Learn to ‘lead small’ before you can rise through the ranks

You might think you could do the job better than the current officer, but leadership takes skill, earned respect and experience


By David Douget 

There’s beauty in watching a fire officer’s orders turn chaos into a symphony, as the once hectic fireground becomes a coordinated rhythm of water supply, victim rescues and fire extinguishment.

But for some newer, perhaps younger or just less experienced firefighters, a critical question will naturally come to mind: How did the officer manage to bring calm to the chaos? The answer is not simply that someone established incident command; it is that a true leader with experience took control.

Fulfilling an officer role in your department means taking ownership and accepting personal responsibility for the men and women under your command. Responding to incidents and participating in trainings not only builds trust between individuals but also allows you to better yourself as an officer. Identify personal strengths and weaknesses, learn what your people are capable of doing, and be a leader by showing them what it means to be a leader.
Fulfilling an officer role in your department means taking ownership and accepting personal responsibility for the men and women under your command. Responding to incidents and participating in trainings not only builds trust between individuals but also allows you to better yourself as an officer. Identify personal strengths and weaknesses, learn what your people are capable of doing, and be a leader by showing them what it means to be a leader. (Photo/David Douget)

One additional question every firefighter must ask themselves: Am I ready? It’s a vital question to ask throughout a career, with every challenge or change, like when moving from riding the engine to rescue or promoting to operator. Most importantly, this question must be asked when we transition to an officer-level rank. Are you ready for what comes with being an officer?

Management vs. leadership

Being an officer isn’t easy and should not be taken lightly. This applies to company and chief officers alike. Assuming your first leadership position is on the company officer level as a lieutenant or captain, you will normally be leading small groups and have limited responsibility.

As a career company officer, you have the advantage of being with your crew for 24 to 48 hours at a time, which gives you the unique advantage of really learning your crew’s behavior, mannerisms and skill sets. You really get to see their true strengths and weaknesses. However, the downside is that you are with the people for 24 to 48 hours at a time, which means that a crew with built-up animosity will lead to miserable shifts.

As a volunteer company officer, you face unique challenges, as you probably only staff your stations for select events of trainings, and are limited to one or two nights a week for four hours at a time to develop your crews and skill sets. This limited timeframe can make it difficult to hone skills and fix problems before responding to the next emergency.

No matter paid or volunteer, anyone can pin some bugles on their collar and call themselves an officer, but only true leaders will earn the respect of their crews and be successful in their positions.

A lot of the attitudes inside our stations come from the attitude of the person in charge – and whether that person is a manager or a leader.

A manager is someone who goes through the day-to-day items, such as personnel timesheets for payroll, resource accountability like equipment checks and fuel, and operation endeavors from scheduled training or fire prevention talks. All company officers must manage their crews. But do they go beyond management and lead?

Leaders get people to understand and believe in the vision while working with you to achieve your goals. A leader will set a direction for the group and inspire you to follow. For example, as a company officer, are your crews developing positive attitudes toward the job? Do they embrace the “fringe” duties of the job (preplans, station tours, public outreach opportunities like festivals and family days), or are they just checking off the daily duty boxes to avoid a write up?

As a fellow firefighter said to me once:

“To be a leader, you need followers. If no one is going to you for advice or knowledge, then you’re not leading anyone. You can’t self-proclaim to be a leader of anything if no one is following you. Sit back and think ‘When is the last time a new firefighter or anyone for that matter, confided in me, asked for advice, or questions about the fire service?’ If the answer is never or it’s been a while, then you don’t have followers, therefore you are not a leader.”
 

— Fire Chief J. Acosta, Stephensville (Louisiana) Volunteer Fire Department
 

I was not ready

Every fire department has at least one member who thinks that they could do a better job than one of the officers. Some might be right. Others are dead wrong.

I was one of those firefighters who thought I had the skills to lead better than my superiors. It took an honest captain to look at my background and explain to me that I didn’t have enough experience (yet) to attempt to lead. While it was a blow to a young firefighter’s ego, that captain was right.

