A Continuum: The Case for Effective Small Unit Leadership in the Fire Service

The fire service is crying out for effective leaders. Go to any firehouse, grab a cup of coffee, and ask for a breakdown of the issues affecting our industry. The need for effective leaders will be among the top three on the list from Maine to Washington and North Dakota to Florida. Complaints about leadership are a constant. At a certain point, some leaders assume it’s just background noise. Is it? Or, is there a lack of effective leaders because we have not invested in what is needed to produce them? It’s said that if you identify a problem, you should bring a solution. My suggestion for a solution is to model existing structures that produce the type of leaders we need in an environment similar to ours with relatively reproducible results. That structure would be the U.S. military.

Why the U.S. military? We have this monstrous organization churning out leaders of every stripe (literally) sometimes right in our backyard (depending on where you live relative to a base, fort, or camp). Although a few things must be kept secret, the military has had no issue in sharing what it does to produce its leaders. Ask for a visit to West Point or Annapolis, MCB Quantico, or Fort Benning, and you’ll get a friendly public information officer who will accompany you on your tour to see what is involved. If you don’t feel like traveling, pick up one of the numerous books and videos showcasing effective leaders from the U.S. military—their thoughts and how they were developed. Figuring out what they do and then bringing those lessons learned to our industry should be simple. It should be.

However, the problem lies in the fact that while we as a fire service hold the military in extremely high regard, we look only at the surface. We look at what movies and television show us: We look at shows where meat eaters with night-vision goggles kick in the doors; neutralize the bad guys with the precision of a Swiss watch surgeon; and, when the smoke clears, come up with the quick John Maverick McClane line “Yippy-kay-yay Ghostrider the pattern was full!” We love that. We want that to be us. There is a problem, though. This caricature doesn’t show the grinding, concerted, cohesive, comprehensive, and systematic approach to the development of entire cohorts of leaders for multiple organizations with widely varying missions, literally from one end of the planet to another on an ongoing and constant basis. It doesn’t show the absolute investment in the mundane, everyday details of training hundreds of thousands of informal, unit, operational, and strategic leaders routinely.

We hold in high regard these men and women who produce incredible results with limited resources and information in a fast-moving dynamic environment under the most austere conditions, who have to be trained constantly not only for their technical competence but also for their leadership skills. We should! But, do you know what the fire service needs? Men and women who produce incredible results with limited resources and information in a fast-moving dynamic environment under the most austere conditions who have to be trained constantly not only for their technical competence but also for their leadership skills. This is true for the military and for the fire service, and history has proven time and again that 100 experts poorly led will lose the day to 100 amateurs expertly led. The fire service, as the military, does not have the option to lose.

Full Disclaimer

The U.S. military is not a perfect product. It has had spectacular failures in leadership. It does not have an absolute lock on leadership development. Leadership principles are universal. You show me a well-run profitable McDonald’s, and I’ll show you a well-trained leader who has become a master of his craft and understands how to supervise and manage. But what separates the U.S. military from other industries is the staggering scale on which it produces leaders. More importantly, for every spectacular failure, there are numerous spectacular victories, large and small, on and off the battlefield.

The question becomes, “How as a fire service do we learn from the military’s systems?” How does the fire service dig deeply to understand the foundational elements that underpin these processes? More specifically, what kind of leaders do we want to produce based on those models? These are the key questions. If we want to make a fire service that not only better serves the citizens we are sworn to protect but also the members we are sworn to lead, we need to answer these questions and stop paying lip service to the military’s greatness. We must learn from them and make the investments that produce the leaders we need, as they have produced theirs.

Our Goal and How to Achieve It

For decades, our fire service organizations have invested significantly at the start line (recruits) or near the finish (command officers); there has been little to no effective resourcing of “the middle” —the company officer, the small unit leader. Although the company officer administratively may have a greater span of control, operationally, it starts with who is supervising that engine, truck, rescue, or medic company. Who is leading when the air brake hits and that crew steps out into the