Being Positive with Negative Leadership

By Lt. Steve Powell

When deciding to look into joining my local fire department many years ago I had a few questions and concerns. I recall going into the station and not knowing what to expect. One of the first things noticed was the camaraderie of the firefighters and how they seemed to enjoy being together. They eagerly answered my questions and then offered to give me a tour of the firehouse. They walked the walk and talked the talk, they were motivated and excited to share their experiences and explain why someone would love this line of work. They introduced me to the station officer who greeted me with a handshake and a smile; he was obviously busy with other responsibilities but took the time to welcome and encourage me to join the service. I noted how impressive the professionalism and courtesy extended to me was and how these men respected their officer.

Many years have gone by since that first encounter and not only did I join the fire service, but have made a career out of it. Not to say that this department or that officer were solely responsible for my decision, but they did play a big part in it. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with that station officer several years later and learned a great deal from him. Not only did he help me to join the fire service, but he also helped me to be good at it. I listened to what he said and asked questions; if I didn’t understand something I never pretended like I did. This officer was a very positive influence on me and still continues to play a role in my leadership development.

Recently, a student of mine went to a local department and asked about joining the agency; the officer he spoke with was very short with him and in my opinion just plain rude. The student decided that he did not want to be a part of that agency just based on the brief encounter he had with that officer. I spoke with the officer a few days later and he indicated that he didn’t mean anything by it, but if the student wants to be a member of the fire service he better get thicker skin. While we do have a tendency to haze each other or play jokes on one another, this was not the time. What disappointed me the most was the lack of guilt felt by this officer, like it was no big deal. Our department may have lost a future employee based on this officer’s action and the local department lost a volunteer.

The issue I would like to address in this article is what do you do when you have negative leadership? Studies have shown that a person’s supervisor is the leading cause of job satisfaction or dissatisfaction, whichever the case may be. Firefighters will work themselves to the brink of exhaustion for a leader who cares about them and shows their appreciation with a phone call, a note or a visit. The opposite side of that is the fire officer who doesn’t show that he or she cares about the men and women who serve in their station or department. Most firefighters will have a negative attitude or poor outlook on the department based on the tone that is set from their immediate supervisor. Positive leadership begins with our officers. Most officers do a decent job of leading the men and women assigned to them; however there are a few who are anything but positive leaders.
If you are an officer, ask yourself why you accepted the position. If you are not an officer, ask yourself what changes you would make if you were an officer? Officers are put into a position of leadership to lead, plain and simple. Your department has given you the task to lead the men and women assigned to you to make a better department. You have the responsibility to develop your station team and help them to want to make the fire service more positive, not negative.

The best advice for firefighters or officers who work with negative leadership is to let them know how it affects you and the department. Speak up and tell them how their actions make you want to leave or transfer to another station…some may tell you to deal with it, but a true leader who cares about their subordinates will try to correct the problem.

There is a story of an Indian boy who was being told of the struggles he will experience in his life by the village Spiritual Leader. This spiritual leader told this young Indian that there were two wolves inside of his body; a good wolf and a bad wolf. These wolves would constantly fight to make the young Indian choose between right and wrong; the young Indian asked which wolf would win and the spiritual leader replied “whichever one you feed.” This holds true in our line of work also, negativity breeds negativity. I have seen the direct result of officers that are positive and run a positive station; the people assigned to them are motivated and work in a positive manner. We have all seen the result of negative leadership; everyone within earshot has something negative to say, they complain from the time they arrive until the time they leave. We as officers must put a stop to this cancerous attitude that will destroy a department if left untreated.

I recently spoke with an officer in a department who was accused of being a “kiss ass” by some other officers in his department. While this officer continues to try and run a positive station, I can tell that the comments bother him. This officer is not a “kiss ass” as some would label him, but a man who is committed to being the best he can be while providing positive leadership to the men assigned to his station. This individual genuinely cares for the personnel assigned to his watch and in turn has the respect from them. I sometimes tell people that “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”. This officer has earned my respect in the fact that he stands for what he believes and will not falter because of what others say.

In closing I just want to say that we as officers set the tone for our departments. If you don’t care about your people then your people will not care about you. If you lead your station like someone who wants your people to succeed then you will succeed. Don’t hold your people back from doing their best; in reality when they look good, you look good. Make the new years resolution to be a better leader and to treasure the men and women who work for your shift or your department. After all, these are the individuals we depend on to be there when we need them most; the least we can do is be there for them when they need us.

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2 Responses

  • ffdavid22 says:

    Lt. Powell's article on negative leadership should hit home to a lot of departments/people. The growing negative attitude and self promotion is a large part of why the so important volunteer membership is shrinking at an alarming rate.

    “Article Well Done”

  • Stephen Grepps says:

    Steve, you hit the nail on the head with this article. I have been a volunteer for 29 years, and a line officer for 15 of those years. At times I had the Grumpy Grepps attitude(my nick name) This reflected on the people that I volunteered with, and I made them miserable. Not to long ago I read Holman’s Leadership Rules of Engagement, and this opened my eyes to the bad attitude that I had. I now look at every issue as there is a positve out come for everything and that I alone control my attitude. The people now see me as an asset not a Grumpy Grepps and also a great role model.

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