Leading Up

4 ways to coach your boss

When I started in the fire service I used to think that “coaching” was always from the top down. After all, in fire school the instructors coached us to build skill as an individual while also learning to work as a team. As a probie on the job, I was coached by my captain and other senior firefighters about our policies and procedures, and how to do the “real work” of a firefighter. And as I promoted through the ranks, I continued to be a student of the fire service where I was coached by many chief officers, including the fire chief.


There are many opportunities to coach and be coached. Photo by Billy Schmidt

We think that the only type of coaching in the fire service is from the top-down. However, I found many situations where I could actually coach my boss. And on several occasions, I was the boss who was being coached. But it only works well if it’s done right.

Having been in all positions from a firefighter, to company and chief officer, I have found opportunities to coach and be coached.

Coaching Up and Down

Once you’re a senior firefighter or an officer, you’re usually coaching somebody who is under you, somebody who reports to you somewhere in the chain of command. And most fire departments follow a strict, or at least somewhat orderly hierarchy. So it’s rare to think about coaching a senior firefighter or your officer. Or, even one of your peers.

But sometimes it has to be done. And if you’re going to be a leader, you have to learn how to do this, because there are going to be people who are above you that are hurting or inhibiting what you do. The things that you’re trying to accomplish. And if you don’t coach them for better behavior and relationships, it’s not good for anybody. Ultimately, it’s not good for the fire department.

I’ve been the officer who was doing things that sometimes clouded efficiency and weakened execution. On many occasions, if it hadn’t been for a company officer coming to me and saying, “Chief, are you aware that you’re doing such-and-such..?” I would have continued to harm our progress. I had no idea because my situation awareness was limited. I was too focused on either the demands of my boss or what “I” thought was important or how to do it.

I was grateful because it was good for me. I grew as a person and as a leader. It was good for my team and my fire department because I didn’t continue to do those “knuckle-head” things that hurt our ability to be safe and effectively execute in emergency situations.

4 Ways to Coach Your Boss

Not everyone can be coached. More importantly, there’s a special way to do this to increase the probability that it will work. How do you give this kind of input in the right way? Here are 4 considerations to help you coach your boss.

  1. Check the weather before going there. We’re all people; even our bosses. We all have good weather and bad weather days. You will increase your probability of success if you approach them when the weather is good. Make sure the situation is right for this kind of conversation. Avoid the thunderstorms and take advantage of the sunny days. Timing is everything.
  2. Be humble. Part of being a leader is being humble. What this means is, keep your mind open. Be open to ideas and reasons that you weren’t aware of. Your way may not really be the best way. Make it a two-way dialogue situation. We learn and grow from each other.
  3. Make sure it really matters. It has to matter. In other words, why is it important? What kind of impact will it have on the situation and the people involved?
  4. Just go for it. Yes, go ahead and take the risk. If the weather is right, your humble, and it’s something that really matters then just go for it. Leadership is about risk taking and there’s no better way to build strong relationships and grow your fire department than to be able to coach both up and down.

Leading up is not easy. And you’re not going to get it right every time, but these four considerations should give you a good framework for having those difficult conversations. Imagine what can be done if your fire department can get to the point where there is coaching both up and down the organization. It would make a difference.

Here’s a great resource for coaching all around your organization.

What Is Your Training About?

Learning happens and teams perform better when everyone knows and understands the theme of the training drill

One day, back when I was a district chief, I was talking to a crew of firefighters after they had returned to the station from department-wide training. They had participated in a drill that measured their time for performing as a rapid intervention crew (RIC). Obviously, one of the most important tactical skills performed on the fire ground and one that requires consistent training. But was this training (learning) or was it a test?


I asked them a simple question: “What was the training about?” Yes, I knew they were expected to complete a task (move through an obstacle course, find and remove the dummy) while competing against a stopwatch (and the other crews there), but I wanted to know what they really learned from the training? What was the theme?

Here’s what they answered: “It was like a race, and we didn’t win!” “It wasn’t realistic; we wouldn’t be able to do it by ourselves.” “We made lots of mistakes because we felt rushed.” “It was like a firefighter challenge race.”

Time to task is critical when completing any tactical assignment, especially one that rescues one of our own. And it’s specifically important for successfully achieving a strategic goal, like finding and removing a downed or injured firefighter.

A rapid intervention incident is a rescue event that requires the coordination between command and several tactical teams, all while the original operations continue. It’s not a race or a competition. It’s rare that it can be done with only one crew. The tactical component will not execute effectively without the strategic element of command. Both the command team and the tactical teams must be operating with the same strategy, or theme in mind: to remove a downed or injured firefighter to safety.

Learning happens and teams (command and tactical) perform better when everyone knows and understands the theme of the training drill.

Know what your training is about. Understand the theme.

Ask yourself, “What’s the message here?”

One Leadership Style That Covers It All

Daredevil photographer Antonio Grambone, 46, photographed forest fires in the National Park of Cilento and Vallo di Diano in the province of Salerno in Italy.

Daredevil photographer Antonio Grambone, 46, photographed forest fires in the National Park of Cilento and Vallo di Diano in the province of Salerno in Italy.

Via Wiselike:

Do you advocate the same leadership style for all industries? Why or why not? Each industry has different qualities. For instance, people put their lives on the line when they work in fire safety, while retail is about money. Because industries are so different, should leadership styles be different as well? If so, which styles work best for industries such as public safety, health, and retail?

Here’s my answer:

I believe one leadership style works best across all industries. Here’s why.

In the 1990’s, I flew air ambulance trips moving sick and injured patients from one part of the world to another. On one occasion, we were transporting a gentleman from Chicago to Boca Grande, Florida. He was interested in what we did (I was a paramedic and my partner was a nurse) and how we worked as a team of two in a small metal tube (a Lear Jet) flying 400 MPH through the clouds. After thoroughly questioning us, I asked him what he did. He said he owned and operated several companies, describing a variety of organizations ranging from manufacturing to service businesses. I asked him how he knew so much about so many different businesses? He said, “Oh, I know a lot about one thing: How to lead people.”

I believe he’s right. He had one leadership style: servant leadership. He created a bond with the people he worked with and the people his companies provided goods and services to.

The parallels between leading in high-stakes business and leading in high-risk situations are quite the same. Competence, trust, and loyalty are qualities that span across a variety of areas. Whether it’s retail (selling things), non-profits (supporting people and causes), or healthcare (healing people) all involve people and require leaders who are inherently motivated and embrace learning (competent) and have a strong relationship with their followers (trust and loyalty).

I believe that’s servant leadership.

Fire Service Leaders Prepare Learners For High-Risk Situations

Real life stories help create a setting for critical thinking and a lively exchange of ideas

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Photo by Tim Olk.

via Wiselike:

How has your experience as a firefighter and chief helped you in the classroom as a college professor?

Here’s my answer:

Firefighting is a high-risk environment that provides events, on a daily basis, for understanding how to lead not only in life-and-death situations but also everyday situations. The personal connection a firefighter gets from helping people and the demands of a chief officer to identify real problems and lead strong teams can also be applied to business, government, sports, or any other time when people must perform under challenging conditions. That “people experience” has provided me with real life stories that help me create a setting for critical thinking and a lively exchange of ideas.

All of my fire service experience has better prepared me to grow as a leader and to help others grow as well.

Not paying attention to outliers can be a tremendous cost.

L. David Marquet, former submarine commander and author of Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, suggests that when we discover an outlying position we should create a mindset of “they may be right and I may be wrong,” and then explore it.

Keep your mind open to find new opportunities, understand others, and manage uncertainty.

Embrace the outliers!

Another great learning source is Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success.