Stay on target: 4 critical components of fire service leadership

Tips to help fire chiefs move in the right direction – for themselves, the department and the community


Leadership comes in many forms, fashions, readings, writings, actions, reactions and educational opportunities. Our challenge really should be to get ourselves, those who follow us and our organizations to the right place at the right time.

It’s not rocket science; heck, even rocket scientists know they want the rocket to go from point A to point B. However, in the fire service, our paths and destinations are less defined but still riddled with perilous opportunities for failure.

It’s vital that fire chiefs focus on four critical components to keep moving forward, in the right direction, all for the greater good of the department and the community.

It’s vital that fire chiefs focus on four critical components to keep moving forward, in the right direction, all for the greater good of the department and the community.
It’s vital that fire chiefs focus on four critical components to keep moving forward, in the right direction, all for the greater good of the department and the community. (Photo/Getty Images)

Follow the path of successful leaders

These four guide posts can help chiefs earn the respect of their members, connect with fellow leaders and serve the community to the best of their abilities.

1. Do as I say AND as I do! Unfiltered and spontaneous demonstration is the simplest and most sincere leadership trait. This is the “I’ll never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do” approach. Are you participating in physical training with your firefighters? None of us should be naïve enough to think I’m suggesting that’s an everyday affair – you’ve certainly got to spread yourself around. However, physical standards and expectations of fitness shouldn’t just be “for the troops.” Whether it’s exercise, operational training, timeliness of feedback, on- and off-duty moral behavior, wearing your seatbelt, observing traffic control devices, or just general professional behavior, it is critical for chiefs to demonstrate the actions they expect those working for them to project.

2. What do you think? How often are you asking others’ opinions or simply soliciting their feedback? Again, there is no expectation on my part that this is constant action; however, there should be a regular and open opportunity for give and take or Q&A with the chief. Pick the mechanism that works for you – email, online polls, face-to-face planning sessions, station visits, newsletter solicitations, community events, “listening sessions.” Whatever it is, having a regular opportunity for interaction, connection, feedback and simply allowing other to be heard will go miles toward building your leadership system. You likely often hear someone say, “I have an open-door policy.” And yes, that’s part of the discussion. But I remind you, and have counseled others in my time, that even though you have an open-door policy, you still have a door and it’s important that you use it from time to time!

3. A politician, a fire chief and a leader walk into a bar … The punchline: They’re all the same person. You can espouse whatever style of leadership you choose – the beauty of living with the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. As such, keep these points in mind. First, I previously underscored that as a fire chief, you ARE a politician, whether you like it or not. Second, remember, the right to choose your leadership style does not excuse you from the potential consequences of that choice, so choose wisely! The first step in a successful fire chief role is to learn your political process (e.g., what it takes to get projects lined, who actually runs what), then determine what makes these three things tick: your department, your community AND your politicians. As you’re honing your politician-esque role, you’re honing your leadership capabilities – whether you realize it or not.

4. Lead, follow or get out of the way. Whether you’re delivering a program, attending a training session, working the floor at a convention (or working a ZOOM call), speaking to the media, listening to the troops, developing a safety culture, building a fitness program, speaking at a community meeting, attending a regional chiefs meeting or simply sitting behind your desk, your people expect YOU to be the leader. “Lead, follow or get out of the way” doesn’t mean that you always have to be the one in front of the camera or the only person in charge at a scene, or even the only person who can come up with an idea. “Lead, follow or get out of the way” means that you need to be ready to do any or all of those things at any given time. The bigger challenge is demonstrating the capacity to lead from the front, the rear, on top, underneath or from afar – whenever and wherever the opportunity occurs.

Let the personal tetrahedron be your guide

It takes physical strength, mental toughness and moral focus to succeed in this business. The job of fire chief is certainly not for the faint of heart. Our mission – the base of our personal tetrahedron – requires each of the other sides of your character and capabilities to produce successful outcomes. And your personal exercise side of the tetrahedron will be necessary to navigate the challenging environments you will face over time. Take the time to build your tetrahedron, demonstrate your capacity to lead, ask questions, listen, massage the political environment and then, ultimately, to leader, follow or get out of the way – there are things we need to get done!

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