Leadership versus supervision

CarolinaFireJournal - Konrad “Jay” Walsh
Konrad “Jay” Walsh
05/06/2014 -

Everyone in the fire service at some point has worked with an officer that has made an impression on him or her, good or bad, but the ones that leave the best impressions are officers that practice good leadership — not just being a supervisor. The definition of a leader is one that leads or guides where the definition of a supervisor is one who supervises, they sound like similar definitions but they are very far apart.


Dr. Brian Sebastian experiments with Google Glass when seeing patients in Sonoma, California, on Thursday, October 17, 2013. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

If you look at the definitions at face value just about anyone with good business sense can be a supervisor, make sure policy is followed and that staff is where they need to be, doing what they are told to do. Being a leader takes a bit more work as they not only ensure policy is followed but they also explain and practice it. A leader does not just tell someone to be there and do the work; they take the time to guide the employee on what the job quality should be and give them the necessary tools to complete that job with confidence.

One common thread that has always plagued the fire service is the officer who hoards information and does not pass down critical skills and experiences in fear of being leap frogged — promoted — by an employee later. This is something that we need to get away from and fast. Officers should always want to pass information and skills down since it will only make stronger and more reliable crews. If this sounds like an officer you know then they are practicing plain supervision, they supervise what they need to and make the employee guide themselves.

Why should someone strive to become a leader versus a supervisor? The answer is quite simple. First let’s look at what a supervisor can expect from an employee on a normal basis. The employee will show up at work, complete the daily cleanup (maybe), hang out until they are told what to do, and then complete the tasks to a minimum standard. If there is a fire or other emergency scene the employee will do the work as needed but only enough to lay low. Is there something wrong with this scenario? The work is getting done, but it’s the quality of work and the satisfaction of the employee that are lacking.

Now look at how an employee of a leader functions on a normal basis. The employee will show up to work, without prompting they will clean up the station and check off equipment before the shift really gets going, they will be in the office first thing to find out what they need to do and most of the time they will already be doing it. The tasks they perform are done to above minimum standards and likely better than needed. If there is a fire or other emergency scene they will be off the truck fully geared and ready to go, EVERY TIME. They will work hard and not stop until the leader has told them to, if they can stop them at all!

The definition of a leader is to lead or guide and that incorporate so many functions and avenues. A leader is the person who provides a sense of motivation; normally this is by walking the walk and leading an employee by example, not just talk. Motivation is so different from one person to another and a good leader finds those motivators and uses them to raise the employee up to another level. Some employees are good with just a pep talk like “good job,” where others require a more hands-on motivator like money or maybe even getting them that day off they need.

A good leader is also the person who takes the time to train their employees for anything and everything — not just the basics or the bare standards. Remember an officer is only as good as the crew they lead. If a scene goes bad due to lack of training or leadership the officer is just as guilty as the employee who failed the task. This is something that we need to remember every day; an officer who throws their employee under the proverbial bus is not doing their job, and that is to be a leader.

Discipline is something that no one wants but it has to be covered to ensure things get done. A supervisor in regards to discipline waits until the employee makes a mistake and then follows procedures and writes the employee up, nothing really wrong here except finding and correcting the source of the problem. A leader is someone that maps out their expectations from the start and reiterates them often to ensure that the employees have a good working understanding. A leader normally finds and tries to correct problems before they start. This can be touchy, but as a leader, fixing the problem ahead of time will make a better employee and they will see it that way at some point.

One of the qualities of a good leader is to coach and counsel their employees; they make it their job to find out where the employee wants to go in the department. Early on a good leader helps them to develop a road map of their career and all of the steps needed to get there. It should be anything that will make them successful. With this “road map” the officer and employee can set a course that will allow for the growth and overall happiness of the employee. This is a key area that has a result of higher employee satisfaction.

So ask yourself, do I want to be a supervisor or a leader? Do I want to have employees or do I want to have a team of employees that work as one getting high results? Being a supervisor is easy in a sense, but being a leader takes practice and time. It is well worth it as you are helping to mold future officers and leaders. Being a true leader can be selfless at times, but isn’t that the job you took when you got promoted in the first place?

Konrad Walsh is a captain with the Winston-Salem Fire Department where he is a 16-year veteran. He is a level II N.C. state instructor, N.C. Hazmat Technician, N.C. Level III Fire Inspector and N.C. EMT. He graduates this spring from Forsyth Technical Community College with an A.A.S. in Fire Protection Technology.
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