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.

Gordan Graham And True Risk Management

The Status Quo is gone..... Continual improvement has got to be the rule of life

Gordan Graham just makes sense. He has a knack for opening our eyes and connecting us with true reality. What do we really see? What is actually happening? And what should we do about it?


Graham champions safety and effectiveness in the public safety world; a place filled with constant complexity and chaos. In a recent Firehouse blog, he speaks on the topic of risk management at the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) Symposium.

He reminds us of the simple message that if it’s predictable, it’s preventable:

If we can identify the cause of the tragedy, perhaps we can put together control measures to prevent similar tragedies from occurring.

He reveals that we are part of the problem:

The truth is we don’t know jack about risk management, he said of people who work for government public safety agencies. We get all worked up about the wrong things.

He explains that tragedies have multiple causes, including proximate cause, contributory cause, root causes and other problems lying in wait. Look at the root cause of the problem. Don’t just focus on the immediate or proximate cause. He said, “Everybody knows it was the iceberg that sank the Titanic, but was it the real cause?” We must look deeper.

Here are 7 rules of risk management that Graham suggests we follow:

  1. You must have a rising standard of quality over time and well beyond what is required by any minimum standard.
  2. People running complex systems should be highly capable.
  3. Supervisors have to face bad news when it comes and take problems to high level enough to fix those problems.
  4. You must have a healthy respect for the dangers and risk of your particular job.
  5. Training must be constant and rigorous.
  6. You must have a robust audit process to assure that what you say you are doing you are, in fact doing.
  7. The organization and members thereof must have the ability and willingness to learn from mistakes of the past.

Probably the most important areas in the fire service that we should put more focus on is the leader influence in dangerous contexts. As leaders, we must be adaptable and agile, able to balance high risk situations with low frequency operations. As Gordan Graham suggests, continual improvement by keeping our eyes on the real problems, then working together to solve them, is our rule of life.

Here are some Gordan Graham sources:

FIREHOUSE Blog by Ed Ballam: FDSOA Symposium: Graham Lectures on True Risk Managment

You Tube video featuring Gordan Graham on High Risk, Low Frequency Events

Looking Ahead To 2016: What’s Next For The Fire Service?

Open-mindedness and a far-reaching vision will keep the fire service in the game

From data-driven decisions to a rise in prevention, expanded duties, and increased threat response, the fire service will continue to change in the upcoming year. More rapidly than ever before.

Change is happening more rapidly than ever before.

Change is happening more rapidly than ever before.

Yes, “continue to change” is something the fire service, reluctantly, will do this year. And this change will begin to accelerate more because of the unique nature of our fast-changing and complex world. Keeping pace with technology and the increased demands and challenges in our communities will drive us even more to make this change. A “status quo” strategy will not work; open-mindedness and a far-reaching vision will keep the fire service in the game.

A far-reaching vision will keep the fire service

Open-mindedness and a far-reaching vision will keep the fire service in the game.

Revisioning The Fire Service

Threat Response

After several unexpected, mass-civilian attacks on U.S. soil in 2015, the fire service will have to provide a more unified response to these new security threats. More use of a rescue task force approach combining law enforcement, fire, and EMS will be required. That means an even better relationship between those services and much more practice together to work out the kinks!

A Rise In Fire Prevention

The community sees us fighting fire, but they rarely see us preventing fire through inspections, code enforcement, and education. Fighting fire is, and always will be, needed. But our overall mission to save lives and protect property should have just as much, if not more, emphasis before the fire.

Data Driven Decisions

More decisions are made by data today. Data provides a better picture of past history and future trends that can identify safer practices, more effective strategies, and lower operating costs. Expect more radical approaches to the long-rooted staffing and deployment models to meet changing needs throughout the communities and peak demand times.

Expanded Duties

Saving lives and protecting property is why the fire service exists. But it will mean more than just fighting fires. Fire departments can expect to be called on and used for more emergency and non-emergency situations than ever before. More education to increase situation awareness and decision making combined with a strong skill-based training will be required to meet a multitude of dangerous and chaotic situations.

More information. The need for more prevention. More things to do and more threats coming our way. Open-mindedness and a far reaching vision will keep the fire service in the “game of change” this year.

What changes do you see coming in 2016? How will you address them?

Leaders Are Problem Solvers

After a long day, we sat quietly in my office at the firehouse just staring at each other. It had been an usually busy first half of a 24-hour shift that was filled with the typical calls for help from the community, combined with some very unique personnel issues that had caused lots of friction in a couple of our firehouses. We were refereeing conflicts; solving people problems.problemsolvingLeadership guru Seth Godin says, “The future belongs to those who can do two things: Lead and solve interesting problems.”

