Adapt Leadership Styles To Achieve Objectives


LEADERS IN CORPORATE AMERICA ARE OFTEN judged in terms of increased profits or reduced losses. The American fire service solves problems. The fire service is not concerned with making profits or selling products. The fire service exists to solve problems that threaten a community or a person. Therefore, leaders in the fire service are judged by how effectively they can direct their company, division, or department to solve the problems they are called to confront. How do we then select, train, and promote leaders within our organization to ensure that effective leadership is present throughout the ranks?

The majority of people in the fire service can list with relative ease those characteristics they feel effective and successful leaders should possess. Some examples may include trustworthiness, knowledge of the job, a sense of fairness, and integrity. It would appear that anyone possessing certain personal traits would be an effective leader. If that were the case, quality leaders should be abundant in every fire department, fire station, and fire company across the country.

However, effective leadership eludes large and small fire departments to some degree, impacting the effectiveness of the departments’ companies and groups. Companies and groups form the overall organization and carry out its mission by providing the services to those in need. Therefore, as the companies and groups begin to falter, so, too, does the department. It seems logical then that we choose leaders who have the characteristics we believe necessary for successful leaders. But, is this enough?

Many of us know people in leadership and nonleadership positions who are trustworthy and possess job knowledge, a sense of fairness, and integrity but who, nevertheless, cannot routinely transform the energy of their people into positive results.


Leadership consists of more than a set of personal characteristics. Amassing and channeling people’s energy to accomplish goals and objectives differentiates authentic leaders from those who merely occupy leadership positions. Without people, leaders cannot accomplish anything. The individuals being led make up the other half of the leadership equation, and leaders must have them become involved if there is to be effective leadership. This involvement enables leaders to take advantage of the various talents of those within their span of control to address problems effectively and efficiently.

Leaders with the ability to integrate the human component into the problem-solving process by involving “their” people display a degree of respect for their workers and gain the workers’ respect and commitment in return. Recognizing that people are needed to achieve accomplishments is the first step in developing a self-sustaining process in which the leader/follower relationship is strengthened by mutual respect. A note of caution here: Involving people does not mean pleasing people. People should be encouraged to contribute, but sometimes unpopular decisions must be made regardless of personal feelings.


How do leaders integrate people into the problem-solving process in a paramilitary organization such as a fire department? Paramilitary seems indicative of orders that are given and carried out in a structured format, not in an organization that would solicit input from people. Effective fire service leaders recognize that they can manage an emergency more effectively when they are given input from the people involved in carrying out the assignments. As Fire Department of New York Battalion Chief John Salka explains: “For leaders to be successful, they have to recognize that while they don’t have all the answers, their people just might.”1


Do leaders exhibit different behaviors based on the situations they face, and do these behaviors impact people in a positive or a negative way? Daniel Goleman identifies six prominent leadership styles used by business executives: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, pacesetting, coaching, and democratic. Goleman observes that leaders who achieved the best results used a variety of styles, which they adapted to the situation.2

Parallels can be drawn relative to the use of these leadership styles in the business arena and the fire service. The fire service has changed, is changing, and will continue to change, especially when it comes to personnel. With the generation Xers and beyond filling the ranks, fire service leaders must become more adept than ever at balancing personnel involvement to ensure commitment and the appropriate amount of direction needed to achieve the best results in a variety of situations.

Coercive and Autocratic

The coercive style of management generally has a negative impact on an organization’s climate, because the leader is inflexible and overbearing. (2) Few leaders consider their leadership style to be coercive. When they make decisions independently of any consideration but their own preference, they probably prefer to think of the style as autocratic, which does not sound as negative as coercive. Regardless of the term used, those who exhibit this style of leadership choose the course of action regardless of people’s feelings and do not involve others in the decision-making process. Leaders who routinely rely on the autocratic or coercive style of leadership will find that their people’s motivation and commitment will diminish as they are excluded from making contributions on a regular basis.

