A shift in fire service leadership: From manager to coach

John Buckman III

If you are the fire chief commanding volunteers and you feel you have to make every emergency response because you believe that you are the best suited to take care of the public’s emergency service needs – there is something wrong with that picture. If you don't have the confidence in your people that they can perform the task you assign them and you expect them to perform, you may be the problem.

Fire chiefs need to accept that they cannot make others be exactly like them. In fact, if everyone was like everyone else in the world, we would be in big trouble. That could mean only one way of thinking, one way of doing things and one way of failing.

Let your people get experience under your watchful eye by coaching. As John Wooden, longtime UCLA men’s basketball coach, advised, “seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.”

Make sure you have the right people in the right roles. This action alone will allow you to step out of the day-to-day tasks and start putting your energy and resources into other areas.

Inspire others with enthusiasm and a positive attitude – improve overall operations and unlock others’ potential.

Coaching is a function of managing that every good leader of others must be able to do well.

Identify fire service managing opportunities

Managing is the job of overseeing other’s work. Managing is important in dealing with things, processes or materials, but different approaches are needed for managing people.

True leaders who are influencing others also act as a coach in the best sense. Lay out the general strategy and trust that team members will pick up the ball and run with it.

Managers often have to tell others what to do to get a job done. You may have to act from greater experience, knowledge or training, directly passing on your requirements through tasking, directives and initiatives.

This direction most often occurs in situations where immediate needs are paramount, and you need to achieve specific outcomes efficiently and quickly. Your team members look to you for answers, and rightly so in critical circumstances.

Not that you don’t want them to think for themselves, but sometimes, a team just needs someone to coordinate, while everyone else completes their piece of the project. As a pure manager, you direct from a position of authority while guiding your team toward a specific outcome.

Situations where managing is needed include:

  • Crises that require quick, positive results.
  • Handling new, inexperienced personnel, especially those tackling a task for the first time.
  • Making sure your team completes a low-level or unpopular task.
  • Meeting difficult deadlines when every minute counts.

These situations require quick, decisive action focused on high productivity and achievement.

Expand beyond management to coaching

In this era of independent thinkers who must often execute in the moment without awaiting permission, the manager’s job has expanded.

No longer does a manager just tell people what to do: he or she guides them in their work, clears obstacles from their paths, and supports their immediate and long-term career goals. Trusted, experienced and efficient personnel form the hub of the true wheel of productivity, so coaching skills should take the lion’s share of your time.

Coaching works best in situations where:

  • You support your team members while guiding them in their career goals.
  • You work together with your team members to define and facilitate the best strategies for your team and organization.
  • You share mission, vision and goals in a transparent way with all your team members.
  • You invite your people to join you in a quest for success.
  • You facilitate everyone’s progress toward the goals you’ve mutually set, as well as toward organizational goals.

If you haven’t already started the shift from manager to coach, it’s time to begin.

Allow fire leaders in training to gain experience and expertise

If you’re a boss who takes a command-and-control approach to leadership, you may be getting in the way of your team’s success. Treat your firefighters like they are intelligent and make their own decisions.

Don’t let their decisions make a situation unsafe, but allow them to make decisions that may not give the end results they desire. They need to learn that from experience, not from an overbearing leader who wants to show off experience or expertise.

By doing most of the talking, formal leaders convey a sense that they are not open to others’ input. This dynamic produces a lower level of team performance, as measured by the team’s ability to reach their goals in simulation.

When you communicate, make sure your tone is positive, and body language is appropriate and not demeaning.

Let them learn from being in the game not from the bench watching you. Teach your people the ropes as necessary, acting as a mentor rather than autocrat, and otherwise make suggestions in real time concerning what they can do to tweak their behavior toward an optimum.

Our workplace reality is currently undergoing a shift that’s been coming on for decades, as the technological innovations of the era combine with American independence to bring employees and managers ever closer on the employment continuum.

Consider verbal and non-verbal communication cues

We communicate with much more than our words. In face-to-face communication, our words are only part of the message. The balance of the message, and in fact, the largest part of the message that we are sending to others is made up of non-verbal information. It is composed of our body language and our tone of voice.

The non-verbal aspects of communication, such as tone of voice and gestures communicate a great deal more than the words that are spoken. People are more likely to believe your non-verbal communication than your verbal communication.

The tone of voice we use can be responsible for about 50 percent of the message we are trying to send. Tone involves the volume you use, the level and type of emotion that you communicate, and the emphasis that you place on the words that you choose.

Never react in anger – take a time out before you discipline a member.

Great fire chiefs keep their word

Your word and your name have immense value that can’t be measured. When you make a commitment, keep that commitment.

If you are unable to meet the commitment you made, tell the truth about the change in your situation that prevents you from doing what you said you would do and when you would do it. Don’t make a commitment before you look inside you to make sure you have the time, the energy and the ability to accept the commitment.

Don’t make excuses when you choose to do something other than what you agreed to simply because you “changed your mind.”

If you make an agreement with someone else, and then choose to break it, you begin to lay the groundwork for, “none of this is really matters anyway.”

5 Fire leadership attributes

If you are the fire chief of the fire department staffed with volunteers, do you really understand what volunteers want from their leader?

When firefighters don’t quite reach a standard, praise what they did right, then outline where you think they showed weakness and what they can do to improve. You provide the tools they need to succeed – because when your team succeeds, so do you. Coaches create the kind of engaged, empowered employees needed for survival today by remembering:

  1. Don't waste their time.
  2. Remember the life/time priorities – God, family, work, fire department.
  3. Encourage the personal and professional growth of the individual.
  4. Accept they are all not like you.
  5. Exhibit a friendly leadership style by acting and communicating in a positive and motivational tone.

I can assure you that if you exhibit those five attributes in your leadership style, 80 percent of the volunteer staff will respond favorably to your request, actions and needs.

Plan for effective, comprehensive, outcome-based fire training

If you are the training officer of a fire department staffed with volunteers you should plan, plan, plan. Planning is a critical component of developing and delivering effective, comprehensive and outcome-based training and education.

Spend more time in planning training after decisions have been made on the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for your department’s members:

  • Plan training based upon an assessment of members skill/performance level.
  • Establish a performance level expectation that has measures built in.
  • Measures should be developed to encourage members’ success.
  • Measures should be shared with all members before the assessment.
  • Measures must be challenging but must also be realistic to your department.

Prepare:

  • Develop the schedule based upon the skills assessment.
  • Secure competent and energetic instructors who will put in the planning and preparation effort to deliver high quality training.

Develop objectives:

  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Abilities

Determine logistical needs:

  • Apparatus
  • Equipment
  • Props to provide an experiential learning opportunity

Execute:

  • Deliver the training.
  • Reduce “down time” by having adequate skill stations and instructors based upon span of control.
  • Start on time.
  • End on time.

Conduct a hot wash immediately after the training to gauge the experience.

  • Record the good, bad and the ugly of the experience.
  • Make modifications based upon the hot wash.

Evaluate:

  • Success of the delivery
  • Be critical of your delivery to insure maximum effectiveness.
  • Remember training delivery is not about the instructor needs but the student needs.

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