TRUST: The Five Tenets of Leadership


“Two things a leader can do. Either contaminate his environment and his unit with his attitude and actions, or he can inspire confidence.”
—Lieutenant General Hal Moore, U.S. Army (retired)

Which type of leader are you? Trust is the basis for effective leadership, “a confident reliance on the integrity, honesty, veracity, and justice of another.” There is no better mnemonic for the Five Tenets of Leadership: Team leader; Respect 360°; Undaunted command; Stewardship; and Tenacity.


First and foremost, you have to want to be a leader. Nothing troubles a fire company more than an officer who demonstrates his lack of commitment to his responsibilities through indifference, incompetence, and lack of leadership.

As a leader, you are the role model. You must demand a high standard of performance and have zero tolerance for those uncommitted to excellence.

As a leader, recognize that you have flaws; don’t hide them, and never excuse them. Work hard every day to improve yourself. Although you may think you can hide your flaws, your firefighters will know they are there and will see them in action, and you will only look foolish trying to make excuses for them.


Respect and self-respect are deeply connected. If you don’t respect yourself, you can’t respect others; if others don’t respect you, you can’t respect yourself. So when and where does respect impact your duties as an officer? ALWAYS! Respect must be maintained 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for your entire career. Even off duty? Yes, and then some. You must respect your environment whether you’re at the firehouse, on the fire scene or inside an apparatus, on the training grounds or in the classroom, in the open or behind closed doors, or on or off duty (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Respect 360°

  • Respect starts with you. Respect yourself.
  • Respect the public you are entrusted to serve. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”
  • Respect your firefighters! Firefighters want to be respected, and this means trust. Don’t treat them like mushrooms and keep them in the dark; give them the big picture. Take an interest in their career development. Have the guts to hold everyone accountable. And get in the trenches once in awhile. Although firefighters work and officers supervise work, this does not mean you don’t get dirty!
  • Respect traditions. Our history tells us how we got here; tells us why we do some of the things we do in the fire service; and, most importantly, prompts us to reflect on our future.
  • Respect your trumpets (your rank). Accept your role as an officer, and do your job. Use your authority to promote change and success.
  • Respect the job. You have the coolest job in the world; never do anything to bring dishonor to it.
  • Respect the uniform. Long before you arrived, people paid the price for the badge and the trumpets you put on your collar. Pay the same price for those who follow.
  • Respect what is right. You are the right person. It is the right time. The fire service is the right place. It’s that simple: Do the right thing!


First and foremost, lead with confidence. Even if you make a mistake, be confident in your abilities as a leader. Don’t be shy. Lead with audacity, courage, and steadfastness; don’t be afraid to act. A good officer evaluates a situation, sometimes quickly and sometimes over time, decides to act or not to act, and then carries out his duties responsibly.

As an officer, it takes no courage to criticize the decisions of others or to make excuses for problems. Courage is standing by your decisions in the face of failure or challenges. In the end, only your ability and your willingness to step up and make difficult or unpopular decisions separate a strong leader from a weak one. Are you willing to pay the price of being a leader?


A steward is “one who is entrusted with the management of finances, property, and affairs not their own.” In the fire service, this means the company officer. Stewardship is the management of firehouses, equipment, and firefighters; it separates a lead firefighter from a leader of firefighters.

Manage your firehouse.We know the firehouse is a spirited environment; even a minor issue can cause major headaches. We experience profound changes in attitude around the firehouse. Keep the firehouse a safe haven for your crews. Do not tolerate harassment, horseplay, and overheated discussions. Failure to prevent them will ruin your career.

Manage your equipment. Fire equipment serves one of two purposes—either transportation or labor. Proper daily checks and maintenance are critical to maintain operational readiness. New, shiny, expensive equipment is only cool if you have it with you, it works when you need it, and you know how to use it. Failure to ensure operational readiness of equipment is a failure of your leadership, not your crew’s.

Manage your firefighters. Morale and discipline are paramount. They are essential for crew integrity and success. Without morale and discipline, there is no standard performance. Morale results from pride in the firefighting profession. Discipline brings about morale. As an officer, never condone a lack of discipline or morale. You have to make morale and discipline happen! A lack of morale and discipline is the most caustic and contagious disease that can destroy a fire company.

So how and when should you discipline? Discipline should always be swift and effective. Use only the level of discipline necessary to impress on someone the seriousness of an issue. Never apologize for disciplinary action. Never allow a firefighter to abdicate his own responsibility for his actions; ownership of one’s actions is essential.

