13 things that make fire department leaders great

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John Buckman III

What does it mean to be a great leader? Of course it means having credentials, knowledge, critical thinking and all other faculties of intelligence.

The firefighter who desires to become a leader has many opportunities to receive training and education in the art of leadership. However, a great leader should be much more than credentials, experience and intelligence. Many of our most effective leaders did not always graduate at the top of their class.

Therefore, here’s a look at 13 characteristics that make up a great leader.

1. Great leaders show kindness.

They show kindness to subordinates, colleagues, superiors and those around them. My favorite saying is, “Kindness makes the world go around.”

The Golden Rule is another good model to remember when dealing with subordinate or superiors. It truly changes the environment in the fire station and office. Being a kind leader helps others feel welcomed, cared for and loved.

2. Great leaders are positive.

Being a positive person is not an easy task. In today’s fast-paced world with instantaneous information from all around the world, it is very hard to maintain a positive outlook. Being a positive leader is even harder when we’re met with problems with very limited solutions.

However, staying positive when it’s tough can have a tremendous positive impact on the firefighters and everyone around us. Looking on the bright side helps make things better.

Zig Ziglar said: “When you change what goes into your mind, when you change the picture, when you chart a course of action, when you set personal and professional goals, what you're doing is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about your future right now.

“Failure is an event not a person. Yesterday really did end last night. Understand tomorrow is a brand-new day. You can make it better or make it worse. The choice is yours to make.”

He also said: “Positive thinking won't let you do anything but it will let you do everything better than negative thinking will. Positive thinking will let you use the ability, training, experience and knowledge you have and that is awesome.”

3. Great leaders are fair.

Dealing with others requires a fairness mindset that you rarely think about until it's called into question. It really doesn't matter which side of the issue you're on. Whether you feel you've been treated unfairly or someone accuses you of the same, it can turn your world upside-down.

Fair means honest and impartial. The leader must make decisions after gathering as much information as possible. But in these politically correct times, some extend the meaning too far. The result can be anything but fair.

For example, some leaders say all workers should be treated the same. They say that's fair. But, is it really? Is it fair to treat an underperforming employee the same as others who are performing at or above expectations?

Doing so is not fair to either person. For the most part, people who are held accountable for their actions, for their actual performance, end up as better employees.

4. Great leaders are clear.

Great leaders tell it straight and walk the talk – they are open and genuine. If you say what you mean and mean what you say, people will always know where you stand, what to expect from you and where they stand with you.

But, I must caution you to think before you speak. And I am personally not always good at this.

If you consistently follow through with actions, then you're transparent, honest and impartial. That, to me, means you're a communicator.

There's nothing worse than trying to function within an organization when you don't know the rules or they keep changing. Not only is it unfair, it can be extremely frustrating and a significant drain on morale and organizational performance.

When it comes to the organization’s goals, strategies, plans, processes, culture, rules – or whatever – establish them, document them and communicate them. Then be as even-handed in your execution as you reasonably can without becoming overly bureaucratic.

5. Great leaders are compassionate.

Leadership is a very humanistic endeavor, and compassion is the ultimate way of showing others you are concerned about them. A compassionate leader models that characteristic to others through his actions, and, as a result, firefighters will be more understanding of the organizational needs.

Compassion cannot exist without empathy, which is an important trait to develop in ourselves and our subordinates. Being able to see things from another’s perspective can have a powerful impact on a leader’s decisions and actions.

6. Great leaders build relationships.

A great leader bridges gaps and builds relationships. Leaders always look to improve things inside and outside the organization.

Building a strong organization with competent individuals is something a great leader seeks to do and extend that to the atmosphere to the entire organization.

7. Great leaders bring out the best in others.

Everyone looks at a great leader and they want to be a better leader themselves. They want to be a better firefighter or a better person.

A great leader uncovers the hidden possibilities in others and brings out those strengths.

8. Great leaders know their biases.

Let's face it, we all have personal biases. If you say you don't, you're either lying or not very self-aware. That, to me, is an even bigger problem.

A great leader understands those personal biases and doesn’t let them get in the way of making smart decisions on behalf of the stakeholders.

9. Great leaders are confident.

Confident people are attractive and inspire others, and this is just as true for leaders. A leader who is confident will inspire confidence in others and gain the loyalty and trust of their team.

A person who displays confidence in a project or organization is also more likely to gain other people’s faith in the project or organization.

10. Great leaders are enthusiastic.

Enthusiasm is infectious and good leaders who are enthusiastic about their work or cause and their role can use that enthusiasm to motivate other members of the team. Enthusiasm from a leader also shows they are part of the team, working towards a common goal and not just a lofty boss directing others around.

11. Great leaders have vision.

Great leaders keep a long-term and high-level view of the organization. They are focused on the end result finishing what is started.

A great leader is committed to excellence. They know that second best does not lead to success. They persevere to be number one while maintaining high standards.

12. Great leaders are innovators.

Great leaders think outside the box to find new methods and solutions that may not conform to conventional thinking but may be significantly better.

They are always asking the “what if” question, and have good ideas along with a strong vision.

They are also open to consider new ideas from others, even if those ideas do not conform to the conventional way of doing things. They value participation from all members of their team.

A great leader knows it is crucial not to take reckless risk while at the same time has the courage to seize opportunities.

13. Great leaders have integrity.

A good leader must have integrity and display honesty in all aspects of their dealings with others. Without this, they will not have the trust of their followers and will not be able to direct them. By walking the talk, a good leader earns the right to have responsibility for and authority over others.

Good leaders also understand and set the moral tone of a group or organization.

Leadership is an art form. It requires constant practice and attention to the needs of others while focusing on the long-term survival of the organization.

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