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The Company Officer: An Embedded Leader

I was recently reading about the history of the Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) and modern Navy SEALs. The founding father was Lieutenant Commander Draper Kauffmann whom in 1943 was given a piece of property in Fort Pierce Florida, some men, and a blank sheet to write the plan for a new small unit Special Operations. One of his keys to the development of these teams was embedding the officers among the men from day one of training. He believed that it was critically important to the performance of these units in times of battle and covert operations that relationships, respect and trust was tested long before.

From The Sheriff of Ramadi By D*** Couch-

“Kaufmann set the tone for the special bond between officers and enlisted men. Beginning with the first class he brought everyone into a room, officers on one side and enlisted men on the other. To the enlisted men he would say ‘I will do everything in my power to see that no officer graduates from this school under whom I would not be happy to go into combat.’ To the officers he would say, ‘I will do everything in my power to see that no enlisted man graduates from this school whom I would not want to lead into combat.’ The officers and the enlisted men then shared and shared alike in the miseries of Fort Pierce and NCDU training”

With the position of company officer you have power and authority. As an embedded leader you are presented with the greatest opportunity and conversely exposed to the greatest potential points of failure in leading others.

As company officers we live with our firefighters more than we work with them. Even in the nation’s busiest firehouses the amount of time spent in non emergent situations (meals, training, trash talking) is greater than our service delivery time. From the second you take the role of a company officer all your words, actions and associations are being observed from above and below. As the first formal leader, he or she is no longer afforded the latitude of a firefighter by supervisors. Within the company, the officers are not provided the separation of a higher ranking chief officer making the delineation between work and life (officer and brother) nearly impossible for subordinates to maintain. If you are aware of this, the opportunities to lead are limitless. If you are unaware your complacency in leadership can come at great costs.

Fire department company officers are different, we are embedded leaders. As an embedded leader you cannot hide from the expectations and you cannot hide yourself.  I wish I could “Be the Boss” all the time but I am not a good enough actor to be a different person for 48 hours and my firefighters are far too good at judging character. At the kitchen table with a guy in the station on overtime, or walking into the living room on a medical call, with almost 100% accuracy firefighters identify a “faker” in seconds. No one can be perfect, this is the reason you must be yourself and be aware.

The key to making the turn as a company officer lies in that awareness of self. You must stick to what you believe or all will know it isn’t you. In the same breath you must manage the intensity and timing to consider the potential message it sends. I have found that while always the company “leader”, I am only leading when I am demonstrating what I believe, living my expectations, setting the example and being accountable to a higher standard.

I wish I could tell you that I came to this epiphany through observation. I wish this served as my perfect guide to success as a company officer but that would be a lie, I continue to learn this one the hard way. Recently a “bad day” at training cost me turmoil with chief officers, a disciplinary action and lost ground with the firefighters in my company. Initially following the incident I was fighting hard to be allowed a bad day. I felt because I had a history of being a higher performer that I was unfairly being held to a different standard. I was making excuses instead of taking responsibility and not holding myself to a higher standard. I was not living that which I ask of my firefighters and I did not realize this failure to live my expectations was a failure to lead.

As an embedded leader all your situations as a company officer are that of the company. It may be as large and negative as the one I just discussed, or it may be the book you are reading or stepping on to the treadmill instead of sliding into a Lazy Boy to watch the football game. In the simplest form you are living your expectations just by showing up early. You may not have ever thought about it but your morning checks lead your firefighters. My department is so computer driven it is overwhelming; staffing, schedules, information and even training is done via the computer. I never would have thought that the day would come that I would be cutting my daily equipment checks short so that I could go get on the computer to plan the day. While this is still work for the department and the position of the leader, I am failing to lead the firefighters because my working example shows that planning the day has a higher priority than ensuring I am prepared for the day. This counters what I believe and therefore is a failure to lead.

Situational awareness and complacency are not just emergent terms. Will you be aware of the opportunity to lead your firefighters with 1 more evolution at the next training? Will you have the situational awareness as a leader to withhold a negative comment at the dinner table, or will you fall into the complacency of your environment and let a lapse in judgment cost you as it has me? From the bugle on your helmet to the food on your plate you are blessed with a leadership gift and cursed with a greater accountability. Do not fail the opportunity of embedded leadership, capitalize on it. With this first step in your professional leadership path you will face the greatest test. The position has established you as a leader but are you fully aware of all the opportunities to lead?


Air Force General Mark Welsh on the responsibilities of an officer:

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Comment by Joshua J Augustine on June 3, 2014 at 9:07am

Wow...  great article.

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