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How to Manage a Problem Chief


By John Morse

There are a lot of things written about managing a problem employee.  Any type of management training always talks about how to deal with this troublemaker.  You will find Chiefs teaching classes that help fire officers deal with these bad attitude firefighters.  I don’t think there are any classes out there that help firefighters deal with a problem Chief.

There probably isn’t a Fire Chief out there that hasn’t even been looked at as a problem.  Sometimes there are just tough decisions to make, and the Chief is the guy that takes the heat for political and administrative decisions that come down from above. Being the Chief is not an easy job anywhere, and in some places it can be really difficult. Fire Chiefs get put in some pretty bad situations these days with budget and manpower cuts. There are a lot of decisions out of the control of the Fire Chief.

Alright, enough sticking up for the Chiefs.  Let’s talk about some of the qualities that make a really horrible Chief.  I have met and dealt with a lot of Fire Chiefs in my career, and there is only one or two that weren’t a know it all.  These rare Chiefs that didn’t act like a know it all probably knew more than the rest.  For some reason when a guy gets made Chief, he thinks he is the smartest guy on the department.  He is probably not the dumbest guy on the department but there are a lot of guys that know as much as he does.

When a tough decision comes down, there are different ways of bringing the bad news.  I have seen some Chiefs that really seemed to enjoy telling the guys they were screwed and other Chiefs that brought the same kind of information in a much more positive way.  Telling the guys they are screwed and throwing in a “don’t shoot the messenger” remark isn’t going to get you many votes for Chief of the year.

So now that we have figured out why we don’t like these guys, how do we deal with them?  The best thing about any Chief is that they go home at five o’clock, at least we don’t have to eat and socialize with them in the evening.  I really liked the days when the Chief was on vacation, or gone all day to a meeting with other Chiefs.  If you have a bad Chief, don’t let that storm cloud they bring hang around when they Chief is gone.  When the guys ask what kind of mood the Chief is in, tell them it doesn’t matter and that we control our own attitude.

A Chief may be the head of the department but the Chief is not stronger than the members of the department.  Your chief may be one of your own that got promoted and crossed over to the administrative side, or maybe your Chief was picked from the outside because they needed to bring in some outside ideas.  You do need to support the position the Chief holds, but you don’t need to be the Chiefs buddy.  The strength of the department comes from the firefighters and company officers, don’t let a problem Chief bring you down.

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