Are You An Obstacle?

Clear the path for your people to succeed

dilbert-removing obstacles

What stands in the way of your firefighters doing their job? Take a minute and look at your fire department; the rules (policies and procedures), how your firefighters learn (training), how they work (teamwork), and what they have to work with (tools, equipment, and facilities). Now take a look at you, their leader. Does your fire department and your leadership provide a clear path for your firefighters to work safely and effectively (don’t confuse effective with efficient). Are they able to achieve the organization’s objectives, and just as important their personal goals?

How can you, their leader, remove the obstacles that clutter their path to success?

Picture their workday: A workplace full of modern technology that can be confusing and sometimes difficult to operate. Policies telling them what they can’t do and procedures telling them how to do everything. Training and continuing education pulling them in different directions. Individuals with personal agendas or a lack of passion for the job. Facilities, tools, and equipment that must be inspected and maintained. And then there is you, their leader, and your requirements and expectations. There’s more to learn, more to do, and less time to get all of it done.

How can you help your firefighters get past all of those obstacles and accomplish their goals? And the Department’s goals?

As their leader, your goal is to ensure your firefighters’ safety and enhance their performance while enriching their personal satisfaction by focusing on their motivation, and all of this while completing your fire department’s mission. Your challenge is to use a leadership style that best meets their motivational needs, one that makes the path to their goals clear and easy to travel through coaching and direction.

Simply put, the role of the leader is to provide the necessary information, support and resources over and above those provided by the fire department to ensure both your firefighters’ personal satisfaction and a safe and effective performance. As their leader, you must work with your firefighters to define goals, clarify the path to reach those goals, clear the obstacles from that path and then provide the support needed to accomplish the goals.

A firefighter’s day is filled with many obstacles: responding to emergency calls, training requirements, rules and regulations, station and equipment maintenance, new technology, and many other potential hurdles. Don’t be one of those obstacles.

Clear the path for your firefighters by carefully assessing each of them and their tasks and then choosing an appropriate leadership style to match. As a leader, I always tried to remove myself as a fundamental part of the equation, so that the great people on our team could do their very best work without me getting in the way. Getting out of the way was hard to learn, because self-awareness is really tough to develop.

Remove obstacles for your team, for your staff, and by doing so you’ll remove obstacles for yourself as well. Imagine that.

How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge

How do you lead when you’re not in charge? If you believe that leadership is influence, as leadership guru John Maxwell teaches, then you don’t have to be in charge to lead. Leadership is needed at every level of the organization. For better insight on this, read Maxwell’s book, The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization.

Senior Jake Buddy Yarbrough

Some of the most influential people are not in positions of authority. Senior Jake Buddy Yarbrough

And think about this, almost always in any organization you’re not the top guy, gal, officer, or chief. Even if you are on top, you still have someone you report to, like city council members and the citizens in your community. So really, you always have others you are accountable to.

There’s almost no time when you don’t have a boss or someone to report to. So your position has very little to do with the influence that you exercise within your organization. Some of the most influential people I’ve known were not in positions of authority (we referred to Driver-Operator Buddy Yarbrough as “Senior Jake“). On the other hand, I can think of many who had the position of authority and they had no influence because they were just knuckleheads.

So, position and influence are two different things. Be like our Senior Jake Buddy Yarbrough, and just lead.

Who are the “Senior Jakes” in your organization?

Can We Do It Better?

This question always lingers, “Can we do it better?” What does it take? How do we get everyone involved and make it stick? How do we build a culture that wants to do it better?


We live in different and dangerous times today. Our incidents are getting crazier and more complex. We’re challenged by mysterious bio-hazards, unprecedented natural disasters, and unexpected terrorism that can happen anywhere. Our communities are becoming more diverse and they need our help with risk reduction and education.

To face these ever-changing and complex challenges, we must continue to do it better. There are a lot of people counting on us, so we have to be ready for anything, at anytime, and anywhere.

