Company Officer Leadership: Developing Leaders from Within Your Department

I was speaking to a new friend several months ago and we began discussing some of the current problems company officers are facing today. He told me these were some of the same issues he too had to deal with many years earlier. As we were traveling to the funeral of a legacy to the fire service, I was astonished to realize how many things haven’t changed.

I had the opportunity to discuss professional development with another active contributor to our profession while at the funeral and again heard similar stories of struggles from our past coming back to haunt us yet again.

My father once told me to learn from the past, so as to not make the same mistakes in the future or more importantly from similar situations. He wasn’t a scholar or philosopher, but his wise has counsel guided me most of my life. I wish some of the mistakes could have been foreseen, but these lessons created experiences to move forward in later in life.

After being motivated to seek out these earlier lessons, the 1966 Wingspread Conference Fire Service Administration, Education and Research report was discovered. The report began with this first problem statement:

Unprecedented Demands Are Being Imposed on the Fire Service by Rapid Social and Technological Change
The scale of business and government operations today, the complexity of modern technology and organization, and the swift increase in new knowledge, the population explosion, rapid growth of urban communities, need for efficiency and economy on the part of the commercial and industrial community to compete in our private enterprise system, particularly under the pressure of imports of our foreign trade commitments, require that fire executives and administrators be better educated than their predecessors and better prepared to understand and facilitate change. (Johnson Foundation 1966)

Sound familiar?

Almost five years ago, I was sitting in an audience where Mark Light, executive director and CEO of the IAFC, was speaking to an audience of fire officers graduating from the inaugural Virginia Fire Officers Fire Academy. He looked to the fire chiefs who were seated in the room and remarked that most of them would be retired in the next five years. He commented on the importance of succession planning to the future of the fire service and the development of the leadership to continue the vision of the service.

Chief Ronny Coleman (IAFC President 1988) described a method typical within the fire service is to rely on the rank structure to develop an heir to an organization. He suggested this is a weakness since the second in charge becomes a mimic of the chief, losing the sounding board to dispel adverse headings of the organization.

Chief Coleman says the greatest weakness in “this method of selecting successors is that it results in the in-breeding of the organization and a weakening of the knowledge pool in the agency. To put a person higher in hierarchy merely out of sense of likeability or concurrence with an existing philosophy can result in weakening the leadership of the organization.”

Chief Dennis Compton wrote, “The long-term success of an organization is directly related to the on-going investment made in those who will lead it in the future. Succession planning and career development are key program elements of this effort.”

The fire service once relied on experience alone to train our upcoming leaders; they were developed under fire so to speak. Some departments provided training after a promotion, but few provided training before the advancement of the officer.

An article written by Victor R. Buzzotta and Robert E. Lefton suggested that an organization must face the reality that its leadership will change, and an effective organization must plan for this change. They stated, “Succession planning is vital to the prosperity and survival of today’s business enterprise as is strategic planning. In fact, what good is a business strategy without qualified present and future leadership?”

While this problem has been recognized by the visionaries of the fire service as early as 1966 during the Wingspread Conference, we haven’t convinced the rank and file of the importance of succession planning, professional career planning or career development planning. Developing officers within the organization allows the personnel within the organization to share the vision of the management and to participate in its growth.

However, not all personnel are destined to become officers of the department nor do they want to. A plan should be developed to nurture those interested in pursuing a leadership position. Leaders for an organization can be grown from within and should be identified as early in their career as possible.

James Paul is a captain for the Prince William County (Va.) Dept of Fire and Rescue. He serves on the IAFC’s Company Officer Committee.

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