Why fire officers need emotional intelligence

There's real science showing how to measure and improve emotional intelligence, and that it is a key to good leadership — especially in the fire service


When firefighters talk about competency, what they are usually referring to is technical skills and abilities related to the job. The list of technical competencies necessary for good fire officers is a long one and includes everything from incident command to medical response to knowledge of fire codes.

Many promotional testing processes focus exclusively on these types of competencies in ranking and selecting candidates. But anyone who has ever worked as a firefighter knows that while these types of knowledge, skills, and abilities are important, they are only the beginning of the story when it comes to being a good officer.

Beyond being technically skilled and competent, the best fire officers also possess what is known as emotional intelligence. Understanding the role of this competency is critical for all leaders to achieve their full potential.

What is emotional intelligence? This term was popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book of the same name published in 1995. In short, emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. 

More specifically, according to primary EI researchers Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, "Emotional intelligence is the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions."

Four levels

Researchers in emotional intelligence have identified four levels of competency in work and social situations. The first level, considered threshold competencies, includes more technical skills and expertise and the ability to call upon memory and deductive reasoning. This competency level is considered threshold for leadership because it is the necessary base upon which other competencies rest.

The next competency level is cognitive. This competency goes beyond just the ability to learn skills or retain information. Cognitive competency involves systems thinking and pattern recognition, and the ability to apply these abilities to new situations.

Beyond these two levels of competency for leadership are social intelligence and emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, adaptability, and self-control. Social intelligence includes the ability to correctly perceive emotions in others, and to act effectively based on those perceptions. Empathy and the ability to reason with others in an emotional sense are key aspects of social intelligence.

Neuroscience based

So what does all this mean to the current or aspiring company officer?

On one level it might seem obvious — most firefighters would rather work for an officer who is empathetic and self-aware rather than one who is self-absorbed and socially clueless. Most fire officers want to be seen as resonant rather than dissonant in their leadership style.

The key to the study of emotional intelligence is that this research is based in neuroscience, not pop psychology. Emotional intelligence is an ability that can be tested for and developed, the same way that cognitive intelligence can be measured and developed.

A number of tests and assessments have been created to measure emotional intelligence in a variety of contexts. Some assessment center companies have developed processes that include testing for emotional intelligence in the context of the fire service.

If emotional intelligence can be measured, then it can also be learned. But while it is obvious how fire officers might improve their competency in technical rescue or hazmat response, improving abilities in emotional intelligence can be a more confusing quest.

Self aware

Emotional intelligence is a combination of skills, practice and self-awareness. Many fire departments like to focus entirely on skills and practice in training, and give little attention to self-awareness. To ask how a firefighter felt doing a training evolution might seem superfluous if he did it correctly.

But in a less technical realm, self-awareness is the driver that makes skills and practice truly useful.

For example, giving effective feedback is a skill that can be learned and practiced in a controlled training environment. Firefighters can demonstrate mastery of that skill and even pass an assessment related to it. But if they do not have the self-awareness and empathy to others that correctly tells them when to use different kinds of feedback, the skill will not translate into more effective leadership.

Self-awareness can be enhanced in a number of ways. Self-assessment tools are an important part of emotional intelligence measurement.

360-degree size up

Another way to get information related to an individual's emotional intelligence is to use 360-degree evaluation instruments, where everyone on the job gets structured feedback from peers and subordinates in addition to supervisors. These kinds of evaluations can be extremely informative, but are only useful when the system for doing them is valid and consistently implemented.

Constructive one-on-one mentoring and feedback are also critical parts of the process of building emotional intelligence.

But by far the most important aspect of having leaders develop higher competency in emotional intelligence is for the organization to openly value the skills and abilities associated with that competency. Too many fire departments pay lip service at best to having their officers excel in qualities like empathy, emotional self-control, mindfulness and compassion.

Emotional intelligence has been proven to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and commitment among those who embody it. The qualities associated with emotional intelligence may seem obvious, a matter of common sense. But common sense does not always translate into common practice.

Making emotional intelligence a priority of common practice is a matter of leadership.

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