Great fire departments don’t just happen by chance; they’re developed and refined over time through years of successes and failures. The same holds true for those who choose to be leaders in their organizations. The good news is, we will always need a fresh supply of leaders to keep the fire service moving forward in a positive direction. The truth is, leadership is more about attitude and action and less about rank, tenure, or educational status.
Lots of great articles have been written on leadership from some of our best-known fire service mentors across the country. We should treasure those “golden nuggets” of information and use them for future personal and organizational development and improvement. This article takes a different look and approach to leadership and makes a comparison to one of the fire service’s most basic fundamentals, “the fire tetrahedron.”
Going back to the beginning when we first started our fire service training as “probies,” we were taught the fire triangle, which eventually evolved into the fire tetrahedron. The components that make up the fire tetrahedron consist of fuel, heat, oxygen, and a resulting chemical chain reaction that leads to sustained fire burning. By replacing these traditional components with Traits, Mission, and Vision, we end up with a formula for effective Successful Leadership.
As stated earlier, leadership has no boundaries, and we can choose to accept the challenge to become a leader at any point in our career, starting with the first day we show up for the fire academy. Some of the best leaders I have had the privilege to work with and watch over my career have been seasoned company officers, but most have been just great firefighters working in the trenches each shift, setting the example of “true leadership.” For example, they are the first ones to show up for their tour, always squared away, displaying a positive attitude, and eager for knowledge. Every fire department has these progressive individuals who stand out. Now let’s take a closer look into the Leadership Tetrahedron and see how it applies today.
The first component of the Leadership Tetrahedron deals with TRAITS of successful leaders. Successful leaders are consistently honest, demonstrate integrity with character, and inspire others to accept new challenges. They focus more on collaboration than personal achievement, turning the spotlight on others instead of themselves. Successful leaders have the willingness and ability to challenge the “norm” of daily operations and look for ways to be creative and innovative at the same time. Being a successful leader often means taking calculated risks despite being questioned by others but knowing that the interest of the organization and safety come first. Consider this example: A citizen is involved in a motor vehicle collision and has to be transported to a local hospital. A firefighter recognizes that her purse and groceries are still in the damaged vehicle and brings this to his officer’s attention. The purse is secured and given to the ambulance crew, who eventually gives to the patient at the hospital. The groceries are delivered by the engine company to a family member who lives nearby shortly after clearing the scene. Family and patient were very thankful of our extra efforts.
The second component is MISSION critical thinking. Leaders don’t wait for things to happen but set the pace for the future by focusing on the “mission” of the fire department. They make sure the daily mission gets taken care of and are always on the lookout for new opportunities to expand their horizon and inform others. Successful leaders don’t hoard information but make it a standard practice to include and educate everyone on the team (“We are in this together”). Whether the mission is at a personal level, company level, or organizational level, the focus is the same: to get the job done in a safe, logical, timely, and efficient manner. It could be said that successful leadership means taking care of business one shift at a time. Here’s an example: The station officer makes it a point to be outside and involved with his crew each shift, whether it’s helping to clean the rig or taking the lead on training his crew about a new hose deployment evolution he just learned from attending a regional fireground tactics course. The crew members gain confidence in themselves and their officer.
The third component is VISION. Leaders are always thinking ahead of the game, playing out possible scenarios that don’t just benefit themselves but the entire fire department. Leaders are able to establish and articulate their vision with both short-term and long-term goals and objectives all firefighters can comprehend and buy into. This mental template keeps us organized and focused on the future. Successful leaders demonstrate “inclusive leadership” on a regular basis. One example: A driver/operator recognizes the benefits of a comprehensive wellness program after suffering a heart attack while on-duty. He takes the lead, conducts research, and puts together a presentation for chief officers to evaluate for future implementation. Everybody wins in the long run.
When you combine Traits, Mission, and Vision, the end result is SUCCESSFUL LEADERSHIP the vast majority of the time. It’s important to remember leadership is a learned behavior that you must want to engage in but is available to every firefighter. The Leadership Tetrahedron provides us with a visual picture all firefighters can relate to. Get involved, make a personal “leadership plan,” and position yourself close to current successful leaders in your organization. Challenge yourself to embrace the Leadership Tetrahedron principles starting today. Let’s get to work!
Les Ruble is a 28-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief with Plano (TX) Fire-Rescue. He began his career as a firefighter in the United States Air Force. He has an Associate Degree in Fire Science and is a certified master firefighter with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection.