Key Characteristics of Successful Leaders

Issue 5 and Volume 4.

Most experts believe that the majority of leaders are shaped or “nurtured” through life experience, opportunity and desire. Throughout our lifetime, we’re exposed to a variety of distinctive experiences and cultural values. These are instilled in us and shape how we react during our daily activities. Leaders are created when this preparation meets opportunity.

But the equation doesn’t always work that way; plenty of potential leaders never flourish and plenty of promising opportunities never deliver. As a result, it’s hard to argue against the notion that successful leaders are literally born with certain characteristics, which can include honesty, high-quality listening skills, integrity, decisiveness and the ability to follow rather than lead all the time.

Whether you have innate leadership qualities or you develop leader-like qualities over time, certain characteristics separate those who will succeed from those who will fail when it comes to leading in the fire service. Those qualities are:

  1. Consistency in leadership style;
  2. Remaining calm during stressful incidents;
  3. Building trustworthy relationships; and
  4. Having the courage to admit your mistakes.

Consistent Leadership

Consistency in leadership style is an imperative attribute for an effective company officer. Nothing makes crew relationships more unstable than an unstable leader. When members start to take bets on which personality the boss will have at the beginning of the shift, the company officer should re-evaluate their leadership style, or more likely, seek medical attention (they make pills for this).

One of my former company officers was so unpredictable that his crew, including me, operated in a very dysfunctional manner. He behaved so irrationally on emergency calls that he created a very out-of-control and unprofessional image for the citizens we were there to help. In addition, we as a crew had increasingly unpleasant and unproductive shifts together.

It can be very difficult to recognize inconsistent leadership when you’re in the midst of it. I wasn’t aware of how serious the situation had become until we were assigned a new company officer, who was consistent and predictable. He remained professional and effective during emergency calls as well as in the station. As a result, our crew began to collectively perform better, treat each other with respect and run our calls in a professional manner.

Calm & Controlled

We work in a very stressful and dangerous occupation. Having the ability to remain calm, even when the world is on fire, will build your crew’s confidence in you as a leader.

Several years ago as a young company officer, I was supervising an engine company with a mostly veteran crew. On my first shift working with the crew, the first call of the shift was dispatched as a multi-vehicle auto accident with reports of several people trapped and others ejected from the vehicles.

As we mounted the apparatus, I read the dispatch information to the rest of the crew, and almost immediately one of the veteran crewmembers in the back seat became emotional and yelled, “This is a really bad one.” He became increasingly upset and vocal as we made our way to the scene.

Upon our arrival and after observing the carnage and number of injured people, this same veteran firefighter repeatedly shouted, “This is a bad one, a really bad one.” He was hardly the picture of a calm and controlled emergency responder assessing the scene in order to help.

I turned to the firefighter and told him to calm down immediately, that we were called there to deal with the emergency, not bring one with us. When it became obvious that he couldn’t remain calm, I ordered him to remain in the truck during the emergency. After we finished the call and had returned to quarters, I was able to talk with him in a private setting and reinforce the importance of remaining calm and performing in a professional manner at all times. The firefighter apologized for his behavior and conveyed to me the significant lesson he learned about the necessity to remain calm even when faced with a horrific scene.

Relationships Are Key

When I reflect on the effective leaders I’ve worked for over the years, one thing unites them: They built trustworthy relationships with their personnel.

Fire service tradition portrays our occupation as one that we’ll hold for a lifetime; it’s not just a job that will suffice until the next best opportunity presents itself. That said, firefighters will leave their department, or even the service, due to poor supervisory situations. Crew retention, productivity, effectiveness and overall happiness are influenced more by the relationship firefighters have with their direct supervisor than any other variable.

In addition, firefighters will provide high-quality service and work harder for company officers they trust and for those they believe are helping them meet their potential. It’s imperative for personnel to know how much you care before they recognize how much you know. Company officers must provide personnel with the support they need to grow and develop within the fire service.

Perfection Isn’t Necessary

During a recent shift at my station, we were dispatched to a vehicle accident that involved one of our own fire department apparatus. Given the confusing available dispatch information, the responding company officer didn’t know that a fire department vehicle was involved in this incident.

Upon arrival, the company officer observed a fire department rescue unit on scene and assumed it was rendering care to the injured when in fact, it had been involved in the accident. As the officer walked around the scene to complete a quick size-up, he didn’t check on the welfare of the fire department personnel, because he was still under the assumption that the rescue truck was on the scene to render aid.

The quality of this leader was demonstrated when he quickly recognized his mistake and immediately corrected it by checking on the crew’s welfare and explaining his actions. The crew was not injured, but they later said they felt much better about the situation because the company officer openly admitted the mistake and proved how much he was concerned for their welfare.

Remember: Everyone makes mistakes. If you’re not making any, you’re not doing your job right. Great leaders admit their mistakes, correct the situation and move on.

A Final Word

Firefighters are trained to run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out. This creates a challenging managerial situation and an exhilarating work environment. But if you don’t effectively lead in this type of work environment—if you don’t lead consistently, remain calm under pressure, build trusting relationships and know when to admit your mistakes—you jeopardize the success of your crew and your success on the fireground, and that could lead to tragedy.

One of the leaders I most enjoyed working for over the last two decades never hesitates to remind me that leaders are successful in part because the individuals they lead want them to be successful. Their crew trusts them, respects them and follows their lead. And that’s something you earn, not something you’re born with.