Meditations on middle management from a battalion chief
Detailing the factors that create division between upper and lower management – and how we can learn to balance diverse perspectives and competing priorities
I remember the exact moment when I decided to become a middle manager. At 18 years old, I was working as an apprentice in a jewelry shop in downtown Baltimore. One day while I was polishing a chain, the head jeweler asked me bluntly if this was what I wanted to do with my life. I confessed that I had always wanted to be a firefighter. He told me he had a friend in the fire department and would invite him to the shop to speak with me.
Later that day around lunch, his friend showed up. He was a clean cut, middle-aged Black man in what looked to be a tailored suit covered in gold buttons and shiny pins. He stood tall and looked as though he was on a mission.
I don't remember a word of what he said, but I remember he had what appeared to be a kind of quiet strength. What impressed me the most was that it looked like he could handle anything. "Whatever this guy does is what I'm going to do for a living!" I promised myself.
About 3 years later, I was finally hired onto a career fire department and given my first assignment: Engine 1 in the City of Wilmington, Delaware.
On my first day on the job, my officer sat me down with my battalion chief, William McKim, another middle-aged Black man in what looked to be a tailored suit, covered in gold buttons and shiny pins. He had the same demeanor as the first chief I met years ago in the jewelry store.
We sat in his office, and he asked me where I'd like to be in 10 years. "Where you are!" I replied. My captain cringed, but Chief McKim laughed and took the badge right off his shirt and put it in my hand. I remember just staring blankly at it, shocked that it could be real.
Twelve years later, I was called down to the quartermaster at the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services to pick up my very own tailored suit with gold buttons and shiny pins. I have been a battalion chief for about three years now, and still, whenever I lay out my white shirt, I think to myself, “Wow, you are really getting to do this job again today!”
Enthusiasm aside, you never really know what a job entails until you are doing it. My hope is to share some of the hard learned lessons that I have encountered during my time as a battalion chief.
The fire service has a singular obsession. From the moment we enter the academy, we are urged to "move with a purpose." When we begin our studies, we are taught that for every 30 seconds a fire goes unchecked, it nearly doubles in size. In EMT class, we learn that for every minute without CPR, a patient in cardiac arrest slips deeper into what will become an inexorable death sentence. The most essential component of our indoctrination into this great calling is the notion that we are engaged in an unrelenting struggle against an unstoppable force that governs our every action. Time, we are taught, is the enemy.
It makes sense then that fire service culture attracts people who are quick to act. Our industry is a welcoming beacon for those with a passion for rapid decision-making. As such, we all value firefighters and line officers who can rapidly identify and resolve a problem. In turn, we find that problem-solvers not only self-select for positions of higher leadership but are also actively recruited for them.
There is one glaring problem with this arrangement: At some point in their management career – perhaps at the battalion/district chief level – these decisive leaders will be presented with a complex problem that cannot be resolved quickly. The issue will likely be a matter concerning long-term strategy and/or delicately entwined with jurisdictional politics.
But the go-getters still pride themselves on their rapid decision-making and, in so doing, will go plodding through the china shop, as sensitive matters lay fractured in their wake. Though unsatisfied with their own lack of progress, they will remain obstinately convinced that the next aggressive approach will finally yield the desired result.
What exactly does resolution look like? Typically, we want a clean, obvious solution as reward for our efforts. Yet, one of the defining features of a complex problem is that it is highly resistant to this kind of tidy resolution by its very nature. Unfortunately, we are doomed to watch the issue continually evade our oversight if we only employ the same prompt, aggressive action that made us good firefighters and EMTs.
Fill the box
Another paradigm shift that is likely to cause frustrations in middle managers is the fact that we are used to getting what we request – right away. Think of your last fire. Were you to key up the radio and ask for six ambulances, five engines, four ladder trucks, three tankers, two backhoes … and a partridge in a pear tree, you could rest assured that, at the very least someone on the other end of your radio would acknowledge your request; dispatch will promptly begin assessing whether or not they can fulfill your request; and you will be apprised of the status of the request as soon as it is known.
Compare this speed with requests you make to your senior management. I'm willing to bet they aren't even always acknowledged, let alone assessed or fulfilled. Perhaps this is why the “management downshift” is so frustrating for us – as incident commanders, we interact with dispatch far more than we do with senior staff, and we have come to expect the immediate response we get from dispatch in every interaction.