Here are a few suggestions on how we can do it better:

Train and Work Safer

Train, respond, and work safely. Wear your seat belts and your SCBA. Stop breathing so much smoke. Follow your policies and procedures and execute them safely. Stay aware of everything, and watch over your brothers and sisters; have their backs. Speak up when you need to, in the right way. Maintain the readiness of your equipment, and use it properly and when you’re supposed to. Practice personal accountability, all the time. And, know where you are at all times.

Practice and Master Your Skills

Whether operating a saw or starting an IV line, don’t just settle for proficiency; be a master at what you do. Stay physically fit, because your work involves great physical exertion. Keep learning about everything. Know why and how we do things, not just what to do. Be disciplined and use the incident command system. Constantly train for readiness and improvement. Always look back at what you did and ask, “How can I do it better next time?”

Act Like a Professional with Honor and Integrity

Be courageous, but calm. Be patient, because it can be difficult dealing with people who are in a considerable state of stress. Sometimes they are the people you work with. Practice a positive image, everywhere and all the time. Set a good example for the young people in your community. Get involved in your fire department and your community, and provide ideas to make the job safer and the community better.

Treat Others Better and Practice Servant Leadership

Be nice to everyone you encounter, especially the people you work with. Practice compassion and consideration for everyone. Engage the people in your community, including the leaders, staff, and citizens. Get to know them and what they need. Improve relationships with other agencies, especially law enforcement; we need to have their backs. Be a servant to others, because that’s the true calling of the fire service.

It’s not a matter of can we do it better, we have to do it better. Start this discussion in your fire department. Ask that lingering question, “Can we do it better?” And if each of us keeps calm and makes a real effort, we will do it better.

How To Cure Zombie Management

It’s the week of Halloween, and Zombies are everywhere.There’s even one in my neighbor’s front yard. And yes, they’re in our fire departments too. You’ve seen them, those firefighters walking around unaware of their surroundings. They’re unable to think for themselves; they’re ambulant but require outside direction. How do they get that way? What infects them and transforms them from thinking, engaged firefighters into brain-dead, disconnected zombie firefighters? It’s those micromanaging fire officers who drain the brains of our firefighters.

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

 Zombie Management Theory

One of the most important functions a fire officer has is management, right? Here’s how Zombie Management works against us. An increase in fire officer management decreases the level of firefighter brain use. A fire officer who micromanages every detail creates brainless zombie firefighters, while the effective officer who allows full autonomy builds thinking responsible firefighters. So the obvious point here (unless you too are a zombie) is that the more you officers micromanage your firefighters, the less they will use their brains, making it more likely that they will become “zombies.” We don’t want zombies working with us on the fire ground.

Ask any fire officer which they prefer: thinking firefighters or mindless zombies who respond only as directed? I’m sure the answer would be, “I want smart firefighters who can think and adapt to any situation, firefighters with initiative who perform safely and effectively without detailed direction.” Then ask those same fire officers what their management style is, and none of them will admit that they’re micromanagers.

Now, ask any firefighter which they prefer: an officer who empowers them through trust and responsibility, or a control freak who second-guesses everything they do? Again, the answer should be, “I want an officer who believes in me and helps me grow.” Then ask those firefighters what they really think about micromanagers.

 How to Spot a Zombie Manager (Micromanager)

Do you work for a zombie manager? Are you a zombie manager? What causes a manager to act this way? Most micromanagers are driven by one, or all, of the following issues:

  1. Zombie Managers are insecure. A lack of personal confidence can be devastating to a fire  officer. During stressful and strenuous conditions, firefighters demand that their officers be competent. No amount of “badge authority” is likely to command respect or obedience in complex and dangerous situations where lives are at risk.
  2. Zombie Managers cannot handle workplace instability or pressures. Again, insecure officers quickly fall prey to the stress and pressure to meet the daily performance demands of their firefighters, including training, responding to calls and just plain getting along with each other.
  3. Zombie Managers think they can do it better. These fire officers believe that no one can do it better than them. They have to make every decision, take a lead role in every task and, in some cases, dictate every step a firefighter takes.
  4. Zombie Managers don’t trust anyone. This fire officer has studied and practices Douglas McGregor’s Theory X that assumes that all firefighters are inherently lazy and will avoid work whenever they can. They believe that they have to keep a close eye on their firefighters because they can’t be trusted.

