I’m a full time firefighter for the City of San Diego. And I have been for 19 years. In those 19 years, I’ve had an annual evaluation each and every year. But I have yet to be asked what I think about my Captain and his/her leadership performance. As someone who spent the first 10 years of my professional life in field sales for Fortune 1000 hospital supply and pharmaceutical companies, I had become accustomed to the “360-degree feedback” loop, in which both leaders and their team give well-intentioned feedback to make one another better at what they do, and to draw attention to leadership styles or actions that may not be working for the team members. It keeps everyone in check and accountable to one another in a (hopefully) positive way.
But in the fire service… not so much. The person with the captain’s badge makes the rules, and everyone else… well, we shut up and follow them. That’s the culture. So I’ve created a short list of a few “Leadership Suggestions” that we “back seaters” (the lowly firefighters and paramedics in the back seat of the fire engine, aka the folks that clean your toilets) have been talking about in whispered bathroom meetings, quiet hallways, and more recently in emoji laden cross cab text volleys. And we hope that any manager who also wants to ultimately be a World Class Leader in their industry or business will hear our quiet unspoken pleas. Please. Sir or Ma’am.
1 – You will always be the Manager of the crew, but you don’t always have to be the leader:
You have the badge or the title on your business card, and you therefore have all of our respect regarding your status as our manager. But you’re surrounded by smart, experienced people who can be an incredible resource to you if you will just ask our opinion, or at the very least accept our input. Our crew was one of the first on scene at one of the biggest brush fires in San Diego History in 2007. At 2 am, going code to the location to which we had been dispatched, we rounded a corner and came upon a 20-25 foot wall of wind-driven flames along the edge of the canyon, and it was clear that the flying sparks were already lodging in the eves of the homes all around us. It was a pretty unsafe and scary place to be. Our engineer/driver, who had about 30 years of experience, started to offer his opinion to my less experienced captain about what we should do, and she immediately shot back with a very harsh “shut up!”. And he did. For the next 8 hours we were out there fighting fire house to house. Not a word from him. In fact, she wouldn’t take input or suggestions from anyone. Not us, and certainly not the other crews. I hate to admit it, but as a crew, we were honestly quite hapless and rudderless out there, with our captain repeatedly changing her mind and wasting tons of time with useless tasks because she was unsure of what to do next. Or how to do it. We were ultimately, but quietly, pulled off the strike team by the Chief. As we watched our strike team leave the staging area that afternoon without us after a quick refueling, I felt sorry for her, for us, and especially for the people whose homes we may have saved if we had utilized all of the Human Resources and experience available to us.
Leadership Lesson from the Back Seat: there’s a big difference between management and leadership. As a manager, you are a facilitator of our success during our day to day operations and tasks, but you don’t always have to be the leader. In fact it makes us better as a team when you aren’t always the leader, because input from the whole team allows us to make the best possible decisions, and one of your most important jobs as our leader is to create the next leader. What better way to accomplish this than allowing others to lead based on their strengths and insight at the moment? None of us is as smart as all of us. Leave your ego (or your fears) at home and do what’s best for the team and the people/customers/clients you serve. It’s a win/win for everyone.
2 – Give us Respect as a Gift, not as a Grade
In the fire service, and in other similarly top down leadership cultures, the new people on the team are assumed to be, mmm not real swift…until proven otherwise. Our Probies (probationary firefighters in their first year on the job) are constantly talked down to, made to eat on their own and not with the crew, drilled every day, micromanaged, made to clean up after everyone, expected to cook all the meals, etc, and nobody cares who they are or where they came from. As though they just landed from Mars as brand new infant firefighters. I understand culture and initiations. But the extent to which we do this isn’t cool. And for many Captains/Leaders, this attitude of anyone in a lower rank being an underclassman, unworthy of respect, extends in general to all of us back seaters, at least the first several years we’re on the job. But I was lucky enough to have a captain in my first year on the job who lifted me out of this torture and welcomed me as a valued member of his crew. From day 1, he gave me the respect of being a real human being, with pre-fire department life experience, a sport I was passionate about, and valuable input to add to conversations. He even let me (gasp!) watch TV while we ate! And he not only became my hero and someone I was bonded to for years, I learned my trade so much more quickly and deeply because I wasn’t afraid to ask stupid questions I’d be judged for later; he never micromanaged me and he assumed the best of me. That was truly a gift that I try to pay forward to this day to my team.