After realizing that I was not ready, it became my mission to educate myself toward my goal of becoming an officer, prepare myself for leadership roles, take on challenges that were outside my comfort zone, and develop skills to deal with and manage stress. During this time, I was able to observe other members with natural leadership abilities, as well as individuals who wanted to be in charge but were never able to do so successfully. There was much to learn from both groups.

How to ‘lead small’

The phrase “lead small” came to me when I noticed members aspiring to become battalion chiefs or fire chiefs before they had even served as captains of a company, or firefighters wanting to take the captain’s test so they could promote, despite not having the attitude of a leader but rather acting as though anything besides spraying a nozzle was beneath them. But you can’t be an effective captain if you are a lousy firefighter. If you are the one who goes missing every time the trucks need washing or the floors need mopping, then how can you expect to give orders that those duties need to be done?

As fire officers, are we participating with our departments to be active in our communities, or are we the ones who never leave our office? How many kids have had their fire chief present the safety presentation at their school? If you are too big for the small stuff, then you are too small for the big stuff. No task should be so menial that you are above doing it, whether it be fire prevention lessons or washing dishes after your monthly meeting.
As fire officers, are we participating with our departments to be active in our communities, or are we the ones who never leave our office? How many kids have had their fire chief present the safety presentation at their school? If you are too big for the small stuff, then you are too small for the big stuff. No task should be so menial that you are above doing it, whether it be fire prevention lessons or washing dishes after your monthly meeting. (Photo/David Douget)

The same goes for someone wanting to be a chief officer. How can you expect your membership to respect and follow your orders and decisions when you have never been in a leadership role? What experience do you have to lead 45-100 people when you weren’t a successful captain of three?

Leading small means can be simple. Show up and choose to be present. This starts with reflecting on our knowledge, skills and abilities, being honest about our capabilities and where we need to grow as leaders and individuals.

A critical step is building trust. Our fire companies become a close-knit family; mixed with activities and traditions, it becomes a community. You can’t lead a small group or build a community without trust, and the biggest step in gaining the trust of a few people is instilling trust that you will BE there for them. Consistency is critical in this. Becoming dependable for mundane everyday tasks as well as ensuring dedication for growth in yourself and others goes a long way toward building trust for the betterment of the group.

Always show up mentally ready. We may always show up physically ready to perform, but are we showing up and engaging in meaningful discussions and listening to the others in the group? Are we really listening to what our colleagues have to say? We must put the phones aside, leave Facebook and Instagram at the door, and be prepared to make our members our focus. For example, if you are training one day, know the content ahead of time and be able to coach your members through it. Know the inspection and prevention schedules before they start, and ensure that you are ready to preform walkthroughs or give the class a great presentation in fire prevention.

Lastly, do not be afraid to show up in those seemingly random moments. I am talking about engaging outside of the department. This can be a phone call, text messages, a birthday post on social media, or any invitation to interact with your people and their families. While these may seem insignificant, by choosing to be present to your people in an unexpected way outside of your scheduled time, you create a better connection to the family and community you’re trying to build.

Final thoughts

If we are serious in advancing our fire service career, then we must be willing to take on the small jobs as well as the big ones. We must take ownership of our departments and realize that every person and job matters. We must understand that we are all doing our part. Being an effective leader in the station and on a fireground comes from training, experience, and the respect of the men and women under your command. Successful fire chiefs don’t lose the respect of their departments, and members don’t lose respect for their fire chiefs if those chiefs are true leaders and mentors.

About the author

David Douget is the chief training officer for St. Martin Parish (Louisiana) Fire District. He is also the fire chief for the Iota Fire Protection District in Iota, Acadia Parish, Louisiana.

Douget has 15 years in the fire service, beginning his career in 2007 when he attended the LSU-F.E.T.I. Firefighter Academy and was hired by the Crowley (Louisiana) Fire Department. He served the city of Crowley for 12 years, ultimately promoting to the rank of operator.

In January 2019, Douget left Crowley and became the CTO for St. Martin Parish, where he oversees all training operations for their 12 departments and 217 firefighters.

Douget joined the Iota Fire Protection District in December of 2007 and served as a firefighter until 2016, when he was elected by the membership as the fire chief.

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