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People aren’t born leaders. Just as well, you can’t read a book and take some classes and then call yourself a leader just because you have a certificate in your hand. Leadership is so many things. It encompasses a set of skills that are learned, developed, and maintained through practice and practical application.  As leaders, everything we do and the choices that we make all have some kind of an effect or influence on others.  As a leader, you have a great responsibility to the people around you.   The good thing is that your job description doesn’t dictate whether or not you’re a leader.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or a 20-year firefighter, you have the ability to influence people and affect change in your department. Although leadership is commonly talked about from the top-down, it’s the company officer that has the greatest direct influence over the majority of the people in your department (direct influence over the majority). The fire chief has the most potential influence over everyone, but company officers are in the trenches with the largest group in the department, the firefighters. 

If you’re a chief officer, especially the fire chief…don’t rack your brain trying to figure out how to turn all 20 or 50 or 150 members of your department into leaders. Just look in the mirror and work on that one – Every day.  Not to pick on just the chiefs because the rest of us aren’t off the hook. The road to fire service leadership doesn’t change because your title changes. It’s the same road.  The only difference between your leadership and that of the chief is that the chief has added responsibility because they have the most eyes watching them as the example to follow.

Why should I be led by you?  Imagine that question coming at you without warning.  You should be able to answer this in 30 seconds or less.  What do you think the chances are that someone would actually ask you this question? Pretty low. But, wouldn’t you agree that you should know yourself well enough to know why you’re doing what you’re doing?  I suggest we all sit for a while and figure this one out. 


Leaders create change – Managers manage change. That’s the difference between Proactive and Reactive. Leaders are proactive and managers are reactive. Good leaders are also good managers, but good managers aren’t necessarily leaders.  We’ve all seen examples of this somewhere in our lives. Being a manager, supervisor, lieutenant, captain, or any type of a chief for that matter doesn’t automatically make you a leader. Titles are just words, being a leader takes action.

Being in a position of power does not make you a leader.  When positional power is thrown around or abused, credibility is lost.  A good leader will use their power of influence to get the people to want to get things done, not by power of position. There’s a few generations represented in the fire service and they’re very different in many ways. But, one thing the younger generations have in common, and I’m talking about the generations just now entering the fire service as well as the people that have been around for 12-20 years is they shut down with abusive authority. That was, at times, somewhat accepted back in the day, but not now.


The Gallup organization conducted a poll and found that two-thirds of people who leave their job resign because of an ineffective or incompetent manager. Now this poll was taken in the private business world. So what makes the fire service different?  We’re different because we don’t typically leave this line of work. For the most part we’re stuck with our leadership.  Whatever kind of leadership it may be, it’s our leadership and that’s the example we have to learn from. If we have ineffective leaders, well…dysfunction breed’s dysfunction, doesn’t it?


The most powerful thing a leader can do is change minds.  When you can effectively influence people through positive words and actions and the people contribute their heart and soul into a commitment toward the mission, that pretty much seals the deal and makes you a leader. As a leader, you have a great responsibility because how you behave is going to affect what goes on around the dinner table in other people’s homes.


Leadership – How do you do it? Where do you start?


Now let’s be honest, some of you may be thinking “I’m not starting, I’ve been doing this for a long time.” I’ve been a firefighter, an officer, or a chief for a while and I’m not just starting.  I’ll tell you, on the Road to Leadership, there are many starts, but no finish line. You’ll take an exit, get a flat tire, and sometimes go the wrong way. It’s about constant evaluation and course correction, adjusting your speed, and moving forward on the road as much as possible.


This road is paved with all the elements that it takes to be a leader. The road itself represents leadership. Every one of us has our own personal road. It started when we were born and it ends when we die.  You can’t see either end of the road, but you know it’s continuous; it’s always there, and just waiting for you to jump on and go.

The good thing about this is you can jump on at any time.  Some of you have been on your road a lot in your career or in your life. Some of you, not so much.  The key is to stay on the road as much as possible. The more time you spend on the road to fire service leadership, the better you get to know all the elements that make up this pavement, and, in turn, your leadership skills grow stronger.