Here’s the truth about discipline: It is not about suppression of personnel or loss of their individuality. Discipline is about teaching firefighters your expectations of them. They must understand what you expect of them and what they should expect from the system. Discipline is about protecting your firefighters as much as possible. “What, Chief? We protect them with discipline?” Yes. Safety depends on people following accepted standards and procedures. A firefighter who cannot follow the rules in training, in the house, or anywhere is the same firefighter who will not follow rules during an emergency incident. Tolerating even minor infractions can lead to firefighter carelessness and injury. Accept this fact from Day 1: Firefighters do not always welcome discipline.


Weak officers persist only when things go their way. A strong officer has the fortitude to rise above challenges and lead his crew to success. There are no shortcuts to leadership tenacity, which has 10 key elements.

  • Loyalty. Above all else, this is strength. It is okay to disagree with the organization if it is in the organization’s best interest. Actions and words counter to the good of the organization are disloyal. Strong leaders provide constructive feedback to the organization through debate and by speaking up during those times set aside for such discussions. Never publicly disagree or complain about policy or decisions with your crews. Remember, if you complain about policy or decisions to your crews, they will learn from you and will complain openly when they disagree with you.
  • Emotional stamina.You must have the emotional stamina to rapidly recover from failure, to continue carrying out your duties without losing perspective, and to persist in the face of challenges.
  • Accountability. Learn to account for your own personal actions and those of your subordinates. Never blame others for what you have failed to accomplish, no matter how grave the consequences.
  • Reliability. Others must be able to depend on you to carry out your duties in all situations. You must be able to rely on your crew members to get the job done; you cannot watch them 24 hours a day. Teach, promote, and be a role model of dependability. As a company officer, if you tolerate members just doing the bare minimum for station duties, then expect them to do the bare minimum on the fireground.
  • Effectiveness.You must be effectual and learn to anticipate sudden changes, actions/consequences, and problems/solutions. Be decisive in your actions. Understand what you are dealing with, and time your actions appropriately.
  • Responsibility. You are responsible for overseeing tasks and ensuring that policy is followed. If you are unwilling to accept the responsibility, you are unfit for your rank.
  • Self-confidence. This is essential to your ability to lead. If your role as an officer is beyond your capabilities, you are a weak leader and useless as an officer.
  • Excellence. Leaders must possess a hunger to achieve excellence. A sense of competitive anger drives a leader toward success. Anger is a natural emotion; it is not about yelling, screaming, and throwing tantrums. If your crew fails to perform effectively, it is okay to be angry; if you’re not angry, it is definitely a sign of apathy toward your responsibilities. As long as you are professional and not abusive, never be afraid to let people know that you are angry.
  • Intrepidity. Leaders must be intrepid. You must be fearless and have the fortitude to accept the risks of leadership. You cannot fold in the face of adversity or show signs of being overwhelmed. Lead with confidence, and excel when faced with uncertainty.
  • Physical stamina. Officers must have the physical stamina to endure the demands of leadership. You must be the first one through the door and never the first one to run low on air. Your crew should go to rehab only because they need to, not because you have to.

Firefighters want to work, and they want to be in the thick of the firefighting. If they are going to rehab because you need it or because you are out of air (and they still have half a bottle), be prepared for an unhappy crew. You expect your crew to be able to do the job, and they should be able to rely on you to lead them through it. You cannot lead your crews if you cannot do the work.

You are solely responsible for the environment in which you lead. No matter how badly you want to be an officer or how good your intentions are in seeking promotion to company officer, you will not survive your crews’ lack of trust.


So, what does TRUST obtain for you that your rank and authority will not? Brotherhood! Not the Hollywood adaptation of brotherhood. Not some cliché term that people throw around as if they bought it with house dues. I am talking about real brotherhood—the brotherhood that bonds you and your firefighters; the kind that says, “I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you”; brotherhood so strong that, in the final minutes, when the smoke is as black as an empty void and the heat zaps every last shred of energy from your body, you say, “Brother, I will not leave you”; a brotherhood strong enough that when every hallway goes nowhere and there is little hope of being found, you say, “I will share my last 10 minutes of air with you.”

That’s what real brotherhood is, and it can only be obtained though your crew’s trust in your leadership and the strength of your trumpets. At the end of the day, are you a leader only by rank? Or are you a leader of firefighters?

JOHN KING is a battalion chief and commander of B-Shift with the South Metro Fire District in Raymore, Missouri, with which he has served 12 years. He has almost 20 years of experience in civilian and military fire, rescue, and EMS.

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