Leadership Lesson from the Back Seat: How you treat people in their lowest and loneliest moments MATTERS. Especially when people are new or of a lesser “rank”. And its in those moments that you can make a memorable and positive impact as a leader just by giving your respect as a gift and not as a grade.
3 – Lead Based on Need
It’s so very important to be the leader that your team needs in the moment, and the best leaders, in my opinion, are consistently monitoring the crew, the situation, and the task at hand, and becoming the best possible Captain for the job. For example, during a fire or medical emergency, the back seaters expect (and honestly often appreciate) being told exactly what you want us to do. Those are the times where we need to act quickly and in unison according to a plan. So we need you to step up and take charge. But when we’re at the station eating dinner or working out, we’d love you to leave your badge behind and just be our friend. And at other times, we like you to be our coach, teaching us something you’ve learned in your career, without giving us the feeling that you’re “evaluating” us on our performance and we can’t make mistakes. We want you to be the person that we aspire to be more like, as a leader, a mentor and a friend– versus the person who barks orders from behind their badge all day. If you demonstrate that you care about the people on your crew (and not just the process of day to day operations) by being responsive to their needs, you’re going to have people fighting to be on your crew/team your entire career.
Leadership Lesson from the Back Seat: Great leaders are Semper Gumby, always flexible and aware of who and how they need to be to get the best results from each team member. It’s one of the best possible ways to show your team members that you see them, you care for them, and you want to bring out the best in them.
4 – Leadership is not a Privilege, it’s a Responsibility
Sometimes it seems that the people who promote to leadership positions see it as a privilege (“yay! Now I only have to give commands in the station and talk on the radio at incidents) versus a very big responsibility. Attaining a leadership position should not mean that you are now free to do less of the hard work–it means that you’ve now taken on even more responsibility for the crew and our success. There’s nothing that drives us back seaters more bananas than seeing our Captain, clean and dry, on the sidelines, chit chatting with the chiefs, while we’re sifting through wet, sooty, heavy post-fire wreckage or carrying an extra large sick or injured person to a gurney, etc. The Captains that hide behind their badge and their “privilege” when the going gets tough will never truly be a well respected leader.
Leadership Lesson from the Back Seat: A leader is at their best when they see their role as being an even bigger responsibility, in terms of the success of their team, their customers, and their organization, versus the privilege of being “in charge”. When you leave your privilege behind, consistently check with the crew to see if we have all of the resources we need, and even roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with us when we need you the most, you will gain even more respect and loyalty from the team.
5 – Be the “Us” in any Us vs. Them Scenario
When we are working with you as teammates and crew members, we need to know that our Captain is with Us versus Them. If your team members have the sense that you are just a present arm of upper management, evaluating our every move and reporting to the Chief about our mistakes and foibles, you wont have our loyalty for long. And without loyalty and respect, there is no effective crew. We don’t expect you to cover up for us when we’ve done something wrong, but we do expect that you are always our teammate first and foremost, and a reporting authority/overseer as a distant second. In other words, we will have a much more bonded and effective team unit if you suck down instead of suck up. If you genuinely care what your crew thinks about you more than what your Chief thinks about you, you will rise in esteem on both counts.
Leadership Lesson from the Back Seat: No senior leader I’ve encountered in my 15 years working with Fortune 1000 CEOs and organizations has ever mentioned that a key attribute they look for in a manager is to report on the team. They all want managers and leaders who INSPIRE their team members to be the best that they can be in pursuit of their organization’s and customer’s goals. And that inspiration comes from knowing that they have a leader who is on their side, in their corner and there to facilitate their success–not report on their failures.
Be the leader that others want to work with and work for, and you’ll find yourself in high demand for that next promotion to the Captain’s spot in the front seat.