How arrogance can ruin a fire chief’s career

Dennis Rubin

"I can't hear what you are saying because your actions are speaking so loudly."

This could often be heard in the classrooms of the parochial school I attended as a young man. There was a low threshold for nonsense, and the instructional staff made the students aware of this fact whenever necessary.

To be clear, the basic schoolhouse translation is "knock off the dumb behavior and get your actions aligned with your words."

It is simple and straightforward advice sometimes overlooked or not followed in our business. The same rule applies to all in the fire service, especially the chief.

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

If your actions are not aligned with the expressed goals and values of the department, it will be difficult to be an effective leader. In fact, if the leader's personal actions are too extreme and outside the departments focus, this misalignment can become a career crusher, separating the chief from the department in a hurry.

This career crusher is quite a bit different from last month's as it may best be described as a misuse or abuse of one's legal power and authority over another. Arrogance and self-importance is a polite way to describe this career-crushing behavior.

Case 1: The bully
One case that comes to mind is of a chief who often repeated that he would "rather be feared than respected." Of course, the time he was able to wear all five speaking trumpets on his collar was limited.

The chief was eventually pushed out of the department with tremendous wave of negative fanfare. The backlash came from pressure applied by everyone outside this chief's immediate circle — this included fire department members, local media, elected officials and the general public.

Only a poorly prepared and limited-ability leader will resort to using intimidation and "direct orders" on a day-to-day basis to motivate people to accomplish work. Demanding performance behavior is the last choice a leader should deploy and never a starting point.

Leaders who encase themselves in an air of self-importance and arrogance will be repelled by the masses and can never achieve the ultimate prize: a high-trust and high-performance organization.

Arrogance and self-importance
For clarity sake, using the autocratic style of leadership during street operations is generally desirable and effective in getting time-sensitive work completed. However, this process is quite a bit different then an air of a personal superiority.

The results and reactions to this type of inhumane treatment of the membership vary widely. Sadly, poor leadership behaviors generally causes significant internal stress and interfere with the delivery of service to the pubic. Operational performance goes down — plain and simple.

In many cases, the membership is slow to squawk about the horrible behavior and treatment for fear of personal retaliation. However, at some point, even with an elevated level of intimation and pressure, firefighters will break and seek relief from the oppressor.

The members will reach out to the local media or to friendly elected officials for external help to overcome the tyrant's wrath. Neither of these options is in anyone's best interest and could be avoided if the leader keeps his priorities (mostly ego) in the proper order.

Organizational misalignment
At this point in the process the situation will deteriorate into complete acrimony, with both sides causing as much damage to the other side as possible. It's not a pretty sight to see or live through.

This situation leads to personal and organizational misalignment. But there are strategies to keep the chief on track, employed and in command of the department.

The most likely root cause of not being aligned with the departmental goals is ego, inflated self-importance and/or incompetence. The well-respected, long-serving Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini said, "Egos can and most times do eats brains."

If the errant chief's thought process is: "Do as I say, not as I do," or: "We follow the golden rule around here. I have the gold and I rule," there will be trouble on the horizon.

Words to live by
Most fire departments will incorporate goals into their mission statement; many will include something like: "Saving lives and property." The senior executives of the agency need to live those words every day.

Every action taken and departmental dollar spent should be measured against reaching the expressed organizational goal. At times, the chief can get derailed by confusing a personal agenda as the organizational one.

When the focus becomes something other than reaching the expressed goal, members will notice and apply resistance trying to get the ship righted and back on course. If the first few waves of resistance are not heeded, a tsunami may be building.

Case 2: Bad hires
In another case study, a fire department lowered the employee entry standards with the goal of hiring city residents, which is a wonderful goal to strive to reach. To do this, however, there was a wanton disregard for previous background issues, which is never a good idea.

Some cadet firefighters with sorted criminal records were placed into positions sensitive to public safety. It was no surprise when the local media reported that 24 firefighters had been arrested in just a few short months from the same department.

Once you lose sight of what is important to the department, disaster soon follows. Hiring idiots, thugs and military misfits is never a good idea, regardless of the reason or attempt to justify this major misstep. Always maintain entry-level hiring and membership standards.

Effective public-safety chiefs are always focused on holding and improving the public's trust in their organizations. If residents and visitor fail to have a reasonable measure of trust in the department, they will not call upon it unless it is absolutely necessary. Perhaps this delay will cause the window of being effective assisting in an emergency to close.

Further, the public will only support (financially and morally) the agencies that it trusts. Losing the public's trust, regardless of the reason — such as not being aligned with the departmental goals — is a devastating blow. It will take new leadership a long time to overcome this catastrophic failure.

Walking the talk
The best way that a chief can avoid this negative behavior is to always lead by example. If the chief follows the policies, procedures and protocols of the organization, it sends a loud message to the membership to do the same.

Rather than being all talk, the chief must walk the talk. Firefighters will quickly pick up on a leader who is only paying lip service to role-modeling the desired behaviors demanded of the members.

Leaders should never forget where they came from and what it was like working in the important part of the business. If the boss has not served in operations where the rubber meets the road, he or she needs to latch onto someone who is trust and is directly connected to the working end of the department.

The chief should get out on a regular basis and see first hand what the conditions are like out on the streets facing the members.

Next and perhaps the most important requirement is the appointment process that put the leader into power in the first place.

If the selection is based solely on political favor or friendship, the table has been set for the next negative self-serving leader to embarrass the department, the government and the politicians. The fire-service leader must have the requisite skills, knowledge and abilities to do the job.

Until next time, be safe out there.

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