‘Be rigorous but not ruthless’: 6 strategies for new chiefs

Words of wisdom to help avoid those common pitfalls of taking on a leadership role, aka entering the ‘minefield’

By Ryan Lamb

With excitement, and maybe a brief moment of hesitation, you repeat the Oath of Office, and, just like that, you are the chief. A compilation of years of experience, education and dedication has brought you to this point. Sink or swim, now is your moment in history.

Being a fire/EMS chief is one of the most rewarding professions, but, at times, it can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield carrying an armful of apples. 

Being a fire/EMS chief is one of the most rewarding professions, but, at times, it can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield carrying an armful of apples.
Being a fire/EMS chief is one of the most rewarding professions, but, at times, it can feel like tiptoeing through a minefield carrying an armful of apples. (Photo/National Archive)

In May 2018, I was sworn in as the fire chief/emergency management director for the City of Cape Coral, Florida. While I certainly do not have all the answers, I developed six strategies that have served me well or that have been lessons learned through trial and error. I’ve heard it said that knowledge comes from learning from our own mistakes, but wisdom comes from learning from someone else’s mistakes. I hope you gain wisdom from what I have learned.

1. Blaze your trail

What kind of chief do you want to be? You are not your predecessor. It takes bravery to lead a department out of its comfort zone and challenge organizational norms. I am not an advocate for looking for solutions to problems that don’t exist, but “because we’ve always done it that way” is never an acceptable answer. 

It is important for chiefs to clearly define their vision for the path ahead. Too often, I felt my department was marching in place – activity without progression. A fresh strategic plan provided a great opportunity to chart the course ahead and show internal and external stakeholders “what victory looks like.” 

2. Talk with kings but don't lose touch

As chief, you might work on multimillion-dollar deals, collaborate with politicians, solve hard-hitting community issues, and even be recognized as a dignitary of sorts. These are meaningful and necessary functions to advance your agency and our profession, however, be aware of what is important to the boots on the ground.

With six layers of supervision between the chief and a rookie, I feared becoming insulated from the culture and service of my department. I have made a point of trying to have lunch with a station/crew on Fridays. I know word of my visits gets around, although I may not be able to get to every shift at each station.

Generally, during these lunches, I provide a little small talk, some rumor control and answers to a few questions about the department. What I get is buy-in on new initiatives, a different perspective and a more complete overview of my department. 

3. Communicate your expectations

Overall, our departments are made up of great people. An individual drawn to a career in public service has a desire to help people (although some may need a reminder of this on occasion). All too often, I see issues arise due to a lack of communication of expectations.

Don’t make people guess what you want. Tell them. Be specific. And 99% of the time, they will deliver. Also, don’t be offended if someone asks “why?” This is an opportunity for you to educate them and guide them toward the greater mission of the department. If you cannot explain the “why,” then perhaps the expectation needs more development

4. Make data-driven decisions

Data is extremely powerful. People don’t want to hear an emotional argument that the world is going to end if our department doesn’t get “this” new piece of equipment.  Municipal managers, elected officials and the public today expect charts, graphs and heat maps – facts to back up our requests.

One problem in my department is the inability to collect some data elements for analysis. Establishing what data you need and a process to collect that data can be a tedious but necessary process. However, international performance improvement and quality expert H. James Harrington perfectly captured how crucial data is when he said, “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement.”

Data can help a chief create a truly excellent department. However, our departments are a reflection of what our residents are willing to pay for. Our job as chief is to run the most efficient and effective department possible with the resources provided. Data can show low-cost options for improved efficiency and assist in developing a cost-benefit analysis of service enhancements. 

5. Find balance

I cannot overstate my belief in balance. Ensuring balance and boundaries between work, family and diet/exercise is key. This career is very demanding. There are always more problems to solve or programs to implement, but children only grow up once and retirement planning is pointless if you die before getting there.

There are seasons and periods of shifting demands, so finding equal balance all day, every day is not realistic. Establishing an overall work-life balance is the goal. If there is a budget shortfall or multi-alarm event, I am chief 100%, but during the annual family vacation or when teaching my teenager to drive, I am in that moment 100%.

Furthermore, chiefs need to find balance in their decisions. Be rigorous but not ruthless. When considering disciplinary issues, hear the demands of justice but don’t be deaf to the cry for mercy. Be involved and hands-on but do not micromanage. The struggle between quality and quantity is real; in the endeavor to accomplish so many things, don’t let the details suffer.

We need to be good pioneers in advancing our profession but also need to be good settlers in maintaining our existing services. Know when to stick to your guns and when your ego is influencing a suboptimal outcome.

6. Earn trust

Being a chief is all about relationships – labor and management, the elected body, neighboring departments, civic organizations, etc. Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and it develops over time and through shared experiences. Don’t be afraid to develop trust and delegate. 

However, the ultimate responsibility still resides with you, the chief. Trust should not be blind, verify. This is not a violation of trust but rather guidance toward your vision. Trust goes both ways. Your words carry weight, be mindful of what you say. Your actions must follow your words. Be a chief who can be trusted. 

Welcome to the minefield!

Consistently using these six strategies as a new chief can help you in the first few months and throughout your career. Welcome to the minefield!

About the author

Ryan Lamb, MA, EFO, CFO, serves as a project consultant for Fitch & Associates. He is the fire chief/emergency management director for the City of Cape Coral, Florida. Lamb was the 2019 Florida Fire Chief of the year.

Editor’s note: What tips do you have for new fire/EMS chiefs? Share in the comments below.


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