Barn Boss Leadership: The Power of Influence

If you have ever contemplated the boots on the ground definition of being a leader or what leadership is or does, think influencer. In my lectures around the country, I challenge the audience to replace the word leadership with influencer. The next question for the audience is, who can influence? Every individual possesses the power of influence and can engage this power at will. However, some of us choose to not influence people properly, whether on purpose or through the misunderstanding of your own abilities. Regardless of the reason, we need to correct our own behaviors by recognizing how our actions are perceived and then learn a few techniques to help us set the tone.

Just the term leader draws the connotation of power, title, rank, formality, and so on. The influencer draws credibility from knowledge, skills, and abilities. These three items are also not all inclusive to just the fire service technical skills. There is the soft skills component, which must be practiced as well. To be truly successful, you will need both aspects, and they can be developed through three focus areas: Expert Power, Reward Power, and Referent Power. These are the three areas for you to focus on.

Expert Power

Expert Power is developed through demonstrated knowledge and skills. It is human nature to gravitate toward individuals who perform their job well by their actions. Consider when you see someone perform at the highest level, such as your favorite running back hurdling a 6’5” linebacker for a 50-yard touchdown. Just witnessing the action, you know what good looks like without anyone telling you that running back just performed an amazing feat. Without the running back saying a word or even acknowledging what he just accomplished, everyone on the team will gravitate toward him and congratulate him.

In the fire station, train yourself to demonstrate what good should look like by drilling and performing repetition after repetition every shift. Remember, you also need the knowledge aspect and not just brute strength. One aspect without the other is a recipe for failure. For example, acquiring knowledge of how a door assembly is constructed will improve your efficiency when performing forcible entry. Understanding building construction will assist you in identifying efficient search patterns and hidden void spaces. People will gravitate toward your knowledge and skill set. Once you see this type of influence start to take place, share the knowledge and skill. You will be the individual they come back to for additional information and will become loyal to you.

Reward Power

Reward Power is simple and has been practiced since the beginning of our lives. Any parent who has wanted their child to learn a certain behavior has witnessed firsthand reward power. Somehow, though, as we become more experienced, some of us just become cynical or think the concept doesn’t apply to adults. I’m willing to bet that you can remember the last person who engaged you by shaking your hand, for whatever the reason. You remember the person and situation because it was engaging. We expect people to just do their jobs because that is what they were hired to do. That is true; however, what if we simply shook their hand and said thank you? It is human nature for us to seek feeling appreciated; and it is not kinder/gentler, it’s motivation to dig deeper. If you want to influence the people around you to raise the bar, be engaging, provide recognition, and reward the people who perform the desired behavior

Sometimes it is as simple a $5 coin. FDIC Speakers coin for 2011. (Photo by author.)

Referent Power

Referent Power is an act that many of us do as small talk or when we don’t know what else to say. However, by actively using the information gained, you can change the world or at least your crew. Forget the daily business or what duties are expected to be completed today and focus on engaging your crew. Use simple kitchen table talk with coffee and find out what your firefighters did over the weekend. Learn the names of your crew’s children. Remember birthdays and do something with it—no dishes, steak dinner, and so on. The key here is to learn what motivates your team by learning their personalities. Learn how to interact with each individual and make it personal. As a leader or influencer, it is not acceptable for you to treat everyone the same, because each person is different and requires that attention. Now, someone will say they have to treat everyone equally or the human resources people are coming to see you. I’m not asking you to show favoritism or cronyism or break laws. I’m asking you to know your people and react accordingly. Effective influencers understand how to engage and motivate their people. Adult psychology, also known as andragogy, shows that individuals will gravitate toward those who challenge and motivate them to perform.

The Battlefield (MO) Fire Protection District understands the importance of the kitchen table; the department made it a crew initiative to design and build their own. (Photos courtesy of Ben Choate and Scott Moore)

The ability to effectively influence those around you requires each of us to know our job—knowledge and skills. People want to be a part of something great; create that environment for them. As your team starts to develop and behavior are exhibited, be sure to reward them somehow to reinforce the behavior. Just as well, learn your people and treat them as more than a number or position. Learn what makes each individual tick and leverage this new knowledge to accomplish mastery. Here are a few additional nuggets to assist with making mastery the minimum standard.

– Ask for your team’s opinion and value it.

– Look for ways of involving your team in opportunities.

– Practice listening to (not just hearing) your team.

– Recognize crew members when they perform exceptionally.

– Constructively critique but never criticize in public.

– Build trust by training and delegating meaningful responsibilities.

– Praise your team in public, talk proudly of your team, but teach everyone to be humble. As Kirby Smart said, “Humility is only one play away.”

– Encourage the blending of generations—leverage the strengths of each.

– Stand up for your team when it is the right thing to do.

– Don’t accept mediocrity, and your team will deliver exceptionally.


Brian Ward is division leader: fire protection and emergency operations for Georgia Pacific. He is the author of Barn Boss Leadership and Training Officer’s Desk Reference. He is a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, Georgia Smoke Diver #741, the founder of, and an FDIC International instructor.

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