The greatest thing we do as leaders is to find solutions to unique problems. We should expect to encounter the occasional broken system, ineffective team, or personnel conflict in our fire department. That’s why we are the leaders. That’s what leaders do!

While much of our day is spent on managing our tasks list, the first item in our leader’s job description should be “solving problems.” We are problem-solvers, both on the fireground and in the firehouse.

WHAT IT TAKES: Pass A Good Book On

Help others stretch and grow through reading

I was once asked by a new-promoted chief who was shadowing me, “Hey, you like to read, right? What’s a good book for me?” I perked up and immediately turned from my task at the moment and faced him. I was excited; someone wanted to talk about books! Unfortunately, after recommending a few books on leadership and personal development, my excitement was short-lived. He responded to my suggestions with, “No, I don’t mean that stuff, I’m looking for some fire books, like tactics.” My first thought was, Isn’t there more to the fire service than just strategy and tactics? Absolutely!5 books

There’s a  great story in the sports section of the Wall Street Journal today about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew luck and his love for reading, and more important, his desire to “pass a good book on.”

Football, like firefighting, is very dirty and physical. Both professions wear protective equipment and perform as teams. But, football and firefighting also require exceptional mental skills that answer those so important questions: why, how, and what? The only way to achieve that level of teamwork is through learning together. And a great way to do that is by reading some good books, passing them around, and then talking about them.

Andrew Luck leads in more ways than just on the field. He consistently recommends his favorite reads to his team mates. And they’re not about football. Luck’s book suggestions range from fiction to the classics, depending on where he’s at and who he’s giving them to. By passing a good book on, and then talking about it, he’s influencing more than just the tactics of football, he’s growing other leaders and building a stronger team.

Firefighting books that focus on tactics, chemistry, construction, and administration should be required reading in the fire service. They are the nuts and bolts of our machine work. But also needed are those books that speak to values and character, that increase personal knowledge, and improve analytical and reasoning skills. They are the grease that makes the machine run long and smooth.

So, if you were to ask me, “What’s a good book for me?” here’re a few I would recommend. They will help you discover insights on team building, influencing others, applying intuition, managing things, establishing a culture, and just becoming a better person and a healthy organization.

  • Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield
  • The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership by John Wooden
  • Profiles In Courage by John F. Kennedy
  • Young Men And Fire by Norman Maclean
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • 5 Minds For The Future by Howard Gardner
  • Flawless Execution by James D. Murphy
  • Start With Why by Simon Sinek
  • Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach by Col. Dandridge M. Malone (Ret.)
  • The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield
  • In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It by Thomas A. Kolditz
  • The Challenge Of Command by Roger H. Nye
  • The 21 Indispensable Qualities Of A Leader by John C. Maxwell
  • Warfighting by The U.S. Marine Corp
  • Comrades by Stephen E. Ambrose
  • The Warrior Mindset by Michael J. Asken, Ph.D. and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
  • Team of Teams: New Rules For Engagement For A Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal
  • We Were Soldiers Once… And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore
  • Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales
  • The Classic Touch: Lessons In Leadership From Homer To Hemingway by John K. Clemens and Douglas F. Mayer

Go here to Books I Recommend to find these books and more.

Go here to Read To Lead Podcast for current book reviews and recommendations.


Keep Calm And Party With A Chaplain

What We learned about saving our own from a Fire Chaplain's Conference

Several people of various ages and backgrounds gathered for three days last week in an ordinary hotel conference room to talk about the personal challenges that firefighters face today. But the week was anything but ordinary.


This was not your familiar conference where firefighters learn to force doors and drag other firefighters to safety. But it was a meeting of the minds, some very concerned people wanting to learn more about how to save our own in the firehouse, just like we do on the fireground.

The 2015 Federation of Fire Chaplains Conference began on the right note, literally. It opened with the Star Spangled Banner, sung beautifully by the entire room, creating an enthusiastic vibe that carried on throughout the week. Nothing compares with singing for bringing people together. We were no longer strangers, but a team of people with a strong desire to help others.