There are, however, times when the autocratic/coercive style is appropriate and even necessary for the situation, such as an emergency. For example, if the incident commander (IC) sees that a roof collapse is imminent at a fire, he is not going to contact personnel operating inside to gather their thoughts and opinions. “In a situation of common peril … survival depends on clear command. If the ship goes down, the captain does not call a meeting; the captain gives an order,” explains Peter Drucker, considered by some to be the father of modern management.3 The autocratic style of leadership is effective when it is timely and pointed decisions must be made, but when it is relied on routinely for all decision making, the group and organization will begin to deteriorate.


Authoritative leaders identify organizational goals and empower their people to determine and implement the methods necessary to achieve those goals. The leader sets a clear direction and establishes the parameters within which his people are to function. This type of leadership style fosters personnel motivation by allowing the members to contribute and be a productive part of the process.

This style is widely effective in many situations, particularly during organizational change. (2) It is routinely employed throughout the fire service whenever an IC formulates a strategic plan and subordinate officers or firefighters are left to select and implement the tactics that will support the chosen strategy.

This style is also reflected in the businesslike aspects of the fire service, such as fire safety/prevention and training. For example, a deputy or division chief may develop a department’s training program but may entrust station or company officers to ensure that the most appropriate training needs of the firefighters receiving instruction are delivered while the officers adhere to the previously outlined parameters.

The authoritative style is versatile; it can be applied to a wide range of situations, because the leader’s mindset is such that once he has selected a direction, he relies on the members to achieve success. However, the authoritative style is not effective when the members’ experience and knowledge exceed those of the leader; the leader may be viewed as being out of touch or may develop overbearing tendencies. (2)


In the affiliative style of leadership, leaders put their people first. The leader is compassionate and readily gives positive feedback, which increases personnel commitment and loyalty to the leader. The chief concerns here are personnel happiness and a smooth fit and interaction among group members. Like the authoritative style, the affiliative style also encourages people to actively participate and to complete assignments using their ingenuity and skills. Affiliative leaders, however, are more forgiving, less stringent, and more likely to adjust the working parameters for their people instead of holding steadfast to the parameters established from the outset.

This leadership style is generally considered positive and is especially useful when attempting to build esprit de corps among team members, increase morale, or repair broken trust. (2) Although this leadership style is generally positive, its impact on a leader’s effectiveness can sometimes be negative. “Leaders who are afraid to make people angry are likely to waiver and procrastinate when it comes time to make tough choices,” observes Oren Harari in Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell The affiliative style of leadership seems to be an effective tool for team building, but it can leave the group or organization exposed when a hard line must be followed.


Leaders who use the pacesetting style expect high performance from themselves as well as their teams. They are constantly pushing the team to achieve the next level of performance. This type of leader “quickly identifies poor performers and demands more from them. If they do not rise to the occasion, he replaces them with people who will.”(2)

This style may appeal to some, because it is centered on results. The leader’s pushing the team to continuously improve and his willingness to replace personnel may trigger some to perform at levels they had not previously reached or even believed possible. The leader’s high demands and the personnel’s belief that expectations are not realistic, however, can lead to decreased morale. Nevertheless, the pacesetting style can be used with positive results with high-performance teams, which typically display high skill levels, are self-motivated, and require little direction to accomplish tasks. (2) High-performance teams excel with a leader who exhibits pacesetting behaviors, because it enables the team to maintain the high level of performance it desires.

Although many fire service leaders may look on their teams as high-performance teams, it is unlikely that these leaders routinely rely on the pacesetting style to produce results from their people. Rescue companies in large cities, urban search and rescue teams, and hazardous materials teams are a few examples of high-performance teams whose leaders may use pacesetting behaviors predominantly. These teams are highly skilled in their specialty, have high expectations of each member and of the team itself, and train endlessly. When openings exist on these teams, they are often highly sought after and involve intense competition. Moreover, high-performance teams expect a pacesetting style of leadership. The team carries out the tasks, but it counts on its leader to eliminate underachievers and to carefully evaluate replacements to ensure commitment, motivation, and the individual’s potential to acquire the skills needed for the team.


