Friday, October 1, 2010

On Leadership

Some time ago, I was asked to write a few words on leadership as it applies to the fire service. I must admit that I had some reservations about taking this on, as there are many excellent blogs out there that address this topic on a regular basis and I don't want to fall short.

My reservations were appeased somewhat this afternoon, when I ran into a friend of mine who is next up on the District Commander's list. He is actually performing as acting District Commander and has tested for the job several times. He really loves the position and if he has any reservations about accepting a permanent slot, he has shown no sign of it.

We were addressing several personnel issues that are plaguing our agency and the importance of properly handling them to instill and ensure confidence in the institution that is the Kinda Big Fire Protection District. Like any good manager, he would not directly discuss personnel issues with me, something that I as a flawed human  find reassuring. However, we were able to discuss how poor behavior affects the organization as a whole and how we thought some of things should be handled.

It was during this discussion that I realized I don't need to write a book on this, I just need to share a few things. Thus, here are a few observations on leadership and leadership skills that I have noticed over the years.

Observation #1 - Some elements of great leadership cannot taught or obtained. Either you already have them when you show up here or you do not. I call these leadership qualities of the soul. No amount of education, training or experience can truly instill compassion, honesty, fairness, bravery, integrity or the ability to think in a logical fashion. Those traits can be taught to those who do not possess them, but they cannot be embedded into ones soul, the location where they need to be.

It might also be added that the ability to excel under extreme pressure and other traits such as command presence are very difficult for someone to obtain if they already do not possess at least some quantity of the desired trait.

To those of you that were not born with all of the above traits, do not despair. I am not saying that if you were not born with all of the above traits you cannot become a competent or effective leader. I am just saying that the great ones possessed many of the essential traits long before we got our hands on them.

Observation #2 - Great leaders are true to themselves and do not try to pass themselves off as something they are not. Nobody likes a phony. When District Commander Newby calls and starts the conversation off with chatty inquiries about my wife and kids, I know there is unpleasantness on the way.  It's not that he doesn't care about my wife and kids, it's just that I know he is using  pleasantries as a tool to soften the real purpose of his call. Pleasantries are not a part of who he is, they are just another tool for him to use. I know this as do most of the company officers in our organization.

Conversely, District Commander Policy is a black and white kind of guy. He is a task oriented leader and  makes no excuses or apologies for it. Everyone knows that if you follow policy and procedures, you will have no issues with him. He is fair, honest and competent. While I would not consider him a great leader as his management style precludes a few important people handling skills, I do consider him a good leader because of his competency and his straight forward management style.

Observation #3 - Great leaders are trusted. This cannot be overemphasized. The biggest leadership failure that I have ever witnessed occurred when the Chief of the District was caught lying to the membership and to the District Board of Commissioners. Once his dishonesty became known, everything he tried to accomplish was viewed with skepticism and scorn.

We ended up going to war with this chief and ultimately won, however the negative long term effects of this battle plague the district to this day. All of the positive things he was able to accomplish were overshadowed
by our distrust of him, the old timers still spit on the sidewalk when his name is mentioned. It's too bad but he did it to himself.

Tying This Together - The friend I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this post was told at one of his promotional interviews that he was too direct and that his task oriented management style might be an issue when and if he is promoted. Much like D.C. Policy he will have to be aware of this, and keep it in mind when dealing with people. His ability to balance awareness of the issue with remaining true to himself will determine whether he maintains the trust of his personnel and will help define the quality of his leadership.

His technical ability, command presence, ability to excel under pressure and logical thinking are first rate. Most of the leadership qualities of the soul are present as well. His compassion and ability to treat people fairly will be the deciding factors as to whether he will be a good leader or a great one.

Thanks for rea....

Oh wait -

A reflection of the sunset in the hood of the District Commander's buggy. Ya didn't think that you would get through this without an artsy-fartsy Schmotograph did  ya?

Thanks for reading,



  1. "Schmotograph". Love the term (and the pictures).

  2. Cap,

    Liars and fakers should not be tolerated in our fire service. We deal in life and death, and trust is essential. Nevertheless, neither people or promotion systems are perfect, so we all have to bear with them.

    I was starting to fear you weren't going to take the challenge. I appreciate it and enjoyed your perspective.