Rolling the Ball Uphill: Poor leadership makes poor frontline firefighters

Rolling the Ball Uphill
Poor performance at the line level has a direct connection to poor leadership at the officer level

By Scott Cook

On March 20, 2009, the USS Hartford and the USS New Orleans collided in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. What does this have to with the firehouse? Read on.

After the last several articles I’ve written about the behavior and responsibilities of subordinates, it’s time to roll the ball uphill. When it comes time to be the boss, some—certainly not all—of us aren’t getting the job done. Find your rank in the list below and ask yourself:

  • Company officers: Why do you let your engineers or firefighters get away with less-than-stellar performance?
  • Battalion chiefs: Why do you let your company officers, engineers or firefighters get away with less-than-stellar performance?
  • Deputy chiefs: Why do you let your battalion chiefs, company officers, engineers or firefighters get away with less-than-stellar performance?
  • Assistant chiefs: Why do you let your deputy chiefs, battalion chiefs, company officers, engineers or firefighters get away with less-than-stellar performance?
  • Fire chiefs: Why do you let your assistant chiefs, deputy chiefs, battalion chiefs, company officers, engineers or firefighters get away with less-than-stellar performance?

Admittedly, “get away with” may be the wrong phrase, so let me ask it this way: Why do you settle for or tolerate anything less than stellar performance and attitude in your subordinates?

A Calling
Officers of all ranks, you’ve been given the privilege and responsibility for the safety and performance of your firefighters. Your city asked you to take that privilege and responsibility because they thought you could handle it. Were they wrong?

By the very nature of you accepting the promotion, you said you would lead the company (or companies) under your charge. Were you lying just to get more prestige or authority? Or better yet (for you, anyway)—more money?

Look, I know it’s tough to go from being “one of the guys” to “the designated adult,” especially in the firehouse. And I am not advocating a strict hand where it’s not absolutely called for. But it’s time to step up to the plate, lead and be the boss. If you’ve been lax in your responsibilities as a leader, it’s time to start leading. If you can’t or won’t lead, ask to be stepped back into a subordinate role.

Trust me, if you fit into the boss category described here, your firefighters have issues they need help with. If you’re not aware of such issues, it’s because your firefighters don’t bring them to you because the perception (or reality) is that for whatever reason, you couldn’t care less.

A Lesson from the Navy
Let’s get back to that Navy collision. Following the collision between the USS Hartford (a submarine) and the USS New Orleans (an amphibious transport dock), the Navy issued a report of its investigation.

The most profound statement (for me) is on page 7 of the report: “The Hartford team had the necessary training, tactical skills and equipment to prevent this collision. The fact that a preventable collision did occur was due to the ineffective and negligent command leadership.”

The team had everything they needed EXCEPT a leader.

The report goes on to state, “The command team failed professionally to maintain high standards and hold personnel accountable on a daily basis. This resulted in a command climate that fostered poor watchstanding practices [Navy speak for work practices], the absence of questioning attitudes, the lack of forceful watch team backup [Navy speak for peer checking] and a general level of complacency.” You can read the full report (minus the top-secret redactions) attached to this post: 111709_hartford.pdf

Read between the redacted stuff in the full report and a common theme emerges: The command team FAILED. The Hartford’s officers knew behavior and/or performance was not acceptable, they were present when it happened, and they did nothing to correct it. In some cases, officers participated in unacceptable behavior.

Now imagine a similar statement about an officer(s) in an injury or LODD report in the fire service. And ask yourself, could it be said about you?

Scott Cook is the former chief of the Granbury (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department and a fire service instructor. He’s also a member of FireRescue’s editorial board.


Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Comment by Justin Lewis on August 19, 2010 at 11:35am
That is my favorite line from the movie...I point it out to everyone...I think it goes un noticed in that movie...great call Scott!
Comment by W. Scott Fricke on August 19, 2010 at 6:04am
To borrow a line from the movie Remember The Titans: "ATTITUDE REFLECTS LEADERSHIP". Great article Scott.
Comment by Mick Mayers on August 15, 2010 at 6:26pm
I like the article. The "designated adult supervision" theme is pretty familiar (I've been using it for a long time) and it's really applicable in the new officer who still thinks he/she is "one of the guys".
Comment by lutan1 on August 13, 2010 at 8:44pm
This probably feeds in well with the blog I recently wrote titled, "Lead The Way Or Step Aside"
http://www.firefighternation.com/profiles/blogs/lead-the-way-or-ste...

Leaders must LEAD! Set the example, do their job, or move aside...
Comment by Justin Lewis on August 13, 2010 at 5:10pm
Thats a great article Scott...thanks and keep up the good work!

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