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Fire department leadership: It's influence, not a title

Leaders take action, constantly strive to improve their leadership skills and hold other team members accountable for their actions


I have four shelves of books on leadership and another two shelves of U.S. military leader biographies. Yet trying to concisely define "leadership" is difficult for me.

I recently had two reminders of the many facets of leadership, including that at times, a leader can feel very lonely and isolated, especially when having to make difficult decisions on the future direction of an organization. The other reminder was about the importance of holding members of the team responsible for their actions.  

The first occurred when I went into the office of a co-worker and found a newly framed picture on his wall. His wife had framed a montage of photos that included his assistant chief’s helmet, badge and bugles, but more importantly contained a phrase that read: "Leadership is influence – not a title." 

Being a leader – in firefighting or sports – is earned and not just given with a promotion to a rank. (Courtesy photo)
Being a leader – in firefighting or sports – is earned and not just given with a promotion to a rank. (Courtesy photo)

Leadership is earned through taking action

What a true statement. Being a leader – in firefighting or sports – is earned and not just given with a promotion to a rank.

In baseball, for example, there are leaders in hitting, fielding, on-base and slugging percentage, games won and games saved. But sometimes the term also applies to the clubhouse leader. The player that keeps everyone in the game – whose chatter and high fives keep the team focused on their goals and through wit and humor can bring anyone out of the dumps when they’ve lost.

We may all strive to be the hitting leader – the player who can always come through in a clutch situation, is admired most by fans and subsequently gets the biggest pay check. Yet stop for a moment and compare this to you as a chief or company officer. It seems that somehow we’ve been conditioned to think that every organizational decision we make must always be a winner with everyone onboard or when seeing that a decision hasn’t worked, scrapping it and trying something new is a sign of failure.

If a baseball team's hitting leader has a lifetime batting average of .300 or better, chances are that they’re destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame. They’ve made a hit less than one out of every three times at bat.

But they also make an out 7 out of 10 times at bat. Over about 500 plate appearances in the seasons fouls off over 1,000 baseballs each season while getting just 150 hits. Those numbers should make the average fire officer feel pretty good about their initiative and the percentage of good decisions they make day after day.

Leaders hold everyone on the team accountable

A fellow chief recommended that I read "Above the Line" by Urban Meyer, the football coach for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Meyer provides some brutally hard insight into the issues associated with trying to lead a progressive organization. Meyer indicates that a main characteristic of any winning organization is holding every individual member of the team responsible for their actions – both when they perform well or perform poorly.

In establishing a winning culture, one example was that he had no room for the excuses from the Blamers, Complainers or Defenders.

  • Blamers are always making an excuse for their actions by blaming someone else.
  • Complainers are always critical of anything that disturbs their own status quo and are quick to say things like, "but we’ve always done it this way, why change."
  • Defenders will argue their point of view forever, despite evidence that their stance is contrary to the betterment of the organization.

If an individual or group becomes BCD, it can infect the entire organization’s ability to take personal responsibility, but more importantly, if BCD is a characteristic of one of the leaders within the organization, it can poison any chance of making any positive changes.

Within days of reading Meyer’s book, I was confronted with a BCD individual. This person expressed three complaints – being passed over for promotion, feeling there was very little communication down to his level and a rumored decision that the department was planning to upgrade some existing equipment instead of outright replacement and that move would be less safe than purchasing new equipment.

While I had not sat on the evaluation board for promotions, I started by asking him what he had done over the years to prepare himself for promotion. 

His answer was a classic that I’d heard more than once, "It was my turn, I’ve been here the longest." 

This individual is a very talented firefighter-paramedic, but he hadn’t taken any steps on his own to prepare himself to be an officer such as completing any college, even though the department has a reimbursement plan for education; taking a Fire Officer 1 and 2 leadership course; or any of the other classes offered at the State or National Fire Academy when such training time is available from the department.

Communications was an interesting topic since all of the chief officers in the department take time to visit the stations regularly – every shift at every station receives a visit at least monthly by one or more chief. So my question to him about communications was when was the last time he had asked a question of any of the chiefs and the answer was clearly that our conversation had been the first time he had bothered.

Finally, on the equipment issue, I discussed how the upgrades to the department’s SCBA’s a few years earlier had extended their life cycle and allowed the department to concentrate on other safety needs. I asked him if he felt those upgrades had jeopardized firefighter safety or if he knew of any piece of equipment at his station that was in need of repair or replacement that could compromise firefighter safety? His answer was that he knew of none.

My answers to his questions were designed to not only clarify his areas of his concern, but to reinforce that these had been addressed by leadership. However, to make them work better required actions from him whether in preparation for promotion; feedback into the communications process; or input to the ad hoc equipment committee.

When faced with a BCD individual, Meyer recommends trying to change their attitude and not allow this negativity to permeate the organization and therefore infect others.

Learning to lead is hard, but important work

Leadership is a continual evolutionary process no matter how long you’ve been in the fire service. It’s hard work with little immediate reward for your efforts. If it were easy, then everyone would be a leader.

The truth is that leadership is a hard earned skill not awarded with rank. Leadership can come from the newest firefighter or the veteran officer. As the phrase in my colleague’s office states, "Leadership is influence, not a title."

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