What’s the Cure for Zombie Management?

If you are the Zombie Manager:

  • Admit it! Then start to deal with the micromanaging forces that drive you to control everything.
  • Strengthen your confidence by becoming more competent. High-risk situations demand competent officers.
  • Believe in your firefighters and trust them. Build relationships by rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work with them.
  • Invest in your firefighters’ training and help them learn to make the decisions or do the tasks that need to get done.
  • Stop treating your firefighters like zombies, because if that’s how you treat them, that’s what you’ll get. Take some risks and give them a chance to prove what they can do. Help them grow.

If you work for a Zombie Manager:

  • Learn to speak up. Help your officer delegate more effectively by prompting them to give you all of their expectations up front.
  • Make sure to communicate with your officer regularly. This will discourage their need to constantly come to you for details.
  • Remember, your officer is human and changing micromanaging habits is difficult. Help them.

If you have been in the fire service for any length of time, I’m sure you have been exposed to some form of zombie management. Micromanaging is immediately recognized by firefighters. Officers who micromanage inhibit firefighter development, restrict organizational growth and turn firefighters into zombies.

Finding the appropriate balance between directing, delegating, and doing is one of the many challenges for fire officers today. The goal is not to create mindless zombie firefighters, but to grow adaptable, thinking leaders. The message is simple: Don’t be afraid to manage, but know how, when and where to do it.

Are you a recovering Zombie Manager? How did you recover? Have you worked for a Zombie Manager? How did you handle it?

What a Leadership Team Should Be Doing

Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what to do with your time when you’re in an administrative leadership position at the fire department. Yes, there are mission-critical functions to complete but those are often more strategic than tactical. You’re acting with the BIG picture in mind.

Leaders help others grow. Illustration by Paul Combs.

Leaders help others grow. Illustration by Paul Combs.

This can be very challenging for the firefighter at heart who is now in an executive leadership position. No longer do you respond to those routine calls and operate as a tactical commander. You’re now part of a strategic leadership team. And by the way, not all firefighters should just promote up to a leadership position.

I personally made the transition from front line firefighter to company officer then to chief officer, but it’s taken a lot of time and practice to be where I am now. Over the last 30 years I’ve discovered through lots of trial and error why we need leaders,  how to work safely and effectively with people, and in many areas what not to do. I continue to learn more every day.

There are times when I’m fond of my role as a chief officer and there are other days when I’m not. The structured, rule-driven processes such as fiscal procurement and asset inventory are much less interesting to manage and at times are too routine for my taste. After all, I’m a firefighter and my adrenaline flows when I’m tangled up in a dangerous and chaotic challenge.

But the successes are sweeter now that I get to work with more people on several valuable projects. And the challenges are much larger which requires more critical thought and have greater impact. I have more influence and more opportunity to grow more leaders.

So I will continue to grow myself, so I can help others grow. I’ll keep looking for what it takes to be a good leader and an effective member of our leadership team. I’ll spend my time (when I’m not ordering stuff and counting things) helping build a learning organization that gets things done and encouraging others to be better leaders through reading and open discussion.

Despite my 30 years of fire service experience, with 20 of that as an officer, I still have much to learn. But that’s alright, it’s my challenge!

Question: What is your leadership team doing?

See more illustrations by Paul Combs here.

Patience, Persistence, and Positivity!

The inner workings at a fire department can be complex and confusing. Observing and understanding the real-time issues, then making decisions and executing can be slow, grinding, and mysterious. And for an organization filled with firefighters who are ready to act, it can be very frustrating.positive

Working in a bureaucratic organization like a fire department requires patience and persistence, but also another important characteristic: positivity. Keeping a positive outlook is absolutely essential for moving a fire department into the future.

Sometimes you’re made to believe that change is impossible. Well, you just shouldn’t stand for that. You must learn to believe in the possible, and you have to be serious about making it happen.

All fire departments are fraught with a never-ending list of things to do and no one doing them, which frustrates everyone to the point of depression. It wears you down and gnaws at your mindset as it begins to distract you from your real objectives, your mission.

Remaining positive, even during the most difficult times, is a must. Getting help when you need it and partnering with the right people (other positive people) is a way to stay focused on your mission.

