground. What's a copy chief, you ask? A copy chief is an IC who does not drive the action on the fireground but simply says 'copy' to every units self-directed action and suggestion. He was, in short, the next worse thing to freelancing on a fire scene. When, after two months, the battalion turned on him, the mutiny was quick, painful and ended with him leaving the battalion that everyone but him loved.
Photo Credit: Michael Dick
Your Future/Your Legacy
There will come a point in your career where you will think more about what you will leave behind rather than what you hope to do. On our department, it is a tradition to do a last alarm for every member's last shift before retirement. The recall is sounded at every station. The dispatcher then reads a canned thank you message and the air is cleared for members to wish you well in retirement. To me, there is no greater statement on ones career, then the air being filled with well wishers--coworkers, friends and peers, sending you off to retirement with kind words. Some thank yous have gone on so long that they interrupt emergency calls that are pending. And yet, there are a few that are followed with a terrible silence or an off colored joke. Afterwards, the fire alarm office gives you the recording as a gift and what an awful gift it must be to those self-serving people who have put themselves above others for 25 years.
As a chief, I ask you, how do you want to be remembered? Will you be remembered as the tyrant, the lazy S.O.B., or the miserable selfish chief who everyone loathed? Will they tell stories of how they survived your incompetence on a fire scene and your hatred of the fire service? Or will the firefighters who worked for you, pass on the highest compliment that can be bestowed: "He was great. He took care of us." And, "He was for the guys. Always."