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Company Officer Leadership- Taking Management Decisions to the Field

It won’t take long for some folks to start reading this article and then ask the questions, “Why is a company officer writing about department management? Why don’t they just concentrate on managing their crew and leave department management to the chief?”

My answer: “Aren’t we all supposed to be in this together?”

What does it really mean to manage a department? In my opinion, it takes leaders at all levels throughout an organization to put forward ideas and work together to meet the management demands of the department.

Many departments try to limit their members’ input and involvement in managing the department, based on rank or other selective criteria. While the responsibility for managing the department generally falls on the shoulders of the fire chief, a department can’t be successfully managed without the input and support of the troops in the field.

And who really leads those troops in the field? Hopefully it’s the company officer. OK, not every company officer, but one who truly cares for his crews, his peers and the department as a whole.

Traditionally, company officers are the ones who take management decisions to the field and take on implementing things that may or may not be popular. How we present those decisions can have a huge impact on their success or failure.

If we’re reluctant to deliver a decision because we don’t feel it’s the correct one, the field crews can often tell by what we say and how we say it.

So does that mean we have to agree with every decision that comes down the pipe? Not necessarily. But it is our job to make sure we understand what the decision is, how it was made, why it was made and how we can make it work.  It’s the job of the company officer to explain the decision in terms that make the most sense to the crews and put their whole hearted support behind it.

If you’re one of the few company officers who have never had to implement a decision in the field that you didn’t think was the best, all I can say is congratulations—or just wait, it’s coming.

If we’re honest with ourselves, can we truthfully say that the decisions we’ve made were always the best? Probably not, yet when we made them, we expected others to provide us with some feedback, sure, but ultimately to follow the direction we set. How can we expect the chief to expect anything different from us?

Unfortunately, this is one of the things many prospective company officers don’t think about when they apply for and accept the promotion. Being a company officer isn’t always easy or pleasant. Sometimes it means sucking up our feelings and towing the company line, so to speak.

It’s often said that a company officer shouldn’t complain to anyone below them on the organizational chart and I believe that to be true. However, I think it goes further than that. A company officer shouldn’t undermine the management decisions being made by not doing their best to make the decision work.

If you’re a company officer who wants to move up to a chief-officer position, you have to ask yourself if you’d want a company officer like you on your management team.  Be honest with yourself, and if the answer is no, maybe it’s time to adjust the way you manage—make that the way you lead!

Mike Jaffa is a captain for the Santa Fe County (N.M.) Fire Department and chair of the Company Officers Section. He’s been a member of the IAFC since 2002.

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