Company Officer Leadership: Making an Excellent Difference

With every promotion in the fire service comes a changing of the guard—an opportunity for someone to move up, to realize a dream and to one day become a truly great leader. While the ceremonies held for promotions vary, the one constant that connects them all occurs after the guests have left, when you have an opportunity to look at your new badge and wonder, "Now what?"

The role of the company officer is multidirectional and multifaceted, requiring many different aspects of leadership. But as many have come to realize, few new officers are offered formal training to help them along their journey, resulting in piecemeal decision-making and poor judgments.

The company officer is the face of the department, the one who meets distressed residents at the door when called for assistance, the one who sets the standards that the rest of the company will follow and the one the chief comes down on when policies and procedures aren't followed and when departmental expectations aren't met.

Being a manager of resources both inside the station and out on the street enables the officer to develop core principles in job performance, attitude, leadership and accountability—not only for his crew but, more importantly, also for himself. The principle of leadership isn't a once-in-a-while endeavor that presents itself only when the brass is around; it's an opportunity for the company officer to guide, mentor and hone his crew to instill competence and trust.

In his article "What Makes a Leader?" (Harvard Business Review, 1998), Daniel Goleman explores five crucial attributes for what he deems to be a good leader:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skill

He refers to these attributes as emotional intelligence. In his research of more than 200 global companies, he found the traditional leadership qualities of intelligence, toughness, determination and vision are required for success but are insufficient; emotional intelligence attributes are what separate key leaders from average ones. Nowhere is this truer than in the fire service.

As company officers, we must evaluate our own emotional intelligence to fulfill the policies of our departments and to fulfill our roles as key leaders in the fire service.

Self-awareness means being able to understand your own weaknesses and not being afraid to share them with your crew (this will allow each of you to grow).

Self-regulation means you're able to control impulses and channel them for good resolutions.

Motivation is more than the ability to get subordinates to do things; it's a passion for purpose and achievement, a passion to become a change agent for the fire service.

Empathy involves taking into account the feelings of others.

Social skill is the culmination of all the preceding traits: "an ability to build a rapport with others, to get them to cooperate, to move them in a direction you desire." (Goleman 1998)

In other words, it's the ability to build your company and your department into the first-class organization the public expects it to be.

Change at the company level begins and ends with the company officer. Company officers can recognize deficiencies in operational readiness as well as performance that's above and beyond the norm. A failure of leadership at the officer level will eventually affect every aspect of the company and its abilities to perform even the most basic of job functions.

Whether you receive formal company officer training or not, once you put that new badge on, everyone is looking to you to make a difference.

Excellence in policies means you have a strong working knowledge of your departments SOPs and SOGs. Excellence in practices means you do it the right way every time, not just when someone is watching.

Excellence in recognition means that first- and second-level supervisors have not only the capacity to recognize good performance but an obligation to do so, just as you have the obligation and the duty to recognize poor behavior and make corrections. The ability to recognize the good and the bad will allow you to grow both as an individual and as a leader and will set the groundwork for how your crew members will act to subordinates when it's them receiving new badges.

By maintaining excellence in policies, practices and recognition, company officers will today create a dynamic team of well-grounded, fundamentally motivated and competent firefighters who will eventually become the fire service leaders of tomorrow.

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