13 ways fire chiefs can kill their careers

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By Dennis Rubin

As the most recent International Conference for Fire & Rescue Executives grew near, then Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser asked me to develop a seminar presentation that discussed career-ending behaviors.

At first, I was not interested in targeting negative leadership behaviors. The commissioner wanted a presentation that would help fire executives realize the damage that poor personal behavior and choices could have on a career and reputation. Fraser was very convincing and the topic seemed to need more study.

To develop this material, I interviewed about a dozen chiefs who had been senior chief officers for five years or longer — Chiefs Alan Brunacini and Bruce Varner were among the high-caliber participants. I asked each to name three career-crushing traits, those sure to get someone into major trouble.

To add balanced I sought out about two dozen highly regarded folks in fields outside the fire and rescue service. Some were political leaders, medical professionals, airline pilots, private business owners and other public-sector officials.

When I compiled the data and looked for trends and patterns, the two groups’ lists of traits mirrored one another. The process was not very scientific, but it yielded some intriguing results as to leadership mistakes and omissions.

And from these data points emerged a list of 13 career crushes.

13 Career Crushers

  • Revenge
  • Discrimination, harassment and hazing
  • Inattention to details of the organization
  • Troubled personal life
  • Actions not in align with departmental goals and values
  • Declining health
  • Ignoring technology
  • Illegal activity
  • Irreconcilable differences with the boss
  • Lying
  • Political suicide
  • Political ambition
  • Incompetence

Crusher 1: Revenge
This crusher seems obvious, however, it is one of the most violated rules of leadership. Further, it is one of the most broken rules of the entire 13 career crushers.

I’ve observed this time and again; the news media is rife with reports to back that claim. Worse, many leaders are blind to their use of revenge.

There is often a correlation between having significant legitimate power to direct someone’s efforts in the workplace and inflicting revenge on that same subordinate. Many bosses think they can get away with revenge behaviors because they are in a ranking position and no one will notice or care.

Some bosses are truly delusional, thinking they never will be discovered.

Never lose sight of the fact that someone is always watching. In fact, on average, Americans have their image captured on closed-circuit television 22 times per day. The corrupt boss will get caught, or at a minimum every subordinate members will eventually figure out the miscarriage of justice.

The same subordinates will withdraw their support of the violating superior. Perhaps starting the process of the embarrassing and a disruptive vote of no confidence directed at the revengeful boss.

Sliding scale of justice
Revenge can come in the form of the superior using the disciplinary process to add an extra burden (as punishment) to those that she or he simply doesn’t like. Perhaps the chief was promoted over a long-time nemesis or was at the same rank as the disliked person until the last promotion.

If this situation is case, the potential is there for personal revenge using the department’s disciplinary system like an invisible club over the head of the disliked member.

The interesting part about this type of inept behavior is that a comparison of previous punishments by the same superior will tell the tale in full. As an example, the chief gives a friend and supporter a lenient penalty compared to a stiffer penalty for the same infraction to a person that he does not like.

Once a supervisor has a reputation for selectively enforcing the rules and uses a sliding scale of justice to benefit family, friends and other supporter, serious trouble is brewing. If the chief will not be fair to the membership, an internal uprising is immanent.

I have seen the uproar of concern by the department’s membership many times. Only a chief who has an equally poor boss (the mayor or the city manager who supports this behavior) can temporarily survive those situations.

Location, location, location
Another reoccurring revenge behavior is using work assignments. Some of the telltale traits of this action by the chief, are that a person leaves an assignment that they have enjoyed without notice or request.

Generally, this type of transfer is to a location that the oppressed person is not interested in being assigned. The harmed member may be attached to the firehouse that is a significant farther distance from home — “take that extra 50-mile commute per day,” says the bad chief.

I once learned of an officer who was moved nine times in eight months. Once this person had enough time to synchronize the newly assigned work schedule with the spouse, the chief would re-assign the person somewhere else. With a house full of young children, this was tremendously disruptive and the supervisor was aware of the issue that he was intentionally causing.

One extreme case that happened during my watch involved a station captain (company commander) forging a transfer request for a lieutenant (shift commander) during the lieutenant’s vacation. The captain sent a transfer request to the deputy fire chief (shift command) that the deputy honored and the lieutenant moved to another firehouse.

The intriguing part of this story is that the captain thought he would get away with this action. When the lieutenant questioned why he was moved during his vacation and the lie was exposed — the lieutenant was returned to his original assignment. The captain received the standard (from the uniform table of penalties) punishment for forging an official city document.

Classic bullying
In today’s society no one likes or supports a bully. One person using his position to inflicting harm using revenge is bullying in its classical (and classless) form. If the boss’s boss is onboard with this ridiculous behavior, the charade may go on for a while.

Stay focused on your career and always remember that anything you do will be discovered in detail in time. Only take actions against others that are warranted and use a well-refined discipline system that removes as much subjectivity from the process.

I worked at one place where the members were obligated to hold trial boards with a four-person panel (jury) of the accused member’s peers. This removed the fire chief and the top brass from the process.

The fire chief had two choices once the panel issued a ruling: accept the recommendation or lower the punishment. City code prohibited the chief from increasing the penalty. The trial board process did remove the ability to infect revenge by a higher-ranking member.

The struggle will always be to be fair and to remove relationships out of the mix of discipline. Treat people like you want to be treated and that includes accountability for their actions and inactions. Be leery supervisors who proclaim they would rather be feared than respected.

Comments - Add Yours

  • Robert Avsec

    Outstanding piece, Rube! But then again, that’s always been your MO for as long as I’ve been fortunate to know you. Keep on writing ’cause we’ve got a lot to learn!

  • Jimmie

    Hi, Dennis. Excellemt article. Good to see you are “keeping your hand in”

    Not sure of you remember me. We met when you were at Mesa, and hosted the Westerm Fire Training Directors annual conference. And we had a bit of correspondence regarding ICS. At the time I was statewide Director of Fire Training for the California Depatment of Forestey and Fire Protection–CDF (now known as CALFIRE). Jimmie Marchio

  • Dave

    Very well written Mr. Rubin, Thank you for this article. Your article hits the nail on the head. I can remember 2 Fire Chief’s we had that thought the only way to get respect was to rule with an IRON HAND. Boy were they wrong. No one respects a person like this let a lone trusts them. We had a new Chief that kept moving us around on shifts, why? because he could. He knew we didn’t like it but it was a way for him to show his power, nothing positive came from it and all it seemed to do was tear up moral. These Chief’s finally move on but the damage they do seem to last for years.

  • singerff

    Interesting at best, but it reads like your own past experiences you recently had while directing the departments in DC and Atlanta. Can you enlighten us reference those tour of duties when you were there ????