Leading Up

4 ways to coach your boss

When I started in the fire service I used to think that “coaching” was always from the top down. After all, in fire school the instructors coached us to build skill as an individual while also learning to work as a team. As a probie on the job, I was coached by my captain and other senior firefighters about our policies and procedures, and how to do the “real work” of a firefighter. And as I promoted through the ranks, I continued to be a student of the fire service where I was coached by many chief officers, including the fire chief.


There are many opportunities to coach and be coached. Photo by Billy Schmidt

We think that the only type of coaching in the fire service is from the top-down. However, I found many situations where I could actually coach my boss. And on several occasions, I was the boss who was being coached. But it only works well if it’s done right.

Having been in all positions from a firefighter, to company and chief officer, I have found opportunities to coach and be coached.

Coaching Up and Down

Once you’re a senior firefighter or an officer, you’re usually coaching somebody who is under you, somebody who reports to you somewhere in the chain of command. And most fire departments follow a strict, or at least somewhat orderly hierarchy. So it’s rare to think about coaching a senior firefighter or your officer. Or, even one of your peers.

But sometimes it has to be done. And if you’re going to be a leader, you have to learn how to do this, because there are going to be people who are above you that are hurting or inhibiting what you do. The things that you’re trying to accomplish. And if you don’t coach them for better behavior and relationships, it’s not good for anybody. Ultimately, it’s not good for the fire department.

I’ve been the officer who was doing things that sometimes clouded efficiency and weakened execution. On many occasions, if it hadn’t been for a company officer coming to me and saying, “Chief, are you aware that you’re doing such-and-such..?” I would have continued to harm our progress. I had no idea because my situation awareness was limited. I was too focused on either the demands of my boss or what “I” thought was important or how to do it.

I was grateful because it was good for me. I grew as a person and as a leader. It was good for my team and my fire department because I didn’t continue to do those “knuckle-head” things that hurt our ability to be safe and effectively execute in emergency situations.

4 Ways to Coach Your Boss

Not everyone can be coached. More importantly, there’s a special way to do this to increase the probability that it will work. How do you give this kind of input in the right way? Here are 4 considerations to help you coach your boss.

  1. Check the weather before going there. We’re all people; even our bosses. We all have good weather and bad weather days. You will increase your probability of success if you approach them when the weather is good. Make sure the situation is right for this kind of conversation. Avoid the thunderstorms and take advantage of the sunny days. Timing is everything.
  2. Be humble. Part of being a leader is being humble. What this means is, keep your mind open. Be open to ideas and reasons that you weren’t aware of. Your way may not really be the best way. Make it a two-way dialogue situation. We learn and grow from each other.
  3. Make sure it really matters. It has to matter. In other words, why is it important? What kind of impact will it have on the situation and the people involved?
  4. Just go for it. Yes, go ahead and take the risk. If the weather is right, your humble, and it’s something that really matters then just go for it. Leadership is about risk taking and there’s no better way to build strong relationships and grow your fire department than to be able to coach both up and down.

Leading up is not easy. And you’re not going to get it right every time, but these four considerations should give you a good framework for having those difficult conversations. Imagine what can be done if your fire department can get to the point where there is coaching both up and down the organization. It would make a difference.

Here’s a great resource for coaching all around your organization.