• Marc Aloan

When Rank Lost Its Influence

Updated: Mar 8

(Photo: Global News)

Normally I try to resonate with everyone; this will not one of those times. The things I am about to say here are going to piss some folks off; that’s okay. I am no stranger to being viewed as brash, idealistic, and confrontational. Perhaps I lack some tact as my blunt approach has been accused of being anti-administration, something I am not proud of nor even close to being. Ironically, like most people I want those above to lead me, not the other way around. So while my dialogue may at times indicate I have a problem with authority, in reality I just want those in such positions to actually exercise some authority now and then…

(Photo: Illinois Fire Service Institute)

My thoughts on leadership bounce around quite a bit. As a company officer (the proverbial middle management of the fire service), leadership means different things at different times. A single tour can see me function as a servant leader, a dictator, a supervisor, a manager, a coach, a student, and a follower depending on the situation at hand. Transitioning back and forth can be a bit confusing without the education, knowledge, and experience to know how, and more importantly when to adapt.


I prefer a style more paramilitary than the modern leadership curricula seem to prefer. I am fairly rigid in my belief and trust in the chain of command, sometimes to a fault. I firmly believe the ranking person on the crew SHOULD be the leader. Whether they are or not may be a different story. As we keep coming up with “innovative” ways to fix our leadership woes that value rank less and less, I continue banging my head against the wall wondering if the leadership problems we face are really because our chains have become loose, frayed, and rusty…

There are many conversations regarding leadership these days making very good points critical to growth as both individuals and professionals. Most of them are centered around leading at the individual level regardless of position or rank. On one hand that's a good thing, but on the other maybe it’s not. Sometimes we let fancy names and lesson plans fool us into thinking different is better without a full analysis or consideration. Regardless, leadership has come a long way from the autocracy of the past through concepts like crew resource management and servant-based leadership. The trouble is the muffled message behind the camouflage of empowerment is a firm but quiet, fuck rank, but is rank really the problem?...

(Photo: Illinois Fire Service Institute)

The question that keeps rattling around my mind is why do we have rank if rank doesn’t equal leadership? Why are people being promoted to positions to run crews, stations, battalions, divisions, and departments if they lack the knowledge and influence to do so? Why are we teaching recruits the chain of command works one minute and then telling them rank doesn’t equal respect the next? Why are we fooling people into the belief that taking on the responsibilities of someone promoted over them is somehow noble or acceptable when in reality it is just free labor? Why has “respect the rank not the person” become an acceptable course of action instead of finding people worthy of the respect rank deserves and used to demand?

Please don’t take what is being said wrong, anyone who is willing to step up in the absence of proper leadership is far from part of the problem. The point is we shouldn’t be putting guys with limited time and experience in situations where they are expected and forced to lead or rot. If the people we have in positions of formal leadership aren’t leading, REMOVE THEM! This “everyone is a leader” mentality may seem empowering, but it is really a cheap, passive aggressive way to solicit leadership without messing with the status quo! Asking others to step up because we are too afraid to make the problems step down is a failure on all levels.

(Photo: YouTube/fireengineering)

If we really want to advocate for leadership, start putting the right people in formal leadership roles. Promotion does not mean permanent. If someone doesn’t measure up, demote them and give someone else a shot. If you know someone lower on the totem pole is actually doing the leading and influencing, reward them! There are no blank checks on this job. From 1 bugle to 5, if we are not willing to stay relevant by learning, observing, training, and going on runs (especially fires) as a willing participant rather than an observer, we are selling our people short.

(Photo: Fire Notes)

Perhaps I am a dinosaur (odd for somebody barely halfway into a career), but I think the real problem with fire service leadership is we have become too flexible and accommodating. There is an art to evolving that we are clearly missing the mark on. As we allowed ourselves to buy into the delusion that we were going to put ourselves out of business with prevention, we sold ourselves on the vision of adding education and certifications to bolster candidates with decreasing on the job experience. This is actually a very smart concept, unfortunately, somewhere along the way we allowed those things to replace experience, disposition, and inclination altogether. We stopped looking at the person and started sifting through their promotional packet instead. We have become oblivious to the fact that the good ones have a little of both the temperament and the qualifications, not one or the other.

Yes, the problem with modern fire service leadership in many cases is some of the people in it. Bureaucracy has replaced tradition, friendship has replaced firemanship, and rank is no longer respected. We are setting our officers up for failure by telling their crews to leapfrog them at will. We have turned our back on the fact that each position has a learning curve, one that is hard to accomplish when everyone around you is permitted to do as they please.

(Photo: Carolina Custom Metal Works)

Maybe that is a naïve mindset. Maybe I am totally off base. It would appear we are more fearful of human resources than funerals these days and more concerned with lawsuits than ground ladders. Leadership training teaches one thing while we do another. For those saying you don’t need rank to have influence, you are absolutely correct. But it seems pretty simple to me; if influence is no longer about rank, perhaps the problem isn’t equating rank with leadership, it is who we are allowing to hold rank in the first place…