Lessons Learned as a New Fire Chief

On October 10, 2015, I was made fire chief of my fire department, Shooting Creek Volunteer Fire and Rescue. I have held leadership positions in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for stepping into this role. At 26, many of the members think I am too young to hold this position, despite all my certifications and the 12 years of experience I have. Since taking up this role, I have learned many lessons on taking a new leadership position and project management; here are a few of them:

  1. Act With Confidence – You are leading a team of people who look to you for answers, if you show doubt, they lose confidence not only in you, but also the task at hand. This issue is compounded when dealing with team members who are detractors and want to see you fail. If you are unsure in your decisions it can lead to insubordination and spite.  It is also important to know the line between confidence and arrogance, and NEVER cross it.
  2. Delegation, Delegation, Delegation– You can’t do it all, and you shouldn’t try to. By taking on most of the tasks yourself, you are asking for failure. If you stretch yourself too thin, tasks won’t get completed as they should, and stress levels will become unbearable. By delegating tasks and authority, you will also empower the members of your team and make them feel more valued.
  3. Stay Away from “Yes Men”. – Since I was promoted from Assistant Chief, I was allowed to choose who would be replacing me in that role.  I knew that I needed someone who would question me, someone who would force me to look at all options, and someone who would keep me accountable. By putting a person I trust, who would do these things in that position it keeps me on my toes and ensures that I will vet all options.
  4. Start Unfinished Projects With an Audit – Having a project audited is one of the most important steps to moving it towards completion. You were put in this leadership position for a reason, and that is usually to ensure that the project gets completed. By auditing the project you will create a set of objectives and benchmarks which you will use to create a plan of action. Also keep in mind; you don’t need an official audit of the project. Sometimes a “Red Team”, or people on the project who can take on an adversarial role, can help you to self-audit the project when you begin.
  5. Always Have a Plan B… and a Plan C, D, E, F, and G. – While the fire service is a particular dynamic field, never forget we live in an ever changing world. Often times our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats will change. What was important on a Tuesday may be irrelevant by Thursday. Be having back-up plans and remaining flexible, you will be better suited to complete the tasks assigned to you.
  6. Create Smarter Goals – Many people will tell you goals should follow the mnemonic S.M.A.R.T, which means Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.  These principles are good in most cases, however this mnemonic can be limiting.  Every goal should start with S.M.A.R.T., but every task should be built with “Stretch Goals” as well.  By setting an additional benchmark above and beyond the initial goal, you can take your project to the next level. It will also challenge your team to work harder, be better, and achieve more.
  7. Never Take Yourself Too Seriously – At the end of the day, you are still a member of the team. By taking yourself too seriously, you can easily alienate your teammates.  By keeping this in mind, you keep team cohesion high and increase the chances your team succeeding.

I am still new at this role, and I’m sure there are thousands of lessons left for me to learn.  These have helped me to be the trailblazer for my department, to be the one who sets the course we will follow and implement the tasks that will allow us to be the best fire department we can be. However, they can help anyone who is tasked with leading a team.

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