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October 12,2002
Leadership 101: Problematic Leaders
By Thomas M. Cunningham
US Naval Academy Fire Department

We have learned about the intimidator employee and superior and how you as a fire officer or firefighter must learn how to deal with these individuals in the most effective way possible. For the most part, of all the officers that I know, I personally would give them a grade of “B,” most are conscientious and have a certain amount of complacency towards their jobs and their employees, most care about the customers that they serve, and most want to excel their careers farther than the position that they currently hold. But in some cases you are going to find leadership and supervision among the ranks that is less than spectacular.

 You enter the fire service expecting to be one of the lucky one’s who has the best job on earth, maybe even one day working your way up the ladder to a line, staff or chief fire officers position or even becoming the Chief of the Department. But, instead in walks your supervisory fire officer (captain, asst. chief, or chief) and the best job in the world becomes a living and continuous hell because you now work for an officer who is lacking in the skills that are needed to supervise an effective workforce. Has this happened to you?

First, we all must understand who is leading the department or company, and what their motivation is behind the decisions they make. These may or shall eventually affect you and everyone else. In every work environment there are many types of “bad bosses” that can infect and hinder the progress (and mission) of the department. But how should we categorize what type of supervisor that we have?

 We have all seen fire officers who think that they are almighty, all knowing, and powerful, yet from your perspective and everyone else’s they closely resemble the creature known as the “spineless jellyfish.” They never speak up for subordinates, they will never look into the purchasing of new or updated equipment, and will never stand up for issues that may be of importance to the department. If you have ever worked for a person like this then you know that the company or departments performance was sub-par due to not being adequately equipped to perform the work assigned. Usually this type of officer is more worried about the bottom line (budget) and doesn’t care as long as the job is accomplished within the fiscal amount allotted or less. Most times when this officer senses conflict they run and hide and they will usually tolerate or contribute to a poisonous environment within the workplace. This officer may even encourage rivalries between employees just to stir the pot. If you have experienced this type of officer then you are aware that they are weak managers and seen as a bad fire officers by many, including their superiors, sometimes.

 The one thing that you must realize is that bad supervisors and managers have been with us for a long time, but employment surveys show that we are seeing more bad leaders than ever before. This has occurred due to “institutional thinning” or otherwise known as reduced staffing levels or budget cuts. This has been forced upon us by city managers and other governing bodies in an attempt to keep increases in taxes down. In many cases you will find the root cause being that the fire officers that either are overwhelmed by the position, or have been overextended by their supervisors. 

Many times fire companies cannot be provided the support they need due to the fire officers being too busy. Some superiors may not have enough training to meet the job requirements and demands for the position. And in some instances the officer is short-tempered or stubborn by nature, which can then lead to an intimidating work environment for the subordinates. 

In the fire service employees do not quit their jobs, but instead something worst transpires which can lead to a total failure. In many cases subordinate employees may quit the fire officer. But every case is different. The fire officer from hell to you may be the hero to another employee, the “eye of the beholder” determines it all. If you require regular supervisory direction by the fire officer then a fire officer who is a “hands off” or “absent” will drive you nuts. If you are an autonomous employee you may thrive in this environment. The key to dealing with the fire officer or any manager is to manage them by understanding. Within the fire service we will usually find pretty good managers, usually they are solid senior members who are trying to do their best to see the department run effectively and efficiently. They will often offer opportunities to employees who aspire to gain education, certification, and who may eventually be considered lead members within the department. 

But there are many who slip through the cracks and do not live up to the textbook definition of a supervisor. The following are examples of bad fire officers, their motivations, and suggestions on how to deal with them. If you are a fire officer, look at these descriptions because it is never too late to learn:
The ostrich 
This fire officer will never take risk, will not stand up for anything, is usually vague about everything, and will never commit to anything. When confronted by stressing situations they will retreat and stick their head in the sand in an attempt to avoid being implicated in any situation that may require them to make a decision, whether the decision is either right or wrong. Usually this fire officer wants to be liked by everyone. They can never separate themselves from being “one of the boys.” So their actions are done as a result of not wanting to cause waves with whom they must lead. This officer avoids conflict at all cost. In some cases the fire officer may be too busy or overwhelmed to see problems that are occurring around them. 

