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An intro to fire service leadership: Influencing with relationships

Chief John Buckman breaks down the leadership characteristics to embrace and those to avoid to lead your firefighters to success

When you are promoted to a leadership position, it's wise to recognize how early you are in the leadership journey and how much you still have to learn.

In the fire service, we have a culture that values titles. What do those titles actually mean? Very little. People who make it their career goal to gain certain titles are not setting themselves up to be the best leaders they can be.

Who you are and what you do is what really matters. If the work you do is significant and adds value to people, then it doesn't need to come with a title.

Relationships are major key to success when you're trying to sell, coach, teach, lead or simply navigate the daily task of life. (Photo/USAF)
Relationships are major key to success when you're trying to sell, coach, teach, lead or simply navigate the daily task of life. (Photo/USAF)

If you want to become a better leader, you can't focus on the rules and procedures to get things done or keep things going. You must develop relationships. Why? Because the reality is that people get things done, and not because of the playbook they use. People are the power behind any organization and effective leaders. People are a valuable and appreciable asset.

Build a foundation to lead firefighters

People do more than merely comply with orders when they get along with their leaders. And they do so because they really want to. Why? Because good leaders influence people with relationships instead of positions. Building relationships develops the foundation for effectively leading others.

When people feel cared for, included, valued and trusted, they begin to work together with their leaders and each other, changing the entire working environment.

Relationships are major key to success when you're trying to sell, coach, teach, lead or simply navigate the daily task of life. People change from being subordinates to followers for the first time and that means progress.

Leaders can fall into the trap of focusing their efforts on serving themselves or their organizations, with little regard for others. Successful people like other people and treat them like individuals. That shift in attitude creates a positive shift in the working environment. The workplace becomes more friendly. Chemistry starts to develop on the team. People develop a want-to-do instead of have-to-do mindset.

Inspire your firefighters

Toxic leaders focus way too much attention on themselves or their organization. Toxic leaders know where they want to go, and they only care about getting there. What a mistake!

I can remember when I first got into a leadership position, I was all about pushing my people to accept my ideas and move the organization along with me. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that my leadership position can’t push anyone to come along on the journey.

I learned that if I wanted to be successful, I would need to pull people along, realizing that at any moment, they could let go of the rope and I could fall flat on the ground. I have realized over time that my greatest joy comes from working with my team, not doing the work itself.

To practice relational leadership, and inspire your firefighters, implement these leadership tactics:

  • Accept yourself gracefully.
  • Praise and accept other people the way they are.
  • Think positive, talk positive and stay positive.
  • Learn to speak efficiently in an intelligent manner.
  • Pay attention to what others are saying.
  • Improve your physical appearance.
  • Practice positive affirmations.
  • Develop inner confidence.

Great leaders are:

  • Committed.
  • Dedicated.
  • Experienced.
  • Conscientious. 
  • Forceful.
  • Admirable.
  • Self-reliant.
  • Knowledgeable.
  • Compassionate.
  • Flexible.
  • Caring.
  • Competent. 
  • Emotionally stable. 
  • Tolerant.
  • Enthusiastic.
  • Confident.
  • Passionate.
  • Patient.
  • Tough-minded.
  • Self-assured.

In addition, avoid displaying these characteristics that will inhibit your ability to motivate and lead your firefighters. Poor leaders:

  • Lack empathy.
  • Fail to consider all options.
  • Fear change
  • Don’t accept others for whom they are.
  • Don’t accept others’ ideas as valid.
  • Are unwilling to compromise.
  • Are too bossy.
  • Micromanage.
  • Are poor judges of character.
  • Live out of balance.
  • Don’t have their priorities in order.
  • Lack humility.
  • Are self-centered.
  • Are egotistical.
  • Use an abusive verbal style.
  • Are demeaning.
  • Don’t give praise when earned.
  • Communicator poorly.

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