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Does leadership live with you or die with you?

Successful leaders have offered wise advice over the years about how to ensure that you live and breathe strong leadership

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Someone has to be the adult in the room. Someone has to step up and lead your department or station, or it will surely lead itself, often like a rudderless ship adrift in the ocean,” Bashoor writes.

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It really is a simple question: Does leadership live with you, or does leadership die with you? The answer, however, is elusive for many of us.

Cultivating a culture where leadership “lives” can be tricky in our myriad quasi-governmental fire stations scattered across the country. By quantity, most of these stations are mostly staffed by volunteers whose leadership is rooted in a variety of leadership appointment and election processes. (To get a feel for the depth of this, one of the questions in the newly launched What Firefighters Want in 2024 survey asks, “How is the fire chief at your department determined?” with four options and an “other” category). It is no wonder that fire service leaders can sometimes feel like a nomad, roaming the industry, looking for a station to live in and do their good work.

Someone has to be the adult in the room. Someone has to step up and lead your department or station, or it will surely lead itself, often like a rudderless ship adrift in the ocean. I place this responsibility square on the shoulders of THE chief. Don’t get me wrong, every officer within your ranks has a leadership role, and frankly, from a community service perspective, every firefighter/EMT in your department has a leadership role.

As we reflect on the question at hand, I submit that we should consider the qualities of a handful of leaders who we can clearly see lived their leadership philosophies – leaders who have made a significant positive impact on their spheres of influence, whether fire service or not. After all, the fire service certainly doesn’t have the corner on leadership!

Truman: “The buck stops here”

I’ve got a sign on my office desk that says just this. In the fire service, we need to understand that at the end of the day, the decision – any decision – comes back to the chief.

In an address to the National War College in 1952, President Harry S. Truman captured this nugget of wisdom like this: “You know, it’s easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you – and on my desk I have a motto which says, ‘The Buck Stops Here’ – the decision has to be made.”

In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that, “The president – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”

Regardless of everyone else’s leadership responsibilities, not to mention the politics that go into decision-making, you cannot pass the buck, chief – the buck does stop with you. And if you choose to throw others under the proverbial bus, then you need to read this again.

Lombardi: “Leaders are made, they are not born”

Coach Vince Lombardi had many leadership qualities that I could reference here, however on this particular quote – “leaders are made, they are not born” – I’ll add, “nor are they elected or appointed.” Appointments, elections and lineage may help form a culture, but none drive the development of leaders. We have to develop cultures within our departments that encourage leadership growth, that empower decision-making, and that discourage reckless and detrimental behaviors.

Our organizations will grow and flourish when those underneath us are given opportunities to grow and flourish. Valid career development processes (as opposed to simply a test or a vote) will go a long way toward empowering those within the organization to learn and promote. The process provides the path to learn, develop, demonstrate and eventually lead – just the path. The person still needs to step up and do the right things.

Lasorda: Doing, watching or wandering?

I see this every single day in the fire service. Whether we’re talking on-scene management efforts, personnel conflict resolutions or fast-moving situational awareness. I’ll lean on former baseball manager Tommy Lasorda for this one: “In baseball and business, there are three types of people. Those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”

I liken it to whether you’re leading, following or needing to get out of the way. Whether leadership is living within your organization will manifest right here – the true leaders will be “doing,” while those still striving for a leadership culture will be watching or wandering.

Eversole: Only send your best

In my 2021 article, “Elite expectations: Firefighters should exhibit an ‘Olympic-level attitude’ every day,” I quoted Chicago Fire Chief John Eversole on the public’s expectations of us: “Our department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls the fire department and says, ‘Send me two dumbass firemen in a pickup truck.’ In 3 minutes, they want five brain-surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve all their problems.”

Ultimately, this speaks to the leadership that should be “living” within your organization. No matter what shift is working, whether the chief is there or not, leadership needs to live within you and your people, or leadership will die on your engine room floor.

5 steps to leadership success

The question of whether leadership lives with you or dies with you will depend on your ability to understand and flourish with these five steps for success:

1. Just Do the Right Thing (JDTRT): Sometimes there will be things you don’t want to do that you will need to do.

2. Don’t do the wrong thing: Sometimes there will be things you want to do that you should not do!

3. Get rid of the clowns in your organizations: As long as you keep letting them run a circus, leadership will continue to die within. [Listen next: “It’s the same circus with different clowns”: Gordon Graham talks universal FD problems]

4. Accept that it’s a team effort: NONE of us survive alone. We’re all in this together, and everyone who wants to succeed wants and needs to feel like they’re part of the team.

5. Take care of your personal 360 then your operational 360: If you can’t take care of yourself, how can we expect you to take care of everyone/everything else?

Leadership needs to live within our organizations, just like the culture within the Florida charter school athletics program that posted the banner “Leadership Lives Here.” You control whether there will be a viable leadership culture within your organization or not.

So, does leadership live within you?

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.