Some officers may be so burned out that they could care less about anything that happens. The officer is now prone to let problems or behaviors that are unbecoming continue until they have no choice and must deal with them. This fire officer would rather not be a manager at all, either due to lack of supervisory skills or that they are ill prepared for the position.

 If you must deal with this type of fire officer simply avoid any issues that are emotional or discussions that lead to contention or are contentious. Resolve any conflicts yourself. If the fire officer is truly spineless and refuses to do assumed duties, as a member concerned about the health and welfare of the department take the issue up the chain of command. If the fire officer is burnt out or seems to be reluctant, then you must accomplish your work around them. There is always a detour or another route to get around a roadblock, the secret is to know which route to take. Make life easy for both of you by discussing only critical issues pertinent to the department. If the officer has poor management skills suggest to them the resources that you need to accomplish your goals and make sure to follow up on your request.

Glitter and Gold
This fire officer is a political manager, they will always place themselves into the spotlight or are always looking for a way to make themselves look good. This fire officer will only step up to bat when an issue serves his or her own selfless purpose or political agenda. If you stand back and watch this type of officer you will see that they will play favorites and are rather skilled at being devious. The Glitter & Gold officer will use you as a sacrifice or pawn and will not give it a second thought, as long as it benefits them and their career.
This fire officer is bad in the fact that they are too busy ensuring every hair on their head is in place, and shining their gold pins and buttons that there is no time left to adequately train or develop subordinates. 

One way to overcome this type of officer is by making them look good on important projects. Focus on work that is important or high in value to the department. This fire officer cannot be trusted to look out for your best interest, so you must look out for your own. Suggest projects and place emphasis on the importance it would have to senior fire officers if it were a project that you really want to do. But remember you will have to share, the limelight that is.

The Scarecrow
Have you ever experienced a fire officer who is just “out of this world” or who just does not get it? Its like the porch light is on but no ones at home. Could this fire officer have the intelligence of an amoeba or a door- chock for all practical purposes? Or could they be like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of OZ? The scarecrow traveled to the land of OZ with the specific goal of obtaining a brain? If you remember the wizard pulled off his head and stuffed it with bran, pins, and needles, he than the mighty OZ tells the scarecrow that he now has “bran new brains.”

Have you ever experienced a fire officer who is just “out of this world” or who just does not get it? Its like the porch light is on but no ones at home. Could this fire officer have the intelligence of an amoeba or a door- chock for all practical purposes? Or could they be like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of OZ? The scarecrow traveled to the land of OZ with the specific goal of obtaining a brain? If you remember the wizard pulled off his head and stuffed it with bran, pins, and needles, he than the mighty OZ tells the scarecrow that he now has “bran new brains.” 

This type of fire officer may have difficulty in understanding framework, progression, motivation, or techniques and ideologies? If, the fire officer is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, treat them as though they’re a lost child. Another option would be to simply ignore them and nothing would get accomplished. If the problem stems from lack of cognitive skills you may need to plan or modify the way that you communicate your message to them, don’t make the message difficult to understand. If the fire officer has ideologies based on facts (bookworm syndrome) you may want to provide straightforward data and information. This will prove the point you are trying to make. It would be a waste of time for both of you, if you suggested a subject that forces a disagreement with the fire officer, or a subject that would be considered persuasive or forceful. 

