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Building Leaders for the Fire Service – Part 1………..By Dan Shaw

Leadership is a quality we seek and desire in every level of our trade. Most of us are fortunate to be exposed daily to leadership models through our mentors, books we read of leaders from all walks of life (military, religion, politics, etc.), and the challenges we face in our own lives. Inherently, the more inspired, driven, and dedicated individuals are, they typically seek and find more opportunities to reap the rewards of leadership lessons than their more passive counterparts. This does not mean that individuals who are more passive or who may not have access to mentorship should be admonished from leadership positions. Additionally, we cannot limit individuals who are unsure of how to seek out a mentor and now may feel unqualified to take on a leadership role. Lastly, individuals who may work with a micromanager who stifles his co-workers’ autonomy should not be denied entry to the leadership club because of their boss’s shortcomings.

As an aspiring leader, when you look at your organization, firehouse, shift, company, etc., what kind of leadership development do you see? Does your department reward only the hard workers and dedicated individuals with their time? Time is that one irreplaceable gift that cannot be taken back and has an endless value. If you give someone your time in the form of mentoring and teaching, that is eternal and will never be forgotten. On the other hand, perhaps you have timid & passive individuals, or those who have been conditioned that low performance is the standard, and are most likely given less time and opportunities to learn leadership lessons. Your department may operate as one of those listed, a combination of both, or just lacking a plan all together. The solution to this problem is the crux of the leadership question: Do you breed your leaders through an orientation process or a socialization process?

When I attended the West Point Leadership Course for public safety a few years ago we analyzed the foundation of this question. The orientation process is what we see occur most every day in the modern day fire service. An individual has the desire to move ahead in their career and advance to the next rank. The firefighter submits for the lieutenant’s exam and will receive a list of approved texts that will compose the forthcoming promotional exam. The list will most likely encompass all of his organizations’ personnel and operational manuals covering all of the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to achieve the next level of “leadership” to become an officer.

While it is necessary to evaluate one’s ability to recite proper handling of personnel issues and proper application of strategies and tactics, it is not the sole means of leadership development! I would liken this process to a person who reads a cookbook minutes before walking in to teach a cooking class. They can recite the proper ingredients and may even sound confident, but they do not know the trade as well as the seasoned chef. The level of mastery they will exhibit will be limited to their short-term memory of reciting what they just read. In the orientation process, we have provided the manuals that outline the skills and define the expectation that the individual will go execute them perfectly. This approach may work for some, but for most, it is a recipe for disaster given we have an expectation that this execution will occur in the toxic and chaotic environment known as our fireground.


A brand new fire officer will not arrive at his first house fire, stop in the front yard, retrieve his “house fire” manual from his pocket, review the correct tactics, and then communicate his orders (or at least we hope not!). The testing process and the development and implementation of manuals are all necessary tools to aid and evaluate our leaders. These documents are the infrastructure that builds the figurative out-of-bounds lines for our operations leaving the field of play yet they leave out one vitally important part of the leadership equation. WE LEAD PEOPLE! Not apparatus, hoselines, ladders, etc., etc. People must apply the strategies and tactics outlined and they are the most important assets we deploy on any fireground. They are irreplaceable and yearn to be led. So, how do we make this change in leadership development that can blend the needed foundation of knowledge with teaching how to lead people and exercise sound judgment? And what is that change called? In our next post, we will discuss the Socialization process for leadership development.

Posted by | Posted in Blog, Combat Ready, command-leadership, firefighting-operations, Incident Command, Uncategorized | Posted on 01-08-2014

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