Appreciate the low-hanging fruit, or small wins, and the small moments of excitement that comes with them. Celebrate them when they happen. Remember, you’re a member of the fire service for a reason – don’t forget it.

Is It Time To Change Your Obsolete Leadership Style?

If there’s one frustration I experience more often than others, it’s when someone says, “My leadership style is ….” Why do so many leaders believe they must follow a particular leadership style or model, when most issues can be addressed by a variety of approaches, or even a combination of them? Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves: “Is my leadership style obsolete?”

Agile leaders are focused, fast, and flexible.

Agile leaders are focused, fast, and flexible.

Today’s fire service leaders are facing more danger, complexity, and uncertainty. And it’s not slowing down. Whether it’s the increasingly dangerous man-made and natural disasters or the numerous demands and expectations from our communities, our current environment requires a constant state of innovation. To continue to serve our citizens safely and effectively, our leaders must be able to handle anything thrown their way. Leading through this kind of chaos requires the ability to sense and respond to changes with actions that are focused, fast and flexible. There’s only one way to do it: our fire service leaders have to be agile.

The wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher. Chinese Proverb

Here’s what agile leaders look like:

  1.  Agile leaders don’t go by the book. They are creative thinkers with a deep sense of purpose. They “get it.”
  2. Agile leaders are resourceful. They are fast and effective problem solvers that are focused on results and excellent at reshaping plans and priorities when faced with unexpected changes.
  3. Agile leaders don’t just wait for change, they drive it. They have a high tolerance for ambiguity and are excited by the challenge and the possibility of creating change.
  4. Agile leaders have a high level of awareness of themselves, others, and the situation. Their senses are working at maximum capacity.

Agile leaders are known for getting the best out of the people they work with. They are the leaders who “figure it out” quickly, effectively, and are not driven by ego.

Question: How many agile leaders do you know? Are you one of them?


Use Storytelling Instead Of Telling

Fire service leaders need to be great teachers. And great teachers use storytelling to make their points memorable. Consider the stories told by Alan Brunacini about Mrs. Smith in Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service or the drawings by Paul Combs from Drawn By Fire. We read. We see. We hear. We remember.Leadership-All-Bark-No-Bite Reciting the department’s goals, pointing to a mission statement on the wall, and drilling on policies and procedures are not enough. We will ignite more emotion and spark more thinking by telling stories that convey the why, how and what we are trying to do.

Here are five elements that will help you tell better stories:

  1. Good stories will resonate within us. Good stories will connect with our mindset, or why we do what we do. The actions or the characters portrayed in the story will stir something inside of us, helping us to identify the right and the wrong.
  2. Good stories show accomplishments and lessons learned. Good stories will show the steps that lead to success and the errors that bring on catastrophe. We learn from both.
  3. Good stories point to a greater cause. Good stories help answer the question, “Why are we here?” They help identify the real purpose for being here and doing what we do.
  4. Good stories teach, but in a different way. To present the truth, we can easily present a chart, graph, or bullet points. But telling a story will allow people to see your honesty and passion for your cause.
  5. Good stories open the door for critical thinking. We don’t have to explain everything. Leave room for the listener to form their own ideas and ask questions.This allows for more dialogue and engagement.

Question: Do you think storytelling is a better way to make your points memorable?

We Want To Be Everywhere

Yes, as chief officers we want to be everywhere. We manage multiple fire stations and lead teams of firefighters and officers. We want to visit every station and listen to all of their stories, suggestions, and yes, criticisms. We want be at the fires, the bad motor vehicle accidents, and maybe even some of the medical calls. We want to get things done for them that will help them do their jobs. We want to help them grow. But we can’t be everywhere. Or can we?

LW Street Painting

Spending time with a team of firefighters at a local city event.

In essence, we need to remember our role and embed ourselves deeply into it with the intent of developing a local influence that translates throughout the entire organization. It means we impact smaller teams of firefighters and officers who will do even better things than we do. It means that we intentionally invest in a few at a time so that they can impact the many.

If we do this, we will actually be everywhere.

Question: How are you investing your time at your fire department?