The Perfectionist
Many who worked with him consider the late comedian Milton Berle to have been a perfectionist. Berle once stated “a man who believes he's Casanova and Einstein and Jesus Christ all rolled into one, I guess that was me, and I was a perfectionist besides.'' Milton Berle became a slave to his perfectionist ways due to his self-induced will to succeed. The comedian Jerry Lewis is another perfectionist.
After his break with singer and partner Dean Martin, jerry went onto to a solo movie career. His big solo movie was titled the “Nutty Professor,” but after that Lewis had trouble finding success in the movies.
Lewis decided to take on the role of directing his own feature films, he was absorbed by making every scene perfect, he would reshoot scenes thirty times and was still not pleased with the outcome. This behavior led jerry to have problems emotionally, physically, and most importantly problems with family and friends. The will to succeed absorbed Jerry Lewis and nearly destroyed his life. 

In the movie “Mommie Dearest” we are shown through the eyes of Christine Crawford what it was like to grow up with the actress Joan Crawford as a parent. Joan Crawford is shown to have suffered from “perfection extreme,” and if you have seen this movie you will never forget the cloths hanger scene. Have you ever witnessed a supervisor you have worked for have his or her own clothes hanger scene?

Sometimes the supervisory fire officer may see fault(s) in everything that you do. Sometimes it will seem as though you can never please them. This fire officer will assume the “by the book” mentality, if it isn’t written it doesn’t exist. You have given a project explicit detail, have modified and refined the project, but for them it is still not right and is thus flawed. If this is the case then you work for the perfectionist micro-manager who may also show signs of suffering from obsessive-compulsive behavior. This type of fire officer can turn your motivation into jelly, and destroy any sense of competence that you currently have. 

The things you must determine is whether the fire officer is trying to please their supervisors or are they just a control freak. If you determine that the fire officer is insecure then give reassurance to the officer that you have everything under control. This will ease any anxiety the fire officer may be suffering. But to do this correctly you must first anticipate issues that may arise so you retaincontrol of the situation. 

“Dr. Jack Griffin, I Presume.”
In the novel “The Invisible Man,” written by the famous author H.G. Wells, Dr. Jack Griffin was an obscure scientist who invents a formula that renders skin, bones, and blood invisible, and tries the formula on himself. Now he can go anywhere and nobody will even know that he is there. Today we have managers in every type of industry including the fire service that can become invisible without assistance from a formula and who do not menace anyone because they aren’t there. This supervisor can suffer from paranoia. In most cases the fire officer will handle every detail or assignment by themselves, then inturn will complain that they are overworked. 
Do not expect guidance or direction from this fire officer because there will be none offered. They will be unaware of the volume of work you have or how fast it must be accomplished. The feedback desired by you will also be missing. Basically this fire officer will be clueless. 

The invisible and weak managers share the same motives. In some cases the fire officer may be too busy to provide the support you require, may be poorly prepared for the position, or there may be some mysterious reluctance on their part. Whatever the reason, the fire officer will hinder your job completion process. Many times this type of interaction occurs between lieutenants or captains and their ranking chief officers. 

To deal effectively with this type of officer you must have done your homework previously for any meeting that you may have with them. Do not go in unprepared. Having prepared will ensure an efficient and fruitful meeting for both parties. Setting milestones and regular evaluations of your work will ensure feedback you need to evaluate your progress. Meetings with the fire officer can be set at weekly or monthly periods based upon the amount of work or degree of difficulty the work requires, but you will need to hold them to the place and time the meeting is to take place. 

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman 
If you have ever seen the Stanley Kubrick movie entitled “Full Metal Jacket” then you will never forget the first half of the story. The story starts with raw Marine recruits who enter Marine boot camp and are being trained at the hands of the sadistic, foul-mouthed DI, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (played by actor R. Lee Ermey) who gives the perfect performance of a old fashioned taskmaster. If you ever worked for someone who was like this you will never forget them. If you were in the military you may have, but this type of individual still exists in many of today’s fire departments even though their numbers are diminishing rapidly. But in the not too distant past this personality existed throughout the fire service and at all levels.
The Sergeant Hartman character tells these raw recruits as he parades through the company barracks two important philosophies of his. “I am hard, but I am fair,” is his first message to them. Some years ago many company officers were exactly like Sgt. Hartman in that they were hard and that they were fair. This type of officer at first may have seemed like a festered hemorrhoid, but you soon came too realize just how to deal with them, if you didn’t you would have signed your own death warrant cause sooner or later they would have killed you. The key was once you understood them and their idiosyncrasies you could manage them and exist in their world. 

