Blog Index

Becoming a Better Leader in the Fire Service

Posted on 1st Jun 2020

It cannot be overstated that strong leadership is necessary if any serious reduction in firefighter fatalities are to be expected. Officer development inclusive of higher education, directed at company officers and chiefs needs to be accomplished on a continuing basis. The idea that leaders are born, which is the pillar of the great man theory of leadership is incomplete. An individual may develop good communication skills, empathy, integrity and sound decisionmaking skills, however personal development and maturity are the mortar that hold these components of leadership together. Spencer (1896) wrote that one of the key shortcomings of the natural born leadership theory is that not all people who possess the so-called natural leadership qualities became great leaders. Good company officers (leaders) can be taught and developed with good mentoring and guidance from veteran fire officers that are skilled in their craft. Spencer (1896) went so far as to suggest that leaders were products of the society in which they lived. That easily translates into men and women who are committed to being fire service leaders can learn the skills necessary to give them the best chance to succeed, if they are immersed in a fire service culture that embraces high quality training and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Ask yourself, “Why should anyone be led by you?” A sign hangs in the Toledo Fire Battalion Chief 1 office asking that very question.

The skills necessary in becoming a highly regarded fire service leader include more than simply developing one’s ability to point their finger and bark orders. Leadership competency should be built around a combination of technical ability (firefighting expertise), people skills (caring for your subordinates) and conceptual skills, the ability to work with broader concepts and ideas (understanding the uncertainty of a fire ground). This combination of leadership abilities is identified as the skills theory of leadership developed by Robert Katz in 1955.

It needs to be understood that one, singular leadership style can have significant disadvantages. For example, when discussing behavior theory, also referred too as style theory, has three distinct leadership styles are detailed. The first, autocratic leadership theory reflects a “my way or the highway” approach. This strong leadership model may be highly effective during emergency scenes, such as a well-developed fire in a multi-unit residential structure at 3 o’clock in the morning with trapped victims hanging out of their bedroom windows. Trying to develop a consensus among fire crews how best fight the fire and rescue the trapped victims is neither reasonable nor effective in such a time compressed, high risk environment.

The same leader can also employ a more democratic approach in her leadership style within the fire station. Seeking input from her subordinates on non-critical yet important issues can prove empowering to the crew and work to obtain buy-in on a topic. The very same individual that uses autocratic and democratic approaches to leadership with his crew can also, when applicable use a laissez-faire approach

The more laid-back approach allows members within the fire crews to make decisions. This leadership approach is very effective in teams that are very capable and talented. Well seasoned fire crews may only need to know their boundaries, which are set by the leader, and then allowed to work within those establish guard rails. An effective leader is one that can ebb and flow between the three behavioral leadership theories applying each one when appropriate, to seamlessly to reach their objectives.

A measurable reduction in firefighter fatalities will not happen without individuals holding leadership positions stepping out of the shadows and actively leading their departments. Positional authority alone is woefully inadequate in working toward implementing policies and conducting meaningful training. Training and education can help to reduce the problem of attending to negative dimensions of an emergency, and to increase the ability to pay attention to relevant cues for decision making (Ozel, 2001). Individuals given the opportunity to lead their organizations need to embrace the role and not merely seek to be the best friend of those they work with. Leaders that are working to improve their organizations will not always be popular. Leadership is more than a popularity contest and the end goal should be to get your firefighters home at the end of the emergency incident. John Maxwell (2018) wrote, the world becomes a better place when people become better leaders. Keeping fire fighters alive makes their families’ world a better place.
I recently finished an excellent book that detailed specific leadership examples during combat operations in Afghanistan conducted by the United States Army Delta Force, CIA Operators, Army Rangers and the 10th Mountain Division. The book covers a series of events over the authors years of service ending with a very significant engagement called Operation Anaconda in March 2002. The book’s title is The Mission, the Men, and Me (2010). The book’s author Pete Blaber detailed his methods for developing his leadership style and provided numerous examples of its application. Blaber was the Delta Force commander in Afghanistan. The core of the text had five key lessons, to know and understand all of them I suggest you read the book. For this discussion, Blaber stresses the need to seek information from the “guy on the ground,” this being those actually engaged in and intimately familiar with what is occurring in the field of operation. Blaber effectively argued the men and women with first-hand knowledge of the situation, environment and unfolding conditions provided the best information as to the context of the situation. Relying upon senior leadership that is remote from the operational theater can be a catastrophic mistake. Further, leaders should regularly solicit information from the front line personnel on how operations are progressing, what needs to be accomplished next and how to achieve that goal. Blaber routinely asked his teammates, “What do you recommend?”

He didn’t always follow their recommendations without question, what he did do is look at the situation from a differing perspective, assess the newly provided data and then proceed with a plan that was deemed most effective. Lesson here, he solicited information from those on the ground. Times will occur in your career in-which your perspective may not have the clearest of views, take the time to talk to those men and women doing the task, ask their opinions and solicit their suggestions for improving operations. They may have suggestions you never even thought about, they may have a better sense of the context of the operation and can make your decision-making smoother