Robert Burns: Leadership in the Real World

By Robert Burns

Can leadership be taught?  Is it really possible to become a more effective leader by attending a classroom training program?  Well, yes and no.  Classroom training can teach us many valuable leadership concepts and skills that when incorporated into our daily lives will greatly increase our effectiveness. The old theory that people were “born leaders” no longer seems to hold true.  As a matter of fact, current research studies are showing that many of the leadership characteristics that were once thought to be genetic gifts or personality traits actually appear to be learned behaviors.  It turns out that much of leadership prowess comes from insight and practice, not from your parents and genes.  In reality, a lot of people who were once thought to be “born leaders” actually “behaved” themselves into leaders.

How?   Many times, these “born leaders” encountered simple leadership opportunities early in their lives/careers.  They responded to these events by engaging in behaviors (either purposely or intuitively) that worked out well for them in these specific situations.  They usually learned these behaviors (formally or informally) from parents, teachers, mentors, or peers.  Their initial success increased their status in the group and gave them the confidence to step up again when similar leadership opportunities arose. This “pattern of influential behavior” is sometimes called a “Success Spiral” or “Growth Spiral.”  As students, we can start to embark on our own leadership growth spiral by attending leadership training classes and learning the principles of effective leadership.

“Mental Muscle Memory”

But knowledge alone will not make more effective leaders.  Nobody gets better (at anything) simply by attending a training program.   People only improve by “buying into” and practicing the things that they learned at training.   We need to find ways to turn conceptual knowledge into smart habits and then be able to call on these habits during the “crucial moments” of our lives.

We are constantly training with our firefighting tools and equipment to develop the “muscle memory” critical for performing physical tasks during fire and emergency operations.  Leadership is no different.  We need to consciously practice the mental skills that will help us interrupt our impulses and connect with our values when confronted with important leadership issues. That’s what effective leaders do!  So in addition to practical knowledge, it takes awareness, discipline, and work to become a better leader.  We need to take the leadership concepts out of the classroom, translate them into behaviors and skills that work in the fire service culture, and then practice these skills until they become second nature. Our goal should be to develop the “mental muscle memory” that we can call on when under stress, confronted by complicated choices, or struggling with urgent issues.

Path to Effective Leadership

So are there specific principles and concepts that we need to learn?  I believe that there are!   And are there logical steps that we can take to get started on a pattern of influential behavior?  Again, my answer is yes.  The following is a very brief outline of what I consider to be the surest path to effective leadership development.

• Leadership is about influence.  If nobody is following (being influenced), we’re not leading.  Having others accept us as the leader is an important factor in the leader/follower dynamic.  Sure, you can order people to do things if you want to, but that style of leadership rarely works in the long run.  Effective leaders cultivate willing followers, not people who just respond to orders and directions.  I want disciples, not robots; and, certainly, I don’t want adversaries.

People willingly follow leaders they view as “legitimate,” who have earned their trust and respect.   Legitimacy is earned by engaging in behaviors that demonstrate character, competence, credibility, and consistency.  We must build a personal reputation of “leadership legitimacy” because it will serve as the foundation that supports the three areas of personal leadership development that follow.

• The next critical step in personal development is to accept the responsibilities of our rank and be willing to act in ways that fulfill those responsibilities. We need to have the courage to “be the part, look the part, and act the part.”  Once we accept the concept that “rank has its responsibilities,” everything else will fall into place.

• Now that we have acknowledged our responsibilities, we must find our voice and connect with our values.  Ann Mulchay, the former CEO of Xerox, tells us: “Who you are, what your values are, what you stand for ….  they are your anchor, your north star.  You won’t find them in a book.  You will find them in your soul.”  Unless we are grounded in “who we are and what we value,” it is very difficult to lead with confidence in the direction we want to go.  We must do the introspective work that will give us the courage and confidence to “do the right things.”

• At this point in our personal leadership development, we have established ourselves as legitimate leaders by demonstrating character, competence, credibility, and consistency.  We have promoted ourselves and accepted the responsibilities of our rank/position.  We have found our voice and connected with our values; we know where we want to go.  Our challenge now is to share our voice and influence those around us to join us on our journey.

If we are going to be leading people, we should have a basic knowledge of human nature and the dynamics that influence human behavior.  We know that “everyone is different” and that there are many unique personality types.  Let’s face it: human beings are complex creatures.  However, there are several motivating factors that are always in play and are common to all human beings.  It is important that leaders become aware of these “universal influencers” and constantly engage them to influence those around them.

I am not going to suggest that by attending a classroom leadership workshop or learning a four-step development process will solve all of your leadership problems.  I am telling you that if you internalize the principles and practice the skills that are part of the “Leadership in the Real World” program, you will be well on your way to becoming a more effective leader.


Robert Burns is a retired battalion chief from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Prior to his retirement in 2011, he served the FDNY for 37 years, the last 18 as a chief officer. In addition to having been an adjunct instructor teaching leadership at John Jay College, he led the curriculum development group responsible for designing and delivering the leadership modules of the FDNY promotional training courses for lieutenants, captains, and battalion chiefs. He was the director of the New York State First Line Supervisor’s Training Program at the FDNY Fire Academy from 2007 until 2010. He conducts leadership training workshops around the country.