Being the Leader

This list is very comprehensive as to what I believe are desired leadership characteristics.
Remember those days when you were wearing a firefighter’s helmet. (Unsplash)

Leaders in the fire service are not born
to be successful

By Mike Nakamichi

Leadership in the fire service can be defined in two styles, supervision/management and leadership. Within these styles are different characteristics that are defined. In my years of teaching, I have referred to the supervision/management style as having legitimate, coercive/reward power and transactional power, whereas the leadership styles were always looked on as an expert, having referent power (relational) and transformational power.

Webster defines “supervisor” as a person who is in charge of others; an officer in charge of a unit. And he defines “supervision” as the action, process or occupation of administering. He also defines “leader” as a person who leads; a person who has a commanding authority; a guide. Therefore, the definition of “leadership” is the position of a leader; the capacity to lead.

Additionally, Professor Douglas McGregor of MIT formulated two theories, X and Y. Theory X explains that personnel need to be motivated and require to be directed. This is an ideal atmosphere for the supervisory style who is the micromanager/authoritarian. Theory Y states that personnel are enthused, have initiative, and have the willingness to work. There is trust through delegation; thus, empowerment and motivation are instilled. Theory Y and the leadership traits are based on the effectiveness of the personnel and the working environment.

There is one more theory that was conceptualized by UCLA Professor Dr. William Ouchi. This theory is the so-called “Japanese Management” style. It’s focus is increasing personnel loyalty with a strong bearing on personnel well-being. This again plays into the role of a fire service leader.

There are several other theories that support the leadership approach. They are Deming’s Total Quality Management, Drucker’s Management by Objective, Blake and Mouton’s Leadership Grid, and Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s Leadership Continuum. These indicate the importance and the merit of leadership.

The above theories are vital in the fire service because leadership is paramount. The front-line actions at the scene of an emergency require command presence, decision making based on experience, taking the educated risks, viewing the “big picture,” effective communication, confidence in the decisions made, making changes/direction if needed, and most of all trust in the work of the crews. These are the characteristics of a leader that need to prevail.

Supervision is not the answer when everything hits the fan. There is usually a lack of experience, no confidence in the decision-making process, no risk taking, communication is lacking, the lack of trust of scene crews and as a result of these concerns, and the supervisor is not all knowing on how to mitigate the problem because of not focusing on the “big picture” and is usually concerned with minor details.

Unfortunately, in the present-day fire service, the supervisory type of characteristics is more prominent. Because of the lack of fireground experience, the lack of knowledge of the officers, and the inability to command, the supervising officer of today cannot adapt to a complex emergency and the capacity to lead is lost. Firefighters have less confidence in this type of officer for reasons that may jeopardize the operation. Thus, they want someone they can follow into battle.

Therefore, with training, those deficiencies could be modified into a more proficient performance of duties. However, it is sad to say that leadership and succession training are lacking in most fire departments. Teaching and proper instruction could assist officers in learning what leadership qualities are. If such training was a segment of the promotional process, the officers would have the opportunity to possibly learn from those who have the leadership characteristics. Additionally, mentors could be accessed for counseling and advising to help school those vital traits.

A prime example of leadership and succession training was instituted by former Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief Alan Brunacini. He was well known for his leadership and innovation. He initiated succession training for his officers to be the best they could be. With that type of training the officers received, many moved on to be successful battalion, deputy, assistant, and fire chiefs throughout the western states.

Leadership in the fire service is a very much-needed entity. Firefighters want strong leadership. They crave a boss who is confident, leads by example, has integrity, and is part of the team. Firefighters desire a leader who has the experience to take an educated risk and to make the right decision. This brings about the confidence and trust they have in their leader. They also know that their boss has concerns about them and because of that, they know the boss will do the right thing, not do things right. Firefighters relish working with a leader for those reasons stated.

Fire service leaders have many traits in common. Command and the capacity to lead are the predominant traits. Leaders also display their competency technically and administratively. Leaders communicate effectively and are active listeners for input. They have fireground intelligence with common sense. What is paramount is that leaders are responsible, accept, and are accountable for the actions of their team.

Therefore, the question is, “What is a leader?” The answer lies within what traits they have. It begins with being effective and efficient. Leaders are intelligent with common sense, lead by example, and are competent technically and administratively. Leaders are flexible and can adapt to the any situation. Advance planning to complete an assigned mission is vital in leadership. Leaders communicate effectively and will listen actively to firefighters for their input and ideas. Thus, this builds trust with the firefighters, encourages participation, and there is recognition as to what each brings to the table. Delegation is a motivator and empowers the firefighter. Leaders mentor and provide guidance. Most importantly, they accept responsibility, are accountable for the actions of the team, and are part of the team.

“Being the Leader” is what I have learned through the years as a chief officer. To me, this list is very comprehensive as to what I believe are desired leadership characteristics. I begin with knowing your firefighters by their first names and being acquainted with their families because they are family as well. Your firefighters must be happy with coming to work because of the environment you set.  You must be able to converse with them as a person, an equal. You must be confident and be the leader of the team. You must be decisive, but changes can be made. Input from the team can be a tool. High morale of your team, your unit, your crews is a must and you need to maintain it. Your coworkers do not work for you, you work for them; you are part of the team. Always be positive, be honest, trust their actions, and delegate to build their confidence. Communicate effectively; be honest because they deserve to know. Use your firefighters’ knowledge and expertise as a tool for input. This is an incentive for them to expand, benefit, and grow. Hence, give them the credit because it is where it is due. Because you are their boss, you are responsible and accountable for the actions of your firefighters; therefore, you stand in front of, next to, or behind them in any circumstance. Your firefighters need you and you need them. You are their support. You are their representative. As I put this together through the years, I have learned that the leader sets the tone for morale and is the motivating force behind the scenes.  As the boss, you are the cog that provides the direction, sets the standards and the goals, thus leading by example. Last, they are the ones who make your “white shirt white.”

Leaders in the fire service are not born to be successful. However, within the ranks of the fire service, there are men and women who possess those inherent traits that can evolve through the maturation of the job, and learning the good and bad traits from their past leaders and supervisors can help them grow into respected leaders. An effective and efficient supervisor is a “true leader.”

Remember your roots; remember those days when you were wearing a firefighter’s helmet and your path to achieve and advance. Remember what you learned during your journey. You have to be you, not someone you want to emulate. Develop your own leadership style. Learn as much as you can to be an effective leader. Think about this, would you want to have yourself as your boss?

Mike Nakamichi is a 46-year veteran and a retired battalion chief with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Washington.

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