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It’s the week of Halloween, and Zombies are everywhere.There’s even one in my neighbor’s front yard. And yes, they’re in our fire departments too. You’ve seen them, those firefighters walking around unaware of their surroundings. They’re unable to think for themselves; they’re ambulant but require outside direction. How do they get that way? What infects them and transforms them from thinking, engaged firefighters into brain-dead, disconnected zombie firefighters? It’s those micromanaging fire officers who drain the brains of our firefighters.

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

Zombie firefighter image courtesy of Len Peralta.

 Zombie Management Theory

One of the most important functions a fire officer has is management, right? Here’s how Zombie Management works against us. An increase in fire officer management decreases the level of firefighter brain use. A fire officer who micromanages every detail creates brainless zombie firefighters, while the effective officer who allows full autonomy builds thinking responsible firefighters. So the obvious point here (unless you too are a zombie) is that the more you officers micromanage your firefighters, the less they will use their brains, making it more likely that they will become “zombies.” We don’t want zombies working with us on the fire ground.

Ask any fire officer which they prefer: thinking firefighters or mindless zombies who respond only as directed? I’m sure the answer would be, “I want smart firefighters who can think and adapt to any situation, firefighters with initiative who perform safely and effectively without detailed direction.” Then ask those same fire officers what their management style is, and none of them will admit that they’re micromanagers.

Now, ask any firefighter which they prefer: an officer who empowers them through trust and responsibility, or a control freak who second-guesses everything they do? Again, the answer should be, “I want an officer who believes in me and helps me grow.” Then ask those firefighters what they really think about micromanagers.

 How to Spot a Zombie Manager (Micromanager)

Do you work for a zombie manager? Are you a zombie manager? What causes a manager to act this way? Most micromanagers are driven by one, or all, of the following issues:

  1. Zombie Managers are insecure. A lack of personal confidence can be devastating to a fire  officer. During stressful and strenuous conditions, firefighters demand that their officers be competent. No amount of “badge authority” is likely to command respect or obedience in complex and dangerous situations where lives are at risk.
  2. Zombie Managers cannot handle workplace instability or pressures. Again, insecure officers quickly fall prey to the stress and pressure to meet the daily performance demands of their firefighters, including training, responding to calls and just plain getting along with each other.
  3. Zombie Managers think they can do it better. These fire officers believe that no one can do it better than them. They have to make every decision, take a lead role in every task and, in some cases, dictate every step a firefighter takes.
  4. Zombie Managers don’t trust anyone. This fire officer has studied and practices Douglas McGregor’s Theory X that assumes that all firefighters are inherently lazy and will avoid work whenever they can. They believe that they have to keep a close eye on their firefighters because they can’t be trusted.

What’s the Cure for Zombie Management?

If you are the Zombie Manager:

  • Admit it! Then start to deal with the micromanaging forces that drive you to control everything.
  • Strengthen your confidence by becoming more competent. High-risk situations demand competent officers.
  • Believe in your firefighters and trust them. Build relationships by rolling up your sleeves and doing the dirty work with them.
  • Invest in your firefighters’ training and help them learn to make the decisions or do the tasks that need to get done.
  • Stop treating your firefighters like zombies, because if that’s how you treat them, that’s what you’ll get. Take some risks and give them a chance to prove what they can do. Help them grow.

If you work for a Zombie Manager:

  • Learn to speak up. Help your officer delegate more effectively by prompting them to give you all of their expectations up front.
  • Make sure to communicate with your officer regularly. This will discourage their need to constantly come to you for details.
  • Remember, your officer is human and changing micromanaging habits is difficult. Help them.

If you have been in the fire service for any length of time, I’m sure you have been exposed to some form of zombie management. Micromanaging is immediately recognized by firefighters. Officers who micromanage inhibit firefighter development, restrict organizational growth and turn firefighters into zombies.

Finding the appropriate balance between directing, delegating, and doing is one of the many challenges for fire officers today. The goal is not to create mindless zombie firefighters, but to grow adaptable, thinking leaders. The message is simple: Don’t be afraid to manage, but know how, when and where to do it.

Be Safe and Help People.


Are you a recovering Zombie Manager? How did you recover? Have you worked for a Zombie Manager? How did you handle it?

Read more of my blog at FireGroundWorks

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