The second point that Sgt. Hartman makes to the new recruits is that no matter what their racial or ethnic make-up is, they were are all equally “worthless.” If you have been in the fire service for a period of time the old gruff fire officers were cut from the same mold as Gunny Hartman. The main point here is that with this type of personality you always knew were you stood and what to expect from them. Is this necessarily bad? No, in fact in many instances it would be good, mainly because once you learned how to deal with them you were never surprised by anything that they had done or would do. 

This person will typically have no life outside the fire service and they expect you to follow by their example. You may already have enough work to do that sometimes you feel as though you may be drowning in it, but then the fire officer (Sgt. Hartman) enters and piles more onto you. This manager pushes until they eventually fall off the cliff, your concern is that they don’t grab you as they are falling. This style of manager requires their employees to meet deadlines that are both ridiculous and unreal. Some managers like this are solely focused on the task at hand and may be unaware of the way in which their behavior affects those under their supervision. 

 This type of manager may also be just a down right nasty individual. They receive pleasure by making employees under their guidance squirm like a slug left in the sun. This manager does not care how you feel or about your feelings, the only thing that matters is the mission. This personality is driven by seeing tasked completed so that other task may be worked on. If you have ever approached this fire officer to talk to them about your workload you will find someone who just plain does not get it, or who doesn’t really care as long as the job is completed. You must create your own standards and determine what can be done that is realistic. 

Welcome to the Bates Motel
Psycho (def): mental disorder; especially: extreme mental disorder marked usually by egocentric and antisocial activity 

Crazed serial killers or cannibals don’t always exist on the silver screen as the main figures in horror stories, infact some exist as Mayors, city managers, supervisors, managers, chiefs and fire officers. Recognizing this disturbed person is important but it may not be easy to distinguish which fire officer is the quiet but lethal Norman Bates in disguise?

This may not be always possible. Most of these people are not homicidal murderers who have their dead mothers locked up in the attic, instead most are rather successful in there given professions and they accelerate at making your life a living hell. An Australian Psychologist has now developed a profile to help employers recognize and identify psychopaths in the work environment. This has being done to help employers reduce problems from these individuals that may affect the workplace and supervisory liability issues. Dr. Clarke has developed this profile similar to how the FBI develops profiles on mass murderers and serial killers. This type profiling system is based upon the same psychological make-up and tendencies that hardcore criminals have. According to Dr. Clarke those who lie, cheat, appeared bored, and believe that they should hold higher positions in the department all have potential.

In general this fire officer may appear to be sane and rational. They will also possess a high level of intelligence, a never-ending impulsiveness, and lacks empathy towards others. They may also show signs of irresponsibility, and a high degree of egocentricity. There is no explanation for this behavior, but this fire officer can now be dangerous and destructive to the fire department structure and team continuity. There is no known treatment or cure, and studies have shown that this behavior is born within the subject’s DNA makeup and is not an acquired through life learning experience. 

Psychopathic disorders effect approximately 1% of the population. The psycho will charm, manipulate, intimidate, and use to certain degrees violence (regardless of form) to satisfy their selfless needs. By having no conscience and a lack of feelings will make them take whatever they want and to do whatever they please. Guilt or regret is never felt even after they have deviated from social norms or values. This individual may never experience any trouble within the workplace environment and through false charm and manipulation they may rapidly climb the career ladder using the bodies of those that they trampled on to get there. They plan their careers in the same manner that criminals plan a bank heist. 