The Takeaways

The energy continued with the high-powered, straight talk that included real-world advice from some fire chiefs, strong recommendations from health care professionals, spiritual guidance from chaplains, and personal stories from firefighters and their spouses. Here are a few of the take-a-ways:

  • We help everyone. We never leave anyone behind.
  • Who’s helping the firefighter families? We need to work together to better help our own; the mental health community, the chaplains, peer support teams, and the fire department administrators.
  • Issues unique to firefighters are complex and we have to be ready for the moment when we can help. Sometimes, only firefighters can help firefighters.
  • Get to know your people and connect with them. Don’t forget their families. One simple text or phone call from someone at the right time can help.
  • What is the firefighter’s spouse exposed to when the firefighter comes home? How do we handle it? Have three hard conversations: re-entry time, harshness and hallows humor, and handling the rough runs.
  • Tragedies touch everyone in a different way. Taking care of your own requires trust. Without it, you can lose others.
  • Don’t wait for a tragedy to start a chaplaincy. Chaplains don’t work for the chief, they work for the members.
  • The human heart is exquisitely fragile.
  • Chaplains must grow other chaplains.
  • Conversation is important. It’s all about emotional wellness.

We must become a team of teams

I had the honor to close out the conference and here’s some of my message:

Our world is dangerous and chaotic, both on the fireground and in the firehouse. We see the worse of it. All of our fire department members experience it at some level. We need new ways to lead and to work together. We need to break down the silos and work across divisions in the big firehouse, where the administrative chiefs work.

We have to build cohesive leadership teams, because the first step to a healthy fire department is to have the big firehouse working together.

We need to shift from efficient organizations to adaptable teams that are effective.

We must help our own. We must become a team of teams.

How does your fire department help it’s own?

Resources to help you help your own:

Rosecrance Florian Program

Firefighter Family Articles at Fire Engineering Magazine



Help, My Job Is Killing Me

Captain Jeremy Hurd to talk about helping our own at FDIC 2016

We prepare and practice for our fireground challenges, but what are we doing to take care of our own in the firehouse?

Follow Captain Jeremy Hurd as he helps the fire service tackle the real issues in the fire service: firefighter health and safety.

The Best Way To Lead On The Fireground

Put skill, will, and teamwork together

FFwindowwalkThe best fireground teams have high skill, high will, and high teamwork. Have you ever been in a firehouse where everyone believed that each team member was highly trained, and that all knew their purpose and what they had to do? It’s the finest kind of team to be in. Some teams in the fire service are like this today. I’ve been on a few myself. All of them can be. Once there, this kind of team needs only four things:

  1. Mission-type orders with clear objectives and support.
  2. General supervision to provide current information and coordinated action.
  3. Trust.
  4. … and a fireground where they can go to work!

Leadership Zig-Zag

Sometimes it's not about making the right decision, but just making a decision at all

Fire leaders are faced with dozens of decisions to make every day. Many are simple, some are complicated, and a few have more serious ramifications. Sometimes it’s not about making the right decision, but just making a decision at all. So, why do some fire leaders avoid making decisions?

dilbert-removing obstacles

Leaders in the fire service, from firefighter to fire chief, must master the ability to make good decisions quickly in order to keep the fire department moving forward. The best leaders surround themselves with people they trust and subject matter experts, so that they can get reliable information to make better decisions.

Fire leaders cannot afford to zig-zag. Learn to remain calm under pressure, trust the teams you have built, and use all of the information available to make the best decision. Oh, and sometimes having a little faith doesn’t hurt either.


There's always some angle on it, if you just hang in there

My old fire chief, Herman Brice, used to say, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” He was our leader and he was reminding us that we make our own luck. To be lucky, you have to have the right mind for opportunity, be ready for it, then grab it!


Photo courtesy of PBCFR.

Reading the Wall Street Journal the other day, I came across a column where they asked some famous people what they thought about luck. Barbara Corcoran, real estate guru and Shark Tank judge, said it best with her positive approach here:

I love the word luck. My whole life, luck has been my partner and bedfellow. I feel like it’s been standing right by my side, and I expect it all the time. I don’t always get it, but I expect it. In any situation I assume it’s going to spin to the positive. Of course, not everything works out OK -in fact, the great majority of things don’t. But you try. And then immediately as I’m falling or failing or realizing it’s not working out, I’m thinking, This is going to lead to something better. And it always does. There’s always some angle on it, if you just hang in there. I steer clear of negative people because I see them as thieves in the night that are going to rob me of my good fortune. Maybe luck and optimism are the same thing. If you get lucky and recognize it as good luck, you expect more luck and it finds you.

Preparation. Positive expectations. It all makes for more opportunity. Combine it and you get better luck.