Leadership – it’s a word used often and broadly in both the private and public sectors. It’s a word that gets a great deal of use in the fire service, particularly where leadership pertains to a fire department’s upper management. In this article, I’m going to discuss those leadership qualities that every company officer needs to be successful in their primary goal: the success of their people and their fire company.
For starters, I’m talking about the role of a leader from the perspective of a fire officer with management responsibilities for a group of firefighters – which may be an engine or truck company in a career department, or a small volunteer-staffed department. Bottom line is that it involves leadership for a small group at the tactical level of a fire department, where the rubber meets the road.
Consider what follows to be an evaluation tool for your personal growth and development as a company officer. Use it as a baseline to evaluate your current level of leadership and then use it to develop those areas where you see room for improvement.
Why leadership matters in the fire service
Leadership is critical to the success of any group, and a fire company is no exception. Look at any group or organization that’s having problems and you’ll see that a common theme is likely poor leadership.
Members of any group need someone to look to, learn from and thrive with. Effective leaders provide a vision for the group that answers these questions for everyone:
- Who we are?
- Why we exist?
- What do we do?
- Why do we do it?
- How does everyone participate?
The need for vision at the fire company level is critical. As fire departments seek to diversify their workforce or membership, it falls upon the company officer to have the ability to understand these needs and how to address them. If a fire department is going to be successful in attracting more women and minorities, company officers must provide the leadership that promotes a stress-free assimilation of those folks into the organization.
The fire chief has the responsibility for creating the vision for the entire department. It’s the company officer’s responsibility to translate that big picture vision into communication and action for their fire company. Those newer employees or members are going to find a better fit initially, and be able to participate more fully in the future if the company officer provides a solid foundation.
An effective company officer has the nine following leadership qualities, or they need to develop them – their success as a company officer depends upon it:
Effective leaders know and understand their job responsibilities, including what decisions their bosses expect them to make. Once they have collected and assessed the pertinent information and facts, they make a decision. And they stand by that decision.
Effective leaders are keenly aware of what’s happening around them, be it on the emergency scene or in the fire station. It’s never acceptable for a leader to say, “I didn’t know that was happening,” when something goes wrong on their watch.
The daily life of a company officer can go from calm to chaotic in a New York minute. An effective company officer accepts this reality and remains committed to focusing on what’s important. When a situation arises, they constantly ask themselves:
- Is this a safety issue?
- How does this affect the operational readiness of me and my people?
- Is this the right thing to do?
Accountability starts with the leader. When they make a mistake, they accept the consequences. They learn from those mistakes.
They do the same for their personnel, but only when they’ve clearly articulated the job responsibilities and authority for each of their direct reports. An officer should never hold a firefighter accountable for a mistake or omission that was not the firefighter’s responsibility or for which they lacked the authority to act.
Everyone makes mistakes on the job. Everyone experiences tragedy or turmoil in their personal lives. An effective leader never forgets that they are working with people, and people go through tough times. The empathetic leader knows that they must hold people accountable for doing their job, and at the same time provide the encouragement and support to help a person get back on track.
Empathetic leaders are needed in the fire and EMS world now more than ever. Issues affecting our personnel, such as post-traumatic stress, cancers linked to firefighting, and bullying and harassment are just some of the issues that require empathetic leadership.
Effective leaders exude confidence. They are comfortable in their own skin. They are knowledgeable and skilled at their job and take pride in doing their job well. Confidence is what enables them to share their knowledge and experience with their firefighters. They’re not threatened by the notion that their firefighters knowing more than they do is a bad thing.
Effective leaders are the glass is half full kind of people. They strive to see the best in themselves and others. When things aren’t going well in the fire station, the optimistic company officer doesn’t complain or look for someone else to blame for their problems. They actively seek solutions.
One of my favorite scenes from the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” is when the captain (Tom Hanks) is leading his squad through the French countryside in their search for private Ryan. Some of the men in his squad are loudly complaining about why they fail to see the purpose of “risking their necks” searching for one soldier in a war where so many have already died.
When the Captain tells them to pipe down, one of the men asks him, “Captain, don’t you ever have gripes about how this war is going?” The captain’s reply is priceless: “My gripes go upward.”
If you always tell the truth, you’ll never have a problem remembering what you said.
Nothing erodes the confidence that people have in a leader faster than when they find out that their leader has been dishonest with them. And they always find out!
Being honest with your direct reports and your bosses, and keeping your promises to them, are the cornerstones of a company officer’s integrity.
Effective leaders inspire people through their words, but more importantly through their actions. A company officer can talk all day long to their people about the need for continuing professional development through training and education. But if the company officer doesn’t pursue professional development and continually work to improve their own job performance, there’s no inspiration.
In this article, I described nine leadership qualities that every company officer needs to be successful in their primary goal: the success of their people and their fire company. Use this list to see where you stand and how you can improve. Better yet? Ask your firefighters how they think you’re doing. Now how’s that for confidence?