What makes a great fire service leader?
Six traits and behaviors are common among successful leaders
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By Paul Beamon
Throughout my career in the fire service, I have had the privilege of working with a wide variety of leaders, some of whom were exceptional and innovative, while others were more challenging. My years of experience have shown me that while there are many ways to lead, service, strong character and compassion are necessary no matter what style of leadership you adopt and regardless of the arena in which you serve.
Leadership evolutions and examples
Early in my career, the fire service was very much organized in a paramilitary fashion with strong authoritative and autocratic leadership styles. There was strict adherence to rules, regulations, training and the chain of command.
As a recruit, I was eager to learn all that I could, and when assigned to my first captain, I knew they would keep me on track. I had many great mentors, whom I consider my family and who assisted me in growing as a firefighter/paramedic. Both my first captain and chief, while tough at times, were strong role models for me. I considered that first captain a great leader and one who truly cared about our personal and professional development. He had high standards and strictly adhered to policies and procedures, but it was clear that his ultimate goal was to help me become the best firefighter I could be.
I recall one hectic shift on the medic unit when my me and my partner (also new) got back to the station at midnight. We were exhausted and just wanted some rest, but my captain was there to check in on us. He woke up my partner in a concerned and caring manner, asking if he was OK. My partner, still half asleep, was confused, but the captain calmly explained that he wanted him to take advantage of the opportunity to do some street study since he was already awake. I couldn't help but chuckle, and when the captain heard me laugh, he said, "Beamon, since you're also awake, why don't you go with him?” My laughter halted.
Albeit this example leans more to the humorous side, the captain's dedication to our growth and development was evident. Even though it wasn't always enjoyable at the time, his strict adherence to routine and training helped us become better firefighters. To this day, I still admire his leadership and its positive impact on my fire service career.
I have also worked with leaders who adopted more progressive styles, such as democratic, transformational, coach-style leadership and, growing in popularity over the years, servant leadership. These leadership styles focus on involving team members in decision-making, promoting teamwork and collaboration, and fostering personal and professional growth. These methods are particularly effective, as they focus on achieving the department's goals but also on the development and growth of the team members.
Problematic leaders and the ‘Peter Principle’
So, what about those dreadful leaders? If you have yet to have the misfortune of working with an unhealthy leader, consider yourself lucky.
An unpleasant leader tends to be unapproachable and unwilling to listen to the concerns of their team, as they feel they are the smartest ones in the room – perhaps hiding behind their own inability. Toxic leaders create toxic environments where team members are afraid to speak up and share their ideas or concerns for fear of being belittled or dismissed. Poor leaders criticize or ignore their team's suggestions, causing morale to suffer and leading to a lack of trust among the team. This ultimately compromises the team's ability to work effectively together and perform their duties safely.
Other potential poor leaders may be those individuals who believe they naturally deserve to take the next step into a leadership role due to their skill at their current position or due to a long tenure in a department. However, research suggests that these individuals do not always make strong leaders and often succumb to the "Peter Principle."
The Peter Principle is a management theory proposed by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his 1969 book “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” This theory states that employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence, resulting in poor performance and inefficiency in the organization due to promotion based on current performance rather than future role abilities. It is often used to describe the phenomenon of employees being promoted to management positions despite lacking the necessary skills or qualifications.
Common leadership traits
Strong leadership comes in many forms. While some may possess natural leadership instincts, others may need to develop their skills over time through experience and dedicated study. A great fire service leader may be a tenured firefighter with years of service or someone who has a reputation for being skilled in firefighting and medical calls, but then again, they may not. Ultimately, the most important factor in becoming a successful leader is a commitment to learning and understanding the trade, department policies and procedures, and how to lead by example, not title or self-image.
So, what makes a great leader in the fire service? Great fire service leaders possess natural mentoring abilities and are dedicated to continuously developing their leadership skills. They take initiative to mentor and guide new recruits, teach essential skills, and are always willing to learn from mistakes. They view all functions as ways to better the community rather than themselves. These individuals are the future leaders of the agency. Those who are dedicated to becoming effective leaders will be well prepared for the promotional process.
Leadership styles in the fire service are constantly evolving, and it is vital for leaders to be open to feedback and development to lead their teams in the most effective way possible. Each leadership style has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation, and one style may be more appropriate for one leader than another. However, certain traits and behaviors are common among successful firefighter leaders:
- Successful leaders stay calm: A good leader should be able to communicate effectively with their team without becoming overwhelmed by the situation. We can only get a great deal accomplished if we keep our faculties about us.
- Successful leaders practice accountability on the job: This means they are direct and clear in their communication and hold their team members accountable for their actions without being overbearing or overly punitive. It is essential that a leader first ask questions and see whether the incident or situation in question can be used as a teaching lesson, and then proceed accordingly.
- Successful leaders develop interpersonal skills: Leaders must find common ground among team members, create a safe and comfortable workplace, and foster an open and constructive dialogue between their members. As any leader will tell you, at times, this is much easier stated than done. The fire service is steeped in tradition, and some firefighters are less open to change than others. Finding common ground can be exhausting but worth the effort.
- Successful leaders communicate well: Leaders must effectively exchange information and directives with their team, remain open to feedback, and listen to each team member's input.
- Successful leaders are willing to go above and beyond: Fire department leaders must be willing to put in the extra effort to ensure the team's success, even if it means they work more hours or put more energy into their job than others.
- Successful leaders must always strive for excellence: They set high standards for themselves and their team to ensure that tasks are done safely, effectively and efficiently. Embracing excellence is the hallmark of successful firefighter leaders.
By taking on these traits and behaviors, firefighters can become successful leaders and effective team players.
A leader who is caring, empathetic and inclusive, who is always looking for ways to develop and empower the team, is the one that creates a positive work environment for the team and ultimately leads to a safer and more efficient department. Strong leadership in the fire service is critical to ensuring the safety and well-being of the community and the firefighting team.
About the author
Chief Paul Beamon is the fire and EMS chief and emergency manager for Prince George County, Virginia. Beamon has over 28 years of experience in the firefighting and public safety industry, and has received various local, state and national awards for his innovation and leadership. Beamon holds a master’s degree in public administration from Perdue University and a bachelor's degree in business management and fire science from West Georgia.