My first full year as a line battalion commander is in the books.
The thought of stepping away from the cocoon and camaraderie of a well-functioning trucking company to navigate solo in the brand SUV was a massive leap not taken lightly. Being a company officer was the most fun and rewarding position I have had in the fire service. Not only is moving into an executive-level position for the first time a big step, but in my opinion, it’s one of the more difficult positions to define and understand until it’s experienced. You still put out fires, but many of those fires are metaphorical.
Everyone comes to a new job wanting the roadmap for success, but we know that fire service leadership is far from black and white, especially as you move up the ranks. This is never more evident than when it becomes your responsibility to lead people who lead others. You will largely prepare for the familiar job responsibilities by developing a solid foundation in strategy and tactics, incident command, and basic people management and leadership. Having a solid foundation in the known will give you more room and confidence to navigate the unknown that comes with many new positions.
Some things can only be experienced
Being a battalion commander is the epitome of mid-level leadership. Being in the messy middle is challenging and can feel isolating at times. You are at the top of one hierarchy but the bottom of another. It’s a balancing act that serves the people below and above you in the chain of command.
BC constantly helps align perspectives. They must understand and advocate for crews doing the most important work on the street, informing and influencing command staff to ensure they get the tools and support they need. The people closest to the problem usually know best what it will take to solve it; they just need the ability to communicate it.
The BC must also articulate the strategic command and administrative staff’s understanding and goals to the line crews so that the organization continues to make progress and meet expected benchmarks. Everyone works under the same mission and strives for the same end goals, but of course we perceive things differently based on our responsibilities and environment. This is not a negative or contradictory thing, it is just human and organizational nature.
The line BC is the one that can touch both sides. The influence of the position is real and can be equally rewarding and demanding, sometimes simultaneously. The sphere of influence expands, and words and actions matter – and they lead further. It is a big responsibility.
When I first stepped into the BC role, I experienced some impostor syndrome. I was the captain the day before, in charge of five other humans along with some non-human assets. Now it is over 40 people, together with many others indirectly.
It was overwhelming at first to think that I had to have the answers to everything, but I quickly realized that credibility is not built on having the immediate answers; but it will definitely be lost if you act like you do but are unable to deliver. As Battalion Chief Dena Ali eloquently reminds us in a recent article in FireRescue1, it’s OK to be a “non-knower”. We can build trust and confidence through humility and follow through. A lot of the time, people don’t need us to solve their problems, but rather want to be heard, and we have to fight our ego’s natural default for immediate correction.
One year of teaching
This year has felt a bit like drinking from a fire hose. In an effort to capture some of the many lessons that come my way, I practiced writing down some takeaways from each shift as a mini after-action review (AAR). I revisited all of the shift’s takeaways and consolidated some of the common themes into a handful of lessons.
These experiences are obviously my own and just barely scratch the surface. Maybe some will relate, others can get a glimpse of the job, mainly the nuances that are difficult to articulate in a handbook or qualification manual. And some of the lessons are obvious and come with the territory for any middle management position in the fire service and beyond, but still worth reinforcing for new BCs unsure of where to begin in their new role.
Build relationships: We do not work alone. Whether it is an emergency or a difficult personnel situation, we always work as a team. Build relationships with anyone and everyone; you never know when you might need them. Relationship building starts with my company officers and their crews, as well as the rest of our command and administrative staff. It also includes our dispatch center, police department, other key employees in the city and other battalion commanders from our auto-assist region. The time to get to know each other is not on the stage of a multi-alarm event.
Get out of the office, be visible, be present and interact. Build relationships naturally by training with the crews, eating meals together and through impromptu firehouse conversations. If you do things right, they want to see you. They want to show you what they are working on. You have influence and it matters. Show people that you are human and have their best interests at heart and they will do anything for you. The ever-increasing administrative tasks still need to be completed, but they can usually wait.
Disassemble where possible: It is important to find a balance where you can be engaged without being drawn into drama and emotions. Detachment is necessary in operations and in non-emergency decisions. This is not apathy or turning a blind eye; it is a very consciously committed detachment that changes with the situation. Take a step back to expand your field of vision, but also to give others space to do their work. Navy SEAL and leadership guru Jocko Willink calls detachment a superpower. He speaks and writes about it often, including in his book, “Leadership Strategy and Tactics.”
At the hearth, we can detach ourselves by setting up an appropriate control area and decentralizing our resources. We create clear expectations and job responsibilities before the incident and put the right people in the right places. This allows the IC to avoid getting into the weeds and remain strategic. The same is true outside the firehouse when dealing with personnel or situational decision-making and interactions where we have time on our side. Use that time and be self-aware enough to know when the emotions are creeping up and you need to take a step back. Your future self will thank you.
Stay organized: Control the controllable. Anticipate and be proactive. Obviously, this job is centered around responding to crises, but so much of the chaos can be mitigated by having good operational and administrative plans in place. Use calendars, take notes and plan your days in advance as much as possible. Expect things not to go as planned, which is fine because you just want to move to plan B and C. Information starts coming to you quickly throughout the shift. Create systems to manage it and follow up. Being in control of the day-to-day processes instills confidence in those around you, which also carries over to the hearth.
Just as the daily shift planning is important, the long-term planning is also important for the professional development of our individual people and the battalion. Take control of the shared calendar before it controls you. Improvised training has its place, but carefully curating training to the needs of our people is essential.
Prioritize personal well-being and development: Force separation from the job to focus on yourself. This is not only for your sake, but also for others around you. The combination of your role becoming less physically demanding and the dramatic increase in stress can be detrimental to your health. Stay fit and set a good example for your people. Don’t become a liability or a double standard. Win the long game.
Also, don’t forget your own professional development. When others see you improving yourself through training, outside of classes, conferences, etc., it sets a good example and instills confidence in your crews and management team that you stay current on current trends and maintain proficiency. Not to mention the perspective you get from getting outside your bubble. Focusing on yourself is very difficult, especially in the beginning while you are overwhelmed with just getting through the day in a new job. It’s not just about you, but also important from a succession planning perspective for the highly skilled people you’ve trained to step into the role while you’re gone.
Always anticipate fire and prioritize operations: Emergency operations are why we are here. Being operationally skilled is the well-understood part of the job, but also what keeps many of us new commanders awake at night. There is no other part of the job we want to excel at more than being a trusted and competent incident manager. Keep your mind in the game and expect the next big event to be right around the corner. Don’t let a day go by that you don’t prepare. You can’t learn and know everything overnight, but staying committed with the right mindset and a skilled team will allow you to work through anything.
Some of this may seem obvious, but as you begin to settle into these positions, new responsibilities such as projects and committees begin to “fill the plate,” especially in resource-constrained organizations. These additional responsibilities come with the territory of being a chief mate and are necessary not only for organizational progress, but also for our own personal growth. Bandwidth is a struggle for many of us. Say no to things that distract from the ability to focus on operations and the immediate day-to-day needs of your employees.
So much still to learn
The ability to support and influence an amazing and selfless group of people toward a mission of service, helping them contribute to something greater than themselves, is an honor and a great responsibility. It can be tough, and you don’t always feel the tangible personal success when you’re less often in the trenches delivering the service you came into the job to deliver. But recognizing successes through others can be even more rewarding.
No sooner in a position have I recognized that work-life balance, at least in the way many people perceive it, is not realistic. Being free does not mean the work is done. This job requires significant individual and family sacrifice, but it is all worth it. Influence comes with a price and must be valued.
This position has been the biggest challenge and growth opportunity of my career and I am nowhere near having it figured out. As Aristotle said, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” I look forward to many more years of finding out how much I don’t know.