Barn Boss Leadership

Orlando FL firefighters
Photo courtesy the Orlando (FL) Fire Department

By Brian Ward

Ten years ago, I came up with this mental model of what I thought would be an easy way to explain the role of an influencer. The SLT Mental Model (Safety, Leadership and Training), which was originally drawn up on a scratch piece of paper, depicted topics widely considered as important to most firefighters. In a broad spectrum, these three topics dictate everything we do in the fire service. I also see this model as cyclic, as the actions taken for one component impact the next component, which makes all of them equally important. Failure of even one creates for a potentially devastating situation.

Take the example of building construction: Leaders will prepare themselves through preplans, know their first-in territory, and actively share their information. We all should be training to understand the importance of fire dynamics intertwined with building components to assist with locating fires, performing searches, and predicting building collapse. Equally important, we should use situational awareness, while being aggressive, to determine our limitations and provide for the best possible outcome of the incident. And, the ones who are constantly striving to make mastery their minimum standard are your Barn Boss Leaders.

Barn Boss Leadership: The Power of Influence

Personal Development

The Life Cycle of Leading

Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing

As I break down the three components, consider how each will impact the next for both the good and the bad. If we create a dangerous situation by failing to train properly, we have created an unsafe situation for those we swore to protect and for our brothers and sisters. We essentially make ourselves a liability. If we perform an unsafe act, regardless of the reason, it impacts everyone on scene as priorities are potentially forced to change depending on the severity and nature of the act. The influencing capability of the leader should work to ensure both of these components are handled before the call ever comes out.

Barn boss mental model
Original notes for the development of the SLT Mental Model. (Photo by author.)


In recent years, as the buzzword “safety” has been emphasized, there has also been the complete misuse of the word by both extremes of the spectrum. Safety cannot and should never be used as a crutch to not study our craft or to accept mediocrity. Just as well, safety is not a bad word. We should practice being safe; that would be the common-sense approach. For many years, all I had to do to maintain my firefighter certification was to perform certain tasks once every 12 months in the perfect environment with just head, hands, and feet while the sun was shining with a light breeze after my lunchtime nap and then turn around the next shift and read the PowerPoint® bullets word for word describing how I would act safely. Unfortunately, this is not what it takes to be safe. Being safe is not being negligent of common sense, aka wearing our seat belts. Being safe is practicing situational awareness by being able to understand how identifying, comprehending, and predicting an incident scene interact. Being safe is studying and training for our craft to the point where mastery is the minimum standard. I really don’t care what acronym you like or use–VEIS, SLICERS, DICERS, RECEO–but know the right tactic for the right situation. That is being safe. Being cognitively and physically competent is being safe.


The training component is based on topics such as recognition primed decision making (RPDM), no-fail training, and developing muscle memory. Dr. Gary Klein has proven through years of research and studying that the integration of RPDM in training applications is vital to an individual’s development. I’ve taught the use of Tactical Decision Games and authored the article by the same title for FDIC and Fire Engineering the past few years. The components of RPDM assist each of us in being able to reach an expert status by demonstrating physiological adaptation to situations we have never faced in person. Every training experience develops a slide tray in our brains, even if subconsciously, and we cannot recall the incident details years later. These slide trays allow our brains to recognize the current situation and subconsciously select the best course of action based on previous experiences (training and incidents). Incident scene experience develops at a natural progression, which is not controlled by us (except for transferring to the busiest house); training is directly controlled by every individual. As well, when we train, we should recognize that practice does not make perfect. Acknowledging the overlearning theory importance to where we have trained in the correct manner so consistently that we do not operate as a firefighter and a tool, however, we function as if the tool is an extension of our body.


As the safety and training components are the foundation, leadership is the capstone where you are able to function as an influencer. As an influencer, it is your responsibility to push what you have learned from the safety and training components back out to your peers. Now, what fills up the inside of the triangle is experiences. These experiences are fire service and life-based experiences. The fire service experiences are simple to understand; however, do not discount the life experiences such as a six-month rookie who really does have 22 years of experience as a licensed electrician and you are en route to your first industrial man vs. machine incident (true story). This six-month rookie is an influencer in this situation.

The key for every individual is to realize that your triangle of influence should never stop growing and developing. We should continue to focus on methods and techniques that will keep us safe, yet we also have the obligation to be great at our profession. When Mrs. Smith calls, she can’t pick who is responding to save her; however, she expects top-notch performance. We must continuously train, as mastery is the minimum standard, and not just check the box once every 12 months. We must expect mastery from ourselves.

Lastly, leadership equals influence. Influencers learn from all aspects of life and share their knowledge. Influencers work to better themselves, their department, and the service to make sure we all not only go home but grow old and tell great stories.

Brian Ward is the Global Emergency Preparedness and Response leader 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 instructor.

No posts to display