The signs of toxic leadership in firefighters and fire chiefs

Toxic leaders in the fire service destroy morale, initiative and progress; look for these signs in yourself and your department’s leadership

Toxic leaders can exist at all levels of fire service leadership. Toxic leaders significantly impact the emotional health and wellbeing of our personnel. They create an unpleasant work environment because of their attitude toward others and everything else. They poison relationships and create additional stress for our people. This stress can have tremendous negative short- and long-term effects on a personal and organizational level.

Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves. Prolonged use of negative leadership to influence followers undermines the followers' will, initiative and potential, and destroys morale.

The makeup of a toxic leader


Toxic leaders in many cases don’t start out that way. They may become toxic leaders because of their own personal life stressors or self-imposed leadership stress.

The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization and mission performance. The toxic leader lacks concern for others and the climate of the organization.

Toxic leaders’ psychological makeup is about “me” not “we.” I have known several toxic leaders that consistently and constantly use the term “I” when discussing situations or themselves.

My father told me “we” is the term leaders use, as leaders can’t accomplish much without followers. Dad further told me when you use the term “I” it is much easier to knock the “I” down, stopping progress.

Toxic leaders eventually work themselves into such a fury they can’t find anything good to say about anyone else or anything else. I have seen toxic leaders who eventually turn on everybody, even their best and long-term friends. This situation is not only dangerous for the organization, it is also dangerous to the health and wellbeing of the leader.

Toxic leadership refers to ongoing, deliberate, intentional actions by a leader to undermine the sense of dignity and self-worth of their personnel. This behavior results in exploitative, destructive and demeaning work experiences. These destructive actions, physical or mental, diminish a person’s internal meaning and purpose.

Toxic leaders create a situation that erodes, disables and destroys their targets, whether they are career or volunteer firefighters. Bullying is one form of toxic leadership, centered on individual, one-on-one, physical or emotional abuse.

Signs of a toxic organization include:

  • High turnover.
  • Failure to accomplish tasks in a timely manner.
  • Unproductive and meaningless work.
  • Destructive and counterproductive conduct.
  • General dissatisfaction with current organizational leadership.

If an organization lacks the mechanisms for holding would-be toxic leaders at bay, then anyone prone to toxic leadership will have the advantage. Cultural evolution will lead in the direction of dysfunctional leaders. Toxic leaders will indeed become an institutional cancer that will be hard to cure and overcome.

Self-regulation as a fire officer or fire chief

Leadership toxicity and incompetence are not directly related. Toxic leaders can be technically and professionally competent. Toxic leaders may experience short-term success, but in the end, they will not be successful in the long-term.

It is easier to recall occasions when we have been bullied than it is to remember when we have done the bullying ourselves. In the midst of enthusiastically cataloguing the various injustices that another leader may have perpetrated on us, we might need to work through our own due diligence and explore our personal capacity as leaders for battering followers.

I personally recognize that at times during my leadership tenure, I was a toxic leader. I had great mentors that would point out to me what my attitude was doing to my efficacy as a leader.

Self-regulation is part of our job as leaders. Many leaders refuse to confront the signs of toxicity in their leadership style and instead assault their subordinates until they are stopped or retire. Once you are made aware of the problem, seek a solution. Recognize that internally, you can in many cases fix a situation by accepting your infallibility.

Traits of an effective fire service leader

The opposite of toxic leadership is healthy, authentic leadership that nurtures and affirms personnel’s dignity, worth and efficacy. Positive leadership creates enabling, empowering and meaningful work opportunities.

If you are a positive fire service leader, you exhibit the following traits:

  • Listen to feedback.
  • Share success credit.
  • Do not mislead.
  • Operate ethically at all times.
  • Reward competency and performance.
  • Surround yourself who will give you honest and timely feedback.
  • Treat people fairly.
  • Are emotionally stable.
  • Are enthusiastic about the organization and the people within the organization.
  • Are conscientiousness.
  • Are self-assured, but not arrogant.
  • Establish clear and reasonable expectations.
  • Hold yourself and others accountable.
  • Act as an idea generator.
  • Challenge assumptions.
  • Accept but manage conflict.
  • Are inspirational.
  • Recognize the unique value of others.
  • Tackle difficult problems.
  • Accept not being liked.
  • Are not be paralyzed by mistakes.
  • Accept your own limitations.

A good fire chief or fire officer works tirelessly on behalf of subordinates, the organization and mission performance.

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