I remember when I was taking the chief’s test and a chief from a neighboring agency told me point-blank, “Don’t do it, kid. Wait until you have two years left before you retire.” When I gave him a quizzical look, he explained: “Your first year is a honeymoon, and in the second year you will be counting the days until retirement.”
It certainly can be difficult being the top brass of any organization. In the words of author John C. Maxwell, “It’s lonely at the top, so you better know why you are there.”
So why are you there? And what does it really mean to be “top brass”?
Outside of first responder circles, many people don’t understand the significance of the bugle. Back when firefighting was in its infancy, fire crews communicated using bugles. Since a bugle’s sound carries much further than a human voice, the instruments were used to alert others about a fire call. While on the scene, fire commanders often used a megaphone device called a “speaking trumpet” so they could be heard over the din of the fire and the people fighting it.
Obviously, two-way radios and other high-tech devices have replaced these rudimentary instruments. But the bugle’s symbolism is still important in the fire service. The higher you climb in the ranks, the more bugles you’ll have on your uniform. Five bugles are reserved for fire chiefs; they signify who is in command.
I’m constantly seeing fire and police chief positions being announced. Sadly, many times they sit vacant for a while. Fewer and fewer people are willing to step up and lead. They know the heavy lifting involved, and they also know that raising your hand to be a leader can sometimes put a target on your back.
We need unions, city managers and council members to embrace and support our public safety leaders. Unfortunately, I have seen unions go after very competent chiefs with votes of no confidence. Often, this happens because the chief is doing what is right. As leadership guru Peter Drucker famously quipped: “Efficiency is concerned with doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things .” This goes hand in hand with something bomber crews used to say during World War II: “You know you’re over the target when you start catching flak.”
From the Inside, Up
Many chiefs grow and advance within their organizations. They start as a firefighter or police officer and (literally and figuratively) work their way up the ladder. The area is their home, and they know the community personally and consider it an extension of their family.
Unfortunately, many city managers come from the outside and stay just a few years before moving on. But if a 20- to 25-year public safety employee is promoted to top brass and goes south with a city manager who will only be there for three to five years, it’s the fire chief’s job that is at stake. Is that fair? It depends on the situation, but many times not.
From the Outside, In
In contrast, some chiefs learn and develop elsewhere, and are then hired on to a new agency as “new blood.” It takes courage to come in from the outside. Being an “outsider chief” poses a unique set of challenges.
We need unions, city managers and council members to embrace and support our public safety leaders.
First, you are not a known commodity. Like being in uncharted waters, it can be even lonelier and often feels like you’re in the danger zone. Dealing with a displaced family, cultural differences, unfair comparisons with a previous chief, and trust issues can make leadership difficult. Combined with rumors and resentment hanging over your head, these complications can often lead to an early demise as a chief. Many develop “paralysis by analysis,” being unable or willing to make a decision or change for fear of consequences and having to start over again.
For those who find themselves in an “outside chief” situation, Chief Billy Hayes has some great advice on how to prepare, approach and execute the job. Even if you follow his advice, that doesn’t guarantee that you won’t clash with the mayor, the city manager, or the city council. In fact, it’s worth questioning the reason a department is outsourcing leadership positions in the first place. Is it possibly because all the homegrown leaders have good reasons not to step up and take the helm?
Whether you came up through the ranks or were hired from outside, it’s almost inevitable you will eventually lock horns with city leadership. Often, it doesn’t even matter who’s right or wrong. The crucial factor is who has the power to force their will on others. Within your own organization, it’s the chief — the person with five bugles on their uniform — whose word is law. In the larger context of city government, though, the buck stops somewhere above you. That means you can find yourself the scapegoat if something goes wrong.
Once a fire chief gets a vote of no confidence or is terminated, it’s like a permanent tattoo that seems to follow them around forever. It’s hard to find a job with giant “L” branded on your forehead. And that doesn’t even factor in the emotional scars left from being unceremoniously kicked out of what was once your family.
Even if you aren’t fired, losing a tussle with city leadership can lead to isolation. Workplace isolation throws in an additional complication. Employees who feel isolated at work not only feel disconnected from those around them, but also from the organization they worked for and served for many years.
Kicking Against the Pricks
As I said before, when you’re the chief, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll have disagreements with the people above you — the city manager or city council members who likely have no experience in public safety. Part of being a fire or police chief is finding a way to work with city management to keep that relationship in balance.
Many of us who have been with the same department for some time get caught up in the mindset of, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” We are, by nature, traditionalists who don’t like change. It’s not uncommon for a city manager to be brought in to “break the tradition” in a city organization. Perhaps the old system wasn’t serving the community or organization well, possibly resulting in lawsuits, disputes, low morale and other challenges.
As public safety leaders, we have to be open to change and embrace it. We must be open-minded. Do not “set the brakes” on the way we have always done things. Ask yourself: Are you keeping up with the times or living in the past? Be flexible enough to adapt, improvise and overcome changes that you may be directed to implement. Ultimately, they are your boss. If a directive seems completely unreasonable or detrimental, discuss the reasons why. Regardless, stay open-minded!
When You Mess Up
So, if you’re a leader in public safety and you get on the wrong side of your boss or the union, what’s the best strategy for righting the wrong? First, own it! If you did something wrong, admit it and apologize for your mistakes. Trying to hide or justify them will do more damage to your credibility.
We all make mistakes from time to time. The key is to learn from them and move on. As you look back on what happened, try to determine whether your “misstep” was the result of current policies, practices or agency culture. Many missteps happen because of outdated ways of doing things, or due to the “That’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. Perhaps it’s time to revisit and update your department policies to prevent the problem from happening again.
Second, be ready to move on. Wallowing in the incident or holding a grudge will make you ineffective as a leader—and it won’t make you any friends, either. Even if you did nothing wrong, a little humility goes a long way. Take the high road. Don’t let people run over you, but make clear you’re ready to work together if everyone can operate from a place of mutual trust and respect.
The Big Payoff
Despite all the bluster and politics, being a public safety leader is rewarding. This may just be the hardest job you have ever done, but the thrill you get when you inspire and motivate your personnel is very rewarding. There are few things more enjoyable than watching an employee grow and flourish in your leadership. The thrill of watching when people have had a life-changing experience because of you (both in your organization and community) is what makes the difficult times worthwhile.
Never think for a second that just because something is difficult, it’s not worth it. In fact, the things in this world that are most worth it are the most difficult. As activist and advocate Ralph Nader famously said, “The purpose of a leader isn’t to make better followers, it’s to make better leaders.” As you shoulder the weight of that fifth bugle, remember that you’re nurturing the leaders who will take over when you retire.
Sure, it can be lonely at the top, but it’s worth it when you know why you’re there. And now you know.