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Leadership by example is often a concept that is easier said than done. We may hear the phrase often, but how often do we see leadership in action? Who among us is setting the example, Chief Officers, Company Officers, Medics, Firefighters, Recruits, Civilians?


The fact is, regardless of the titles we may wear or where we may fit within an organization or within society, each of us has the ability to lead by example, to positively influence others.


Leadership enables an organization to realize its full potential. It’s a fundamental belief that every employee, regardless of position or status, plays an integral leadership role in helping your agency achieve high quality service. During my career as a Fire Captain with the Arlington County, VA Fire Department, we recognized the following leadership characteristics:

  • Leaders are Change Agents - They get things done, focus on priorities, build on successes, cope with setbacks, see opportunities, and are willing to challenge the system in order to do things better;

  • Leaders Inspire a Shared Vision - They believe in public service and in excellence in service delivery, participate in the development of their agency’s mission, provide context and perspective, and articulate the vision;

  • Leaders Motivate Others - They enable others to experience success, share information, provide constructive feedback, practice accessibility, and share the credit;

  • Leaders Promote Trust - Their "walk matches their talk." Leaders embody integrity and honesty, are committed to their co-workers, and treat everyone with dignity and respect. They are dependable and responsible. They are unafraid to take risks, and they acknowledge their mistakes; and

  • Leaders Provide Expert Guidance - They are action-oriented people who understand their jobs and set their own personal standards of excellence. Through their actions, they inspire and influence others to become better employees and to achieve their individual and collective team goals. 

Leadership is not something that only happens in the workplace, it also takes place in our private lives, with our family and friends, and even with strangers. A leader creates possibilities and then enrolls others in those possibilities. Perhaps the most important and most obvious characteristic a leader displays is their ability to remain consistent in the leadership example they provide. 

For example:

  • The individual that consistently and properly wears the appropriate personal protective equipment on every call is leading by example.
  • The individual that consistently participates in physical fitness training, especially when they don’t feel like it is leading by example.
  • The individual that strives to do their very best in everything they take on is leading by example.
  • The work team that consistently performs well together is leading by example.
  • The team player that puts the needs of the team ahead of their own personal needs is leading by example.

Given the ongoing hiring, promoting, and retiring of firefighters, effective leadership and guidance is essential to maintaining and improving the quality of service you provide to your customers. Leadership is essential to training up less experienced members to pass along relevant, accurate experiential knowledge that meets today’s emergency incident challenges. Leaders are not perfect people. Making mistakes along the way is inevitable, but they learn from their mistakes, improve, and continue moving forward.

As firefighters, we are entrusted to serve the public, our customers. In most cases, they think we are great. When they call us, we promptly respond to assist them, to reassure them, and to mitigate their circumstance. In the end, we win them over for life. The people who call us with their problems are not interruptions to our work, they are our work!  We must never lose sight of this fact.

Leadership by example is not something that is said, it is something that is done.   

NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK),

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