If we aren't interacting with dispatch, then who are we most likely to be interacting with? Our company officers, whom we are responsible for leading. If we are doing anything even remotely close to a good job in this area, then those officers respect us and swiftly handle the tasks we ask them to complete. In turn, we do the same for them.
So, this is how those of us in middle management experience life: 99% of the time we ask for things to be done, they get done quickly. And 99% of the time that someone asks us to get something done, it gets done quickly. So it’s only 1% of the time that our requests aren’t accomplished right away – and it always seems to be when dealing with one group of people: senior management. If you didn't examine the arrangement any further, you would probably conclude that there is something very wrong with this group of people.
Well, your dispatch center is akin to a well-oiled machine, made to do three things: analyze information quickly, communicate effectively, and send resources. Is that what your senior management was made to do? Or were they made to parse competing demands, ensure financial stewardship, and fulfill the vision of the department's executive? If we are not specifically aware of the size and/or complexity of their workload, we are unable to see exactly where we fit in their chain of priority and may erroneously assume they simply don’t care about our concerns.
The generational divide
One factor that seems to exacerbate this issue is the approach different generations have to problem-solving and communication in general. In his book "Sticking Points," Haydn Shaw explains the sense of urgency that Gen Xers and millennials feel when presented with a problem by considering how quickly we encountered changes in technology throughout our lives – an example I identified with strongly as a millennial.
Many of us grew up listening to our grandparents playing their favorite records on a record player. When the Walkman arrived, we learned to control what content we consumed by making mixtapes. When the CD player made its debut, we were even more empowered to control the content we consumed. Next, the iPod appeared, and the "aux cable co-pilot" became a fully staffed position for every road trip. Now the proliferation of streaming applications means every passenger can weigh in on their desired music.
This same pace of rapid technological advancement has been encountered in nearly every aspect of our lives. While fire service culture prizes this adaptive mentality on the fireground, it may be strongly opposed to it in an administrative setting where "tried and true" methods of problem-solving are favored. Additionally, our culture is one where those offering new solutions are expected to have tempered them with decades of experience, such that those with the most seniority (typically Gen Xers and baby boomers) will have the run of the floor.
This dichotomy will be a significant source of frustration for many young leaders in public safety organizations. If we were to contrast our organizations to a corporation of similar size or even a military unit, we would quickly conclude we are well behind the times. Unfortunately, few public safety organizations have the budget of corporations or the military, and even if they have a larger budget, exploring every single new idea is akin to “gambling with someone else's money” – the taxpayers’ – and therefore must be scrutinized and approved before moving forward.
As a public safety agency, we are expected to exercise good financial stewardship. This important expectation means it is rarely wise to be the first to try anything. “Survivorship bias” is a common logical error that distorts our understanding of risk, as only the successful initiatives are praised, while the many preceding failures are not discussed.
To put this into perspective, think of all the smaller initiatives your department has tried during just your tenure in the department. Where are they all now? Out of the ones that were successful, how many are widely practiced across the fire service and how many are 100% homegrown ideas that no one else is doing? I think you'll find that most of them were a department's response to a local, state or federal mandate, meaning that our "progress" is more often than not the result of being dragged kicking and screaming into the contemporary public administration landscape.
What does this mean for the burgeoning leader in a middle management position? It means your organization may not be able to afford to implement your ideas, literally, regardless of how much grassroots excitement they might generate. In most organizations, every initiative must have been budgeted for in advance, so for your initiative to be implemented, something else's may have to be defunded. If you are like me, you can probably think of half a dozen lackluster things that you believe could be axed to accomplish that. This leads us to the next concept of note.
Imagine you are walking by a large fence that seems to be an annoying obstacle on the way to your desired destination. However, in evaluating the fence, you can find no logical reason for its existence based on your own knowledge and experience of the area. If your immediate thought is, “This fence seems silly! We could tear it down and it wouldn't affect anything!" you would certainly not be alone. This mentality is so prevalent that it led author G.K. Chesterton to pen this guidance:
"There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
Again, the type of rapid decision-maker, who both self-selects and is selected for fire service leadership, is more likely to be the first type of reformer in Chesterton's story. They see an obstacle and they want to aggressively act to remove it. Those in senior management, with their impulse now tempered by the loud admonishments they received in response to prematurely destroyed fences, are quick to stop us in our tracks. As people who default to immediate action, we don't understand why "that annoying fence" remains standing. Ironically, our inability to explain the history and reasoning for the construction of the fence is exactly what makes our cautious senior leadership reluctant to allow us to begin deconstructing it.
