Fair vs. Equal: Effective Fire Service Leadership in a Changing World

by | July 14, 2023

Everyone has heard the saying, “You don’t quit your job, you quit your boss.” It’s simply a fact that effective leadership contributes to higher rates of retention. And, in the fire service, company officers are the frontline leaders who have the most impact on line-level personnel. But you must remember the people you lead are different—they have different backgrounds, different experiences, different ages, different sensitivities. As the fire service grows and changes alongside society as a whole, finding your footing as a leader can be challenging.

In a recent webinar, “The Company Officer’s Dilemma Part 2: Digging Deeper,” Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder and Dr. Ed Sherman discuss issues of motivation, morale and trust in the firehouse and how company officers can lead effectively.

A Big Picture View of Fire Service Leadership

“What if you were to respect your profession’s history and traditions, yet still forge a path that could produce better results?” asks Dr. Sherman. As a company officer, you aren’t exactly the head honcho, but you do have an essential role to play in the big picture—at your station, your department and in the fire service as a whole. Consider the impact your actions have had in the past.

Effective leaders are flexible leaders. There is no single rule of thumb for leadership because of “the variability of people,” as Dr. Sherman explains. “Think about it in your own life—whether it’s your family, your friends or the people at work: Could we say that one thing works in every instance with everybody? I think we would agree that’s impossible.” All company officers must hone in on the skill of flexibility: Recognize what your limits are and ask for help when needed. Understand the value of trial and error—be prepared to figure out what works for your people, own up to your mistakes and change course when needed. Dr. Sherman explains the results of good leadership are improvements in attendance, attitude, effort, investment, longevity, performance, productivity and wellness—both for company officers and the firefighters they lead.

“What if you were to respect your profession’s history and traditions, yet still forge a path that could produce better results?”

Leading in Fairness

As a company officer, should you treat everyone “fairly” or “equally”? There must be some consistency in dealing with your people—the way you apply rules and discipline—but your approach may look different depending on who you’re dealing with. “I treat my firefighters equally, but I understand that when I’m dealing with Firefighter A, I may have to talk to them a little differently than Firefighter C,” says Chief Goldfeder. Leadership, and everything that comes along with it, is not one-size-fits-all. The people you lead are different, that may mean your approach in leading them needs to be different, too. “I think it’s true to say, ‘Treat everyone fairly,’” says Dr. Sherman. “If we say treat everyone ‘equally,’ that does not take into consideration the differences that exist with people.” Key to this fairness is setting expectations reliably and consistently, providing regular and ongoing constructive feedback, and offering people critical resources.

Good leaders in the fire service can create an environment, relationships and circumstances for personnel to thrive. How do you do that? “Engage, engage, engage,” is Dr. Sherman’s simple advice to company officers. Focus on what you can control: Yourself. You can’t control the actions of others, but you can try to determine why they are lacking motivation, investment or effort. Ask the firefighter directly and lend a listening ear. Motivation, morale and trust all relate to engagement.

Seek First to Understand

In a low-morale environment or when the things you do as a leader seem ineffective, give your people someone who will listen. Seek first to understand: Attempt to see things from the viewpoint of your personnel and be there even if you don’t agree. You can validate their concerns while still doing your job as a leader and enforcing policies that may be unpopular. “Show some leadership and loyalty,” Chief Goldfeder says. When you seek first to understand—to really understand—you can demonstrate care and compassion for those under your command. But you must always be ready to give an answer and do what’s best, both for your agency and your personnel.

An important first step to being an effective fire service leader is ensuring fairness in all your interactions. And that means balancing the needs of your agency and of your people. While it’s not exactly easy, it is a worthy task. Watch the on-demand webinar, “The Company Officer’s Dilemma Part 2: Digging Deeper,” to learn more.

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