By Author(s): Brian A. Crawford 
Published Thursday, July 1, 2010
| From the July 2010  Issue of FireRescue 
Not many people talk openly in the fire service about the topic of this month’s column, but it’s something I’ve gone through and seen others struggle with when reaching positions of authority. I call it the “pain of leadership”—and its negative effects can accompany officers as they move up the ranks.
The pain of leadership principle states that the physical and psychological pain caused by stress and pressure are proportional to an individual’s level of responsibility in an organization. In the fire service, this usually means the higher your rank, the more stress you have, and if you’re not prepared for it, your ability to lead and to live a healthy life can be compromised.
No Longer One of the Guys
Almost all firefighters who become company and chief officers experience the leadership pain principle at some point. A good friend of mine told me that when he became an officer for the first time, it made him physically ill. By anyone’s account he was an outstanding firefighter and engineer, but his new supervisory role caused him a great deal of pain, emotionally and physically.
Some of it was related to the fact that he was very much one of the guys and liked it that way; he was a “firefighter’s firefighter.” This was never a problem until he promoted to a supervisory role that required him to give orders and discipline his former firefighter “friends.” In an attempt to maintain his good ol’ boy reputation, this captain made the classic leadership mistake—trying to please everyone. This is an impossible feat that will actually cause you more pain in the long run.
The Higher You Go
The higher the rank, the tougher the calls the officer must make and, unfortunately, the greater the potential pain. That is why there’s a difference in ranks, authority, responsibility and, yes, pay. As firefighters promote, their decisions—good and bad—have an effect on a greater number of people, internally and externally. Thus, there’s a larger pool of those who will ultimately agree or disagree with the officer, which in turn leads to more opportunities for the officer to be second-guessed and criticized.
Someone once told me, “Leadership is difficult. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it.” I didn’t fully realize what that meant until I became a fire chief. Recently, I attended the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) dinner in Washington, D.C., and sat with a long-serving fire chief. As we compared notes on our experiences as chief, he affirmed what I’d heard from other chief officers: The pain of leadership principle is very real.
Both of us had days when the only way to reduce the pain, stress and pressure seemed to be driving off the nearest bridge (my preferred choice) or jumping out a window (his method). Not that either one of us seriously contemplated this, but I know other officers in the fire service who have become incapacitated as leaders, turning to alcohol, drugs or sex, and even contemplating suicide as a way to deal with the pain of leadership.
But the pain of leadership can be managed. Consider these tips:
- Recognize that it exists and be prepared.
- Know that as your rank increases, decision-making becomes more difficult, and stress and pressure will increase. But, experience and time will lessen the pain.
- Don’t bargain with yourself, saying, “If I can just get these two problems taken care of, I’ll have it made.” Believe me, two, if not three more, will quickly take their place.
- Never be afraid to admit you’ve made a mistake. Believing you must be perfect will only increase the pain.
- On critical issues, strive to make the best decision based on all available information, for the betterment of the organization and the citizens.
- Last and most important, take care of yourself by having someone to talk to (spouse, partner, close friend, clergy, physician, etc.), getting consistent physical activity, cultivating interests outside the fire service, and maintaining a healthy diet.
Following these rules may not eliminate all the effects of the pain of leadership—there will always be days as a leader where you’ll feel overwhelmed and stressed—but remember what a wise person once said: “Never get too excited when things are good; they will get worse. And never feel too defeated when things are bad; they will get better.”
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