What are these fences in fire service agencies? In my experience, fences represent seemingly outdated policies, decades old technologies, and antiquated centralized decision-making processes. The "fence" is everything you encounter daily that makes you say, "Why do we still do things this way, when there are so many better ways to do this?" Note that this example isn't to say that we will never be allowed to change things. The point is that our senior leadership expects us to be able to verbalize why things are the way they are prior to us being allowed to weigh in on the reform process.
Aside from these practical considerations, this is also just being respectful, isn't it? The "fence" in question likely represents the mental and physical efforts of someone or some group of people in your organization who found themselves in your exact position, attempting to offer solutions to a problem. Showing interest in how and why they developed their solution shows respect and understanding for the problem-solvers who came before you. After all, how would you feel if just weeks after implementation of your solution, the next would-be problem-solver threw it out in favor of their solution – and had no consultation with you?
While trying to explain some of these frustrations to one of my long-time mentors, I asked if perhaps my frustration was due to being younger than most who hold my rank. He was quick to point out that people in the military are often nearing retirement at my age and typically have far more responsibility than I do. As I struggled for a better word to describe what I felt I was missing in handling some of these situations, he began to explain his concept of “occupational maturity.”
Occupational maturity, per Captain Redd, is the ability to carry yourself in the manner others expect from someone in your position. This struck me as something difficult to balance. We work in an industry that, on the one hand, tells us continuously that it prizes diversity of thought and, on the other hand, attempts to shoe-horn differing personalities into rigid molds based on century-old notions of how a good leader should behave.
Redd acknowledged my view, but challenged me: “Do you know any young Black women who are fire officers?” A silly question, I thought, as I am blessed to have lots of role models, which I shared. "OK, and that's wonderful,” he replied, “and how do they carry themselves?" My silence was deafening.
If you imagine someone who is perfectly in control of a stressful situation, the image is likely of someone who is conscientious, intentional with their words, and who employs the power of silence as much as the power of speech. Someone who brings calm to a situation, not chaos. This concept is so rooted into our expectations for our leadership that there is even a term for it: “Command Presence.” What he was hinting at was the exact demeanor I observed in the first two battalion chiefs I had met. I had been reluctant to change my approach to workplace interactions for fear of appearing “inauthentic.” But just as I had established expectations for my company officers, they had expectations for me. Regardless of where they came from, it was only right that I make an attempt to meet them.
'When you know better, you do better' – Maya Angelou
How do we navigate these challenges? We must become educated on the issues that affect us within the wider context of public administration. We must learn to identify complex problems prior to attacking them with the same mentality we use to attack fires and cardiac arrests. We must learn to listen and to navigate conflict, to conduct research and to become comfortable with internal and external politics.
Most urgently, we must learn which problems can yield immediate resolution and which problems will take significantly longer to address. Armed with this knowledge, we must communicate our understanding to the rank-and-file to recalibrate their expectations of what resolution might look like and when they might expect it.
Finally, we must prepare the next generation of fire service leaders so they do not fall into the same pitfalls we encountered. It may help to explain that just as they are being judged by the rank-and-file for their ability to resolve issues quickly, they are also being judged by upper management for their ability to exercise patience and discernment when necessary. And, of course, while experience, education and mentorship are important, some things are only learned in due time.
Author’s note: Much of the content of this article is based on ideas from kitchen table conversations that I've had with friends and mentors around the fire service. I’d like to shout-out these individuals for their contributions:
- John Butler, fire chief, Fairfax County Fire (Virginia) and Rescue Department
- Joseph Dixon, fire chief, Gainesville (Florida) Fire and Rescue
- DeAngelo Redd, captain, Howard County (Maryland) Department of Fire and Rescue Services
- Tracey Reed, assistant chief, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department
- Tiffanye Wesley, deputy chief, Arlington County (Virginia) Fire Department
- Kensington White III, assistant chief, Baltimore City Fire Department
- Louis Winston, fire chief, Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services
- Khalilah Yancey, deputy chief, Baltimore City Fire Department