Why Some Commands Fail

By Dennis Reilly

If you have served for any length of time, you are bound to have served in exceptional commands as well as some that simply miss the mark. The latter are places where no one wants to go to work and members regularly express their desires to leave the command as soon as possible. In my experience, failing commands share some common characteristics.

First and foremost, in a failing command, leadership is either unwilling or unable to address the issue of culture. Command culture is the glue that holds everything together and provides the direction in which the command is moving. Building a culture is hard, time consuming work. It is easy to get sucked into the demands of reporting, inspections, meetings, and the unending stream of phone calls and emails. These are necessary tasks, but so is the need to build a strong, focused culture within your command.  Commanders must clearly communicate their intent for a command climate focused on treating each other with dignity and respect and clearly communicate their expectations. 

Building a positive culture nearly impossible to do from an office or a conference room. The commander must circulate throughout the command, communicating their priorities and modeling expected behaviors. If you want physical fitness to be a common thread in your command, you have got to be physically fit and demonstrate your commitment to fitness by investing the sweat and training with your team. 

Culture, in part, is built because the command’s expectations are clearly communicated. Often, people confuse expectations with job or MOS descriptions. I am not talking about the specific tasks one will execute, I am addressing how it will be accomplished. I don’t expect my firefighters to simply know their job. I expect them to master and become the best at their craft. Minimum performance standards have no place in top performing organizations. The expectations in these organizations are nothing short of excellence. Being a willing participant and a dedicated team member are not terms often found in job descriptions, but they describe how the members of excellent commands think. If you want to see this in your command, then you need to clearly communicate this intent to your subordinates.

If you accept the fact that great organizations are defined by a command climate that accepts nothing less than excellence, then it is crucial to communicate these points clearly throughout your command. Scale plays a huge role here. If your command is spread over multiple installations or even continents then you have to be creative in your approach. Technology can be a great help, but it has its limitations. Being in command means that you are in the people business as much as you are a warfighter and a leader. With all the tools available to a commander, the act of visiting Soldiers and leaders in their command to deliver their message in person is still the best way to ensure the message is delivered and understood. As Peters and Waterman stated in their landmark work, In Search of Excellence, management by wandering around gives a commander the chance to communicate in an environment where their subordinates are most comfortable and more likely to receive the commander’s message. 

You can define your culture, set your expectations, and clearly communicate these items, but if there is no accountability, it should be no surprise when your people fail to execute your vision. Accountability is necessary for success. Nothing will negate your hard work faster than failing to consistently and fairly hold people accountable for the standards you have articulated. One would assume that someone who has risen to a command position would have the personality and wherewithal to address critical performance issues. However, most of us, including commanders, avoid difficult conversations that address failures in accountability.. These conversations make us feel uncomfortable and nobody really enjoys being uncomfortable. It is an art to build a culture of caring about those who live at the tip of the spear, while calling your people out when they miss meeting standards. This difficult position is the price we must pay for the privilege of command. Accountability starts with the commander. Nothing is more confusing than a man who gives good advice but sets a bad example.

The work of ensuring your command succeeds is a monumental task that takes the whole team to accomplish. Strong commands place a high emphasis on developing their subordinate leaders. The strength of any command rests in the sum total of all the members. We are part of a team. The leaders of tomorrow are your subordinates of today. As we work to develop our team, we must develop teammates who understand the importance of culture, expectations, communications, and accountability. It will be much easier to build winning teams if you have emphasized developing  a mindset of excellence in advance.

 As much as I love my job, I understand I have a professional life span. It is a professional obligation to prepare my replacement. No matter your rank or role, you are just one piece of the large puzzle. Your profession requires you to develop your people for future assignments. Developing your personnel is a positive action that enables your command to accomplish the mission in the future. Danny Murphy, a good friend of mine and a retired lieutenant from Rescue Company 2 of the Fire Department of New York, reminds us of the obligation to, “leave it better then you found it.”

Those of us who are entrusted with command are expected to deliver results in difficult situations, despite incomplete information and compressed time frames. We all have an equal opportunity to achieve failure or success. By prioritizing building a command culture of excellence, you can avoid the pitfalls that lead to command failure, setting your command up for a legacy of success instead.

Dennis Reilly is a 47 year fire service veteran who is currently serving as the Fire Chief for the City of Pittsburg, Kansas. The Chief is a “plank holder” for the New Jersey Urban\n Search & Rescue Task Force and deployed to New York City on 9/11. In addition to his fire service career, Dennis is a US Army veteran, having served as a medic with the 2/325 Abn Infantry Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, and the 57th Medical Detachment. As a member of the US Army Reserves, he deployed to the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War and was assigned to HHT 2nd ACR.

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