The coaching style reportedly is not used extensively in the business world because it does not achieve rapid results. “Coaching” leaders teach the methods, behaviors, and techniques necessary for the success of their people and the organization. Coaching leaders are patient as their people learn to overcome setbacks and achieve success in the long term. This style focuses on personnel progression through teaching and extensive development instead of the completion of immediate tasks. (2) In the business world, there are almost no tasks that need to be performed as immediately as in the fire service (and the military and other emergency organizations).

The coaching style of leadership is routinely employed in the fire service to train recruits and first-line supervisors and to mentor chief officers in developing individuals new to their respective positions so they can successfully carry out tasks, tactics, and strategies over the duration of their careers. The fire service has used the coaching style for generations to pass on the firefighting trade to junior members, recruits, and probies. This style has made it possible for the fire service to transition from bucket brigades to hoses and from horse-drawn steamers to complex quints. It is used as a tool for investing in the future, because fire service members who are taught today will teach tomorrow.


The democratic style of leadership provides for involving the subordinates more than the other styles. Its goal is to achieve consensus through participation. It enhances flexibility and responsibility, because the leader encourages people to participate in setting and achieving goals. (2) Participation allows for the greatest variety of views and opinions; the input of the department members is given significant consideration with that of the leader’s. We naturally have come to expect the presence of democratic methods in our lives a great deal of the time, since we are in a society where fairness and equality are considerations. However, leaders must be careful when infusing the democratic style into their leadership methods.

All leaders must provide clear direction and be decisive. Achieving a consensus through participation can interfere with these abilities, because the vast array of opinions represented may result in endless debate and consume so much time that a decision cannot be rendered. If a decision is reached, it often lacks clarity, which results in communication breakdown and ultimately confusion. The democratic “approach is ideal when a leader himself is uncertain about the best direction to take and needs ideas and guidance from able employees.”(2) As mentioned earlier, the fire service is reflective of a paramilitary organization, particularly its hierarchy. Therefore, allowing people to become involved to the extent suggested in the democratic style may cause leadership abilities to be called into question. “In any institution, there has to be a final authority, that is, a ‘boss’-someone who can make the final decisions and who can expect them to be obeyed,” Drucker says. (3)


The public has relied on the fire service to solve problems ranging from relatively minor to life threatening. The effectiveness of fire service leaders is reflected in their ability to focus, direct, and prepare their teams for future challenges.

As noted above, leaders in the fire service must possess more than a desired set of personal traits if they are going to be successful in leading their team. The ability to transform people energy into results and orchestrate the problem-solving process is also necessary. Leaders should serve as the catalysts for solving problems by consciously involving people and pairing their workers’ talents with the problems to achieve the most ideal solution. In addition, leaders have to balance the degree of people involvement with the degree of leadership oversight appropriate for a situation.

In addition to becoming well read on the subject of leadership within the fire service, leaders and aspiring leaders should become familiar with the successful methods used in the business and the military arenas, to acquire a well-rounded knowledge on the subject.

Leadership styles should change with the circumstances. It is the leader’s responsibility and obligation to use the appropriate style for the situation and to interject the necessary amount of oversight to make the goals achievable. Successful leaders do not use just one style. They transition seamlessly from one style to another to make the team more effective and versatile. ●


1. Salka, J.J., First In, Last Out: Leadership Lessons from the New York Fire Department. (Penguin Group, 2004).

2. Goleman, D. “Leadership That Gets Results,” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000

3. Drucker, P.F. The Essential Drucker. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001)

4. Harari, O. The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002).

STEVEN MILLS is a career captain for the Ridge Road Fire District in Rochester, New York. He has a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester and an associate’s degree in fire protection.

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