“You are trying to do the hardest thing possible, you are trying to lead from the middle”
Chief Andrew Baxter
*The above quote was told to me by Chief Baxter at a low point in my fire service career. I was thirsting for the chance to lead, but was going about it the wrong way. I lead with ego, bravado, insults, and showmanship, instead of leading with ownership, empathy, service, sacrifice, and expectations. He helped turn me in the right direction, and pointed me toward better examples of leadership. I haven’t forgot, nor will I ever.
Leadership one of the most talked about things in the world. No matter what you do for a living the topic of conversation is always about what the leaders are doing, or the quality of leadership in a business or organization. Leaders are compared, criticized, ridiculed, praised, blamed and everything in between. The fire service is no different, but leadership usually focuses on leading from the front, or being “in charge” no one talks about the hardest thing “leading from the middle”.
In reality, everyone is leading from the middle at some level of the organization because everyone has a boss. The firefighter reports to the company officer, the company officer to the station commander, the station commander to the battalion chief, the battalion chief to the shift commander, and all the way up to the fire chief! Even the fire chief reports to a county or city manager, who then reports to an elected board who work for the voters! You be the formal leader of your engine company, but you are part of a bigger machine (station or battalion). You may be the fire chief but you are part of the bigger machine (your city or county government).
Leading from the middle is difficult, and the difficulty increases the further away you get from the top. The senior man of a fire company has the toughest job, as this is an informal leadership position that carries no rank, no formal authority, but is an absolute critical position for the success of that company. Think of any great fire company, sure the company officers may be elite leaders, but they all had senior men behind them driving the company forward. While leading from the company officer, station commander, battalion etc. become a little easier with actual authority to make decisions, and implement ideas this position is not without challenges. Leading other leaders is never easy, as most people who seek leadership are type A personalities who usually want to do things their way. Sometimes you may even have to lead up the chain if the leader above you is not as strong, this can further increase the difficulty in “leading from the middle”.
So how do you do it? I do not think there is any one blue print, or yellow brick road to the leadership mecca. Leaders are not infallible they make mistakes, and leadership is really about people. As we know people are all different, so what works for some, may not work for the next. However, there are some things that you can do to make leading from the middle more successful.
- Sacrifice: Leadership is sacrifice, if you are not willing to sacrifice then your failure as a leader no matter the level is certain. You will lose sleep, you will not get to do everything you want, or even need to do, you will have to do things you do not want to do.
- Service: Give your team everything they need to succeed. Time, training, advocacy, etc.
- Support: Support your team, support your leader (even when they are weak), support your organization (leaders and mission).
- No Negativity: You choose how you respond to every situation, negativity is a CHOICE! So, knock it off and choose to be positive. Negativity kills teams and organizations. If you have to be negative do not do it in front of the people your charged with leading, call a friend, a loved one, a peer (fellow officer, or person in similar position) and vent to them!
- No Ego: It is not about you, it is about the mission, the team, and the organization. It does not matter who gets the credit, it does not matter who gets the promotion, it does not matter who gets the glory. The only thing that matters is the team and organization winning by accomplishing the mission.
- Thick Skin: No matter what you do someone is going to hate it, you must be able to take criticism and keep moving forward. Succeed someone will try to tear it down, fail someone will try to blow it out of proportion.
- Ownership: You own everything failures, successes, of yourself, your team, your organization. Be accountable for your actions, and hold others accountable for theirs.
- Humility: Take praise but do not brag, no matter what you, your team, or organization accomplish, somewhere along the way someone or something helped you.
- Invest: Invest in yourself, your team, your organization every day (read, train, work out, join a committee, help a brother, lead a drill etc.)
- Dedication: “This isn’t just punch the clock and go home for the day, you don’t get weekends off. This is an everyday GIG!” Jocko Willink Be dedicated, don’t accept good enough, this is a job that can kill you. Sure, you will have a bad day, you will be tired, you will not want to get out of bed, but leaders at all levels turn that alarm off, get up and no matter the obstacles keep moving forward toward winning.
This is not perfect; no leadership mantra ever is no matter what experts tell you, but it is a good starting point. Leadership is not easy, it is full of mistakes, pitfalls, and dead ends. It is also worth IT!