 Why would those around them not easily distinguish the fire officer who is psychopathic? The answer lies with their intelligence, social skills, circumstances, and family background, these factors may hide the madness inside and project a false front that seems to be normal. In the book “Bully in sight” the author Tim Field did research to further understand workplace bullying. Field has found that serial bullies who have many psychopathic characteristics commit 90% of aggressive acts in the workplace. The study also shows that 1 in 30 whether male or female may have these characteristics. 

Fire officers who suffer from this might seem to have the company or departments best interest in heart, but the sad reality is that they consumed by power, are controlling, and want to be the dominating factor and subjugate those who surround them. Those chiefs who suspect that an officer under their control must be aware that this individual will have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. Beyond this the fire officer will be vile and vindictive underneath while projecting and image that is charming and innocent. Today’s job environment is the type of breading ground that brings this individual to achieve the success that they so desire. The will to provide service at the employees expense (decreased staffing levels) while attempting to do more with less (budgeting and funding) is what allows these types of managers to live and thrive because of the accommodating atmosphere that is created. Not even sexual harassment, EEO, or discrimination laws or policies can stop this individual, they only find ways to circumvent these protections and will continue to carry on their plan.

The only advisable thing for you to do if you work for a psychopathic fire officer is to get out (transfer) away from the problem. The more that you recognize them for what they really are the more of a target you will become.

So what can you possibly do to get over a situation were you and a superior may be in conflict with one another? There are many options and by taking this advice and utilizing it may relieve the negative relationship between you and the superior.

1. Investigate what the real cause of conflict really is.
Sometimes personalities cannot flow together well. Remember our body compositions are made of different chemicals and elements that make up me and you and them. As you are taught in HAZMAT school, certain chemicals when mixed react violently. So is the case when two people come into contact with one another. In some cases having a sit-down with the superior and talking to get one another flowing in the same direction may rectify the conflict. And in other cases time may be the only cure for the conflict. Whatever the case attempt to talk things over and never hold a grudge or take it personally when discussing the matter.

2. Set up a meeting with their superior. 
Your production as a member of the department is considered to be more important than trying to gain the attention or acceptance of your superior. By having you disenfranchised or non-productive only hurts the department at the expense of the citizens.

3. Attempt to hold off any negative feelings you may have and try to work with the superior. 
Make any assignment or project a positive experience and let them take credit for the work (sometimes), even if you had completed the work. But never let them forget who had done the legwork.

4. Set up regular meetings with the superior. 
These meetings can be bi-weekly or monthly and bring them up to date with training, studying, projects, and revised career goals or changes. This will in most cases give you a better working relationship with the fire officer and in the end provide better service to our customers and the department. 

5. If all else fails you may request a transfer to another company if your department is big enough.
You are the only one who realizes what your self-worth is and if there is a lack of respect and motivational factors within your work environment then a change of scenery may be what you need. Firefighters simply do not resign from their jobs, but some have. Some have either gained employment in other departments or have sought out employment in other fields. I do not recommend resignation but in some cases this may be the last resort. If you can make an attempt to deal with the superior, tighten your belt, shut you trap, stay focused on the mission, and deal with the superior in the most professional way possible. Remember this, sometimes we must play with the cards we are dealt, and what cards we have make the most of them.

Previous articles on Leadership...
Leadership 101: Integrity
Leadership 101: The Intimidator, Part I
Leadership 101: The Intimidator, Part II

About the author: 
Thomas M. Cunningham is a 15-year veteran of the United States Naval Academy Fire Department in Annapolis Maryland. He is a NFPA certified Fire Officer IV, Instructor III, Inspector II, Investigator, Safety Officer, and Hazmat IC. He is currently completing Bachelor degree studies in Fire Administration at Western Illinois University. He is currently employed as an instructor with the Command School, Inc. He also serves as the NFAAA MD. state coordinator.