Don’t Follow the Leader

As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Leaders, particularly in high-risk professions such as the fire service, are in a position of great power–but what if they don’t want the responsibility that comes with it?

This is the major issue discussed in “Who’s the Boss? Better Yet, Where Was the Designated Adult?” a presentation given at Fire-Rescue International (FRI) by Deputy Chief Steve Prziborowski from the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Fire Department. FireRescue spoke with Chief Prziborowski about this topic, which he says affects many industries, not just the fire service.

FireRescue magazine: The lack of quality leadership is a widespread problem?
Chief Prziborowski: I don’t think we’re alone; I think every industry is struggling with this issue.

FRM: So do you think good-quality leadership in the fire service is waning?
Chief Prziborowski: I don’t think good leadership is waning, because there are good leaders out there, but there are fewer people who seem to want to promote up the ranks, because there’s more liability, accountability and responsibility today.

FRM: Can you describe one or two incidents that have occurred because leadership wasn’t there, or wasn’t properly enforced?
Chief Prziborowski: Unfortunately there’s a slew of different stories out there. The two that I can think of: There was a department in Texas that recently suspended firefighters when a hazing incident went too far. In another incident in Maryland, there were some inappropriate posts made on Facebook by a bunch of firefighters who weren’t getting their usual local discounts at one particular restaurant. The firefighters posted negative comments about the restaurant and the chief found out apparently, and he suspended three members and demoted a fourth.

I think the chief handled both incidents very well, taking a proactive approach, saying this isn’t right, accepting responsibility and taking swift action. But although there was a proactive response from the chief on the Texas incident, there was a breakdown at the lower level, the company officer level.

FRM: Was the company officer present during the Facebook-related incident?
Chief Prziborowski: It does appear that the company officer was there. The hazing took place at the department, and the officer either contributed or didn’t do anything about the issue. In that case, the captain was given a five-day suspension and the other firefighters were given a three-day suspension because the company officer should have done something about it.

FRM: Why, in the absence of leadership, do you think firefighters do some of these things even though they’re adults? Is there a mob mentality at times?
Chief Prziborowski: When we hire firefighters, we tend to pump them up with all this exciting stuff–saving lives, fighting fires and so forth–and that’s why people take the job, plus the shift schedule and other perks. But the challenging part is that this is a workplace–and that’s the part that people can’t separate. Yes, this is your home and 20—30 years ago, people could get away with this stuff, and company officers want to promote, but they don’t want the responsibility that goes with it. It’s sad because it doesn’t matter what part of the country you’re in, you see this occurring and it usually happens at the firehouse.  So the question becomes, how do we make our company officers more responsible and more proactive?

And sometimes I think there is a mob mentality, with all due respect to firefighters. When I was a firefighter, I really didn’t think about the legal aspects all the time. I thought about doing my job and having fun. But when you get into the role of captain, you need to think, wait–what is the role of the supervisor?

FRM: Is there a lack of understanding about what the role entails? A lack of proper training?
Chief Prziborowski: I think departments are struggling budget-wise. Some people may have the desire to promote, but organizations are challenged financially. Plus, training budgets are usually the first to go, so yeah, departments can do a better job, but we as individuals have to know where we want to go in life, and we have to get proactive about it and seek opportunities. Individuals can do so much on their own.

FRM: Are departments also affected by the retirement rate? Are fire service leaders retiring faster than we can train up-and-coming leaders?
Chief Prziborowski: That all depends on where you are in the country. I’ve seen some departments go through a spike in retirements, but some are dealing with it now, and some dealt with it years ago, so yeah, some are retiring faster, but not faster than we can keep up with them. I think that really depends on the department and the part of the country you’re in.  

FRM: So given the increased liability, accountability and responsibility expected of today’s fire service leaders, what advice would you give to an up-and-coming leader?
Chief Prziborowski: You have to be proactive in your department if you want to promote. For those who want to be leaders, I hope they’ll find out at a young age that that’s what they want to do. It’s hard to take someone who has 15 years on the job, find out if they have the desire to promote, and then seek out opportunities, such as being involved in the department and outside the department and then have them go from thinking like a firefighter to thinking now as a company officer, and having to worry about the bigger picture if they had not been thinking that way from an early age. We seem to have a tough time getting people to get involved, attracting people to join committees, and basically just doing their jobs. When I say ‘doing their job,’ I don’t mean a firefighter or driver doing their daily chores or completing their routine tasks. I mean company officers actually being the designated adult and being able to go from buddy to boss.

FRM: What advice can you offer to those who have made mistakes in the absence of good leadership?
Chief Prziborowski: For those who have made mistakes, without having proper leadership, admit that you made a mistake–that’s personal leadership. You screwed up, so take ownership of that. Do what you can to convince your leadership that you won’t do it again. Lastly, realize that time does heal things, and as long as you’re proving to those above you that you were sincere to and you want to be accountable, things will get better.

But many people won’t do that, and that’s the tough part.  People don’t usually admit their mistakes. If you make a mistake, fall on the sword and you’ll probably still get punished, but not as severely as if you lied or attempted to cover up what had occurred. Unfortunately, it seems very few people will take responsibility for their actions or inaction. They try to cover it up or lie, and further investigation leads to the discovery that they lied, and now they’re in more trouble than they would have been if they had just fallen on the sword.  

FRM: What is the one thing you want people to take away from your discussion on leadership?
Chief Prziborowski: The biggest message is learn from the mistakes of others. I’m not here to point fingers or Monday-morning quarterback; I want to share this information with others to discuss lessons learned, and because people say “that would never happen to me,” but trust me, it can. In short, do your job.

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