How will my past baggage affect my journey toward leadership?  First of all, it’s never to late to re-invent yourself. Is it fair to say that we’ve all done some things that showed a complete lack in leadership?  In fact, I’d venture to say that many of you have done numerous things that, in turn became your reputation. Let’s face it; your actions in the past (both recent and distant) have created a perception of you in other people eyes.  Think of the actions of some individuals in your department who you would not consider to be a leader in any way. We all have these people around us. They’re firefighters as well as fire officers.  What do these people do, or not do, that deems them to not be leader material? Because of these things, you have a perception of these people. We all have perceptions of the people around us. Perception is sticky. Once its there, it’s hard to change. But it can be done.  It takes time and requires focused consistency.  Studies have shown that it takes 2-3 years to realize a change in people’s perception of you. 


What would you like people to say about you when you’re not in the room? In particular, what would you like them to say about you as a leader? Pretend you’re a fly on the wall and you get to listen in on real conversations taking place about you.  These conversations are between firefighters at a station you haven’t visited in a while, or maybe from your peers that you work with every day, or possibly your friends and family at a summertime get-together. Take a moment to write down 3 things that you would like to hear other people say about you as a leader. Let these things be a motivator for your personal reinforcement or reinvention of you


Do your actions and behaviors support the desired outcome of the perception you want people to have of you?  If you want to change or reinforce peoples perceptions of you as a leader, your “goal oriented” actions and behavior must be consistent.  It’s up to you to have the end game in mind – What type of leader do you want to be? What does this leadership look like, and how do you behave in order to get there? That’s the “new normal” of you that you want to establish, and in time, people will see you in that light.


Some of you are just starting out while others began their journey weeks, months, or years ago. Regardless of where you’re at on the road to leadership, its important to understand that everyone’s road is unique to him or her.  Building and maintaining your road requires a solid foundation.  And there’s one piece of equipment that’s necessary to strengthen your foundation and you’ll need to use it often. That required piece of equipment is a mirror.  It all starts with the person in the mirror. If you don’t have an accurate reflection of who you really are, you won’t get too far.                                                                     


Just glancing at yourself doesn’t give you an accurate reflection, you have to study yourself and get to know yourself better. Take a very detailed and honest look and determine what really makes you tick.  What are your strengths, what are your weaknesses? (Write them down).  You can’t just stop there. Because we’re naturally biased about ourselves it’s imperative that you solicit honest feedback from other people about you.  Without telling them your opinion of yourself, ask for 100% honesty (whether positive or negative) about what they think are your strengths and weaknesses. Explain that you’re doing this to gain a better understanding of yourself so you can make necessary improvements.  Who do you ask? Peers, supervisors, subordinates, friends, and close family members.  Don’t become defensive if you hear something you don’t like. You may not agree with it, but you need to accept it. Let this be your motivator for getting on the road and taking the necessary steps to improve your weaknesses. This takes motivation and commitment to change, grow, and improve.


Understanding that quality leadership takes time, patience, and consistent focus will help anyone who is willing to put in the work.  Of course we can discuss all the essential qualities that a good leader should possess, but that is subjective.  What most books and classes are missing is the “how.”  If you want develop quality leadership skills don’t ask yourself “how do I become a leader?” instead, ask yourself, “how do I live as a leader?”


Paul Strong is a 24-year veteran of the fire service. He is currently a shift captain at the Valley Regional Fire Authority in King County Washington and owner of 3 Sixty Training. Paul has served as a Shift Captain, Department Training Officer, Incident Safety Officer, Medical Program Specialist, Haz-Mat Technician, and Technical Rescue team member as a Rope/Dive Rescue Technician.  Paul continues to present the 3 Sixty series classes at conferences, training officer’s associations, and individual fire departments.  He is the Creator and Lead Instructor of RIC for REAL, The Road to Fire Service Leadership, and Fire Ground Practices - First on Scene.  He has lectured at IAFC Fire Rescue International, FDIC-Indy, and Washington State Fire Training & Safety Officers Association. Paul has taught and consulted for numerous agencies and has been published in Fire Engineering Magazine. His approach to fire service education and training is effective, thought provoking, and intense. For more information, please visit

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