When to Lead, When to Manage

By Brian Zaitz

We have all read an article, attended a conference, or been to training that focused on leadership. It seems that leadership has taken the fire service by storm over the past decade, but for what reason? Leadership has been a part of the fire service since its inception. I am not saying that leadership training is bad; learning from great past and current leaders is a great means to hone leadership skills, but it is important to know when to lead and when to manage.

As of late, management or managing has gained a negative connotation with many; it is not as sexy or glamorous like leadership. In addition, many see management as only micromanagement. For these reasons, “management” and its processes have fallen out of grace for many. Unfortunately, management is a major component of the fire service and is a critical component for effective and efficient scene mitigation. 

To clear up the difference between leadership and management, it is necessary to define both. Leadership is defined as the ability to lead a group or person by means of influence. The key word being “influence,” defined as the power to change or affect someone. Knowing when to use this influence and apply it will determine when to lead and when to manage. On the other hand, “manage” is defined as taking control or directing the actions so as to achieve a goal. With both similarities and differences defined, we can draw from each and propose situations as to when to implement each in the daily actions of the company officer.

“Lead the firefighter, manage the scene,” is a quote that I feel accurately describes how we should act as company officers. Leadership begins in the firehouse with our crews. It begins by empowering our firefighters, positively affecting their daily activities and making sure that they have the tools and resources for success. It means standing up for them when they face roadblocks and counseling them when they are headed down the wrong path. We have all done these things and not even realized that we were leading—simple, daily tasks such as employee coaching, conducting company training, or ensuring the apparatus are clean and ready to respond. Leadership is not an easy assignment and it is not for everyone; it requires empathy, compassion, gumption, and strength.

Management ties into leadership; it provides the framework and support for company officers to manage. Emergency scenes require the management of the scene and its personnel to mitigate the incident properly. Company officers must take control of the scene and direct their crews to take safe and effective actions. This is not time for discussion or counseling. However, do not be fooled; all the leadership at the firehouse will be reflected in your crew’s response and actions on the scene. If you have properly lead your crew and prepared them for the emergency, managing their actions should be a breeze; they should know exactly what directives you are going to provide. The leadership provided in the station will make the management on the scene much easier.

"Management" is not a dirty word, and "leadership" is not the all-time, go-to answer; each has its place in effective positions of authority. The key is to know when to use each and be able to effectively interface both so as to produce positive results for your company.


Brian Zaitz is a 12-year fire service veteran and a captain-training officer with the Metro West Fire Protection District in Wildwood, Missouri. He is an instructor at the St.Louis County (MO) Fire Academy and a member of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team MO-TF 1. He has an associates degree in applied science in paramedic technology from St. Louis Community College, a bachelor's of science degree in fire science management from Lindenwood University, and a masters of science degree in human resource development from Indiana State University. Zaitz also has several certifications including fire officer II,  fire instructor II and haz-mat specialist. He is a nationally registered paramedic as well as an internationally accredited fire Ofifcer and chief training officer through the Commission on Professional Credentialing.

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