Leaders Promoting Leaders
One of the most important roles I have as a Fire Chief is to promote people into leadership positions. The person that I promote today as a first line supervisor might someday become the Fire Chief. The long term organizational health of a fire department is dependent on those people who will guide it into the future.
Everyone in a leadership position, no matter where your box lies in the organizational chart, should have a role in this critical issue. You might not have the actual authority to promote, but you should be talking & teaching your people about the key attributes that will make for a successful supervisor.
The absolute number one issue for me when I promote someone is that they are is a mission focused person. We work very hard at defining and communicating our mission statement throughout the organization. In the simplest terms our default strategy is an aggressive, bias-for-action mindset. We expect leaders to apply this outlook in the context of the situation without being reckless. We expect all buildings to be occupied by multiple persons and all our actions are aimed at providing the best possible outcome for those trapped in a survivable space. This concept is just a starting point for conversations that I try to engage on a regular basis. What I will not do is promote someone who does not value this concept. Our mission is why we exist and if you do not support this fully then do not expect to be promoted in my command.
As important as a mission focused leadership style is, we need to promote people of integrity. I need to be able to trust you, trust that you will tell me the truth, and trust that you will always do the right thing. My experience tells me that many of the problems that develop in the firehouse are tied directly to this. A leader of integrity respects their role. They also know that part of doing the right thing involves taking care of their people. Giving their people the support they need to grow and be productive along with holding them accountable to mission and values that your organization has adopted. I have never seen a person with high integrity live in a vacuum.
All too often we feel that our decisions about who will and will not advance to a leadership role must be done with a somewhat “sterile” approach. We have convinced ourselves that personalities should not be factored into the decision and we should rely solely on test scores and assessment centers. This works well if we only worked with machines, but we are truly in the people business. If we are going to be mission focused the only way to accomplish the mission is working with our people. Promotions should never be a popularity contest, but do not promote the persons who is just not naturally a pleasant person. I have, and I am sure everyone else has worked with the “world is out to get me, someone stole my puppy” person. They make everyone miserable and a 24-hour shift can seem like a 5-week ordeal. The atmosphere in a fire house is to a large extent determined by the officer. A negative atmosphere will impact your operational effectiveness in a negative way. If you have a choice between pleasant and unpleasant, always go with the pleasant.
Leaders are in the communications business. The leader must be able to communicate orders on the fire-ground. They must be able to communicate their visions clearly and they must be able to communicate the commander’s vision without bias. What we sometimes lose track of is that a leader must be able to communicate across generational lines. To be truly effective as a supervisor that 28 year old new lieutenant must not only get the 55 year old veteran to follow their orders, they must find a way to get that senior person to respect them. We must also remember that the people we promote today will be leading the firefighters of tomorrow. Unlike many in my generation I have great faith that the up and coming firefighters will mature into their roles. I also say that the young lieutenants will one day become the old officers and we must ensure that those people will remain effective throughout their tenure.
I do not mean for these few characteristics to be the all-inclusive personal inventory for determining who will get promoted. Items such as tactical fitness, mastery of one’s basic skills set, excellent written communications skills and a host of other items should be weighed when making a promotion decision or deciding what behaviors should be modeled for the up and coming leaders in your organization. Fire departments are different and you might be faced with unique situations and challenges. What I will say is that if you promote the people who embody what I have talked about there is a very good chance that they will bring the other intangibles with them.
The simplest test I use and for the most part have found to be very effective is one simple question:
If my child was to be a probationary firefighter in this fire department would I want them working for this person?
Good luck with executing one of the most challenging and long lasting roles you will have as a leader.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Assistant Chief Dennis Reilly:
Chief Reilly is a 44 year fire service veteran currently serving as the Assistant Chief for Operations in Davis, California. Prior to moving to California Chief Reilly was the Fire Chief in Sunrise Beach, Missouri and a Battalion Chief in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The Chief Reilly holds an MPA from Penn State and has been granted his CFO designation. In addition to his fire service career the chief is a combat veteran of the US Army and has worked for several years as high threat protection contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.