Engine Company, Firefighting, Leadership

Leadership Management and Power

By Tim Walsh

Are leadership and management linked? How does power held by supervisors affect these two important fire service traits? Management can be taught, studied, and mastered, but to be an effective member of the fire service, you must understand how power relates to your style. Management is more formal and scientific than leadership1. It relies on skills taught at the university level such as budgeting, planning, and organizing.

Leadership involves having a vision and being able to elicit teamwork and cooperation among people2. People skills are learned over a much longer time frame. Some fire service managers have people skills and some do not. Who do you want to follow on the fireground-a dynamic, intelligent fireground officer or an officer with an MBA who can balance the budget? I believe many of today’s fire service leaders are more concerned with formal education than learning people skills and fireground tactics. The officers I have worked for that were outstanding had great people skills first and foremost. They spent time on busy companies mastering the basics. But they also understood how power played an integral role in their daily responsibilities both on and off the fireground.

Power is the ability to influence decisions and control resources. Authority is the formal right to get people to do things or the formal right to control resources3. Most officers in the fire service have authority, not power. The two are very different. There are six types of power–some exercised by leaders, some exercised by rank and file.

Legitimate power is the authentic right of a leader to make certain types of requests because the job description states he can4. As long as the request falls under the normal duties of this officer, subordinates usually accept these requests easily.

Reward power is the ability of the supervisor to give certain rewards such as promotions, awards, and even raises5.

Coercive power is a leader’s control over punishments6. This power is probably most abused in the fire service, and it causes resentment and even retaliation. An effective leader uses coercive power sparingly.

Expert power comes from leaders’ job-related knowledge as perceived by subordinates7.
You may be the finest manager the fire service has ever known, but if you can’t lead personnel on the fireground effectively and safely, you are doomed to fail. It never ceases to amaze me how officer candidates who have completed college-level management courses believe they are now ready to lead. Yet they have spent little time on the fireground and have not mastered the basics of the profession. Expert power cannot be fudged in this profession–noncombatants have no place in the fire service. There are many ways to improve the perceptions of the people you work with. One way is riding along with companies under your command and actually performing tasks on the fireground below your rank; this goes a long way in controlling perceived notions on expert power. Any leader who tells you he has seen every possible combination of fire and building construction on the planet is an obvious liar. The best fire service leaders are not experts but willing to learn new things all the time.

Referent power is based on the desire of followers to identify with their leaders and to be accepted by them8. This phenomenon occurs when people identify traits that are desirable in a particular leader. I know of chiefs who have recruited their whole platoon based on this type of power.

Note: The five types of power listed above are usually exhibited by leaders or managers.

Subordinate power is exerted upward to leaders to show signs of displeasure9. When workers feel that an order is made outside the boundaries of legitimate authority, they rebel. What some fire service leaders seem to forget is that power is cyclical and it flows up and down within an organization.

All types of orders given within the fire service can fall into one of two categories. The first is the zone of indifference. Basically, this means that employees could care less about this type of order10. These types of orders are acceptable and easy to follow. The problem that arises with some fire service managers that do not have expert power or referent power is that orders fall within the zone of noncompliance11. Employees will not obey these orders if they feel their leaders don’t require the proper traits to issue them in the first place.

Being a fire service leader takes a combination of management skills and leadership ability. The ability to wield power and have a basic understanding of each type of service that you deliver within your local jurisdiction is a basic requirement of any good officer. It is incumbent on anyone that wants to lead within the fire service to move up through the ranks mastering each given job to the best of your ability. You also must understand how the six types of power–legitimate, reward, coercive, expert, referent, and subordinate–can make or break you.


1-11. Essentials of Management, Andrew J. DuBrin (1994: Southwestern-Publishing Company).

Tim Walsh has been a firefighter/paramedic for the Chicago (IL) Fire Department for 17 years. He has served on ambulance and engine companies and is currently assigned to Squad Company 5. He has a master of science degree in fire and emergency management administration from Oklahoma State University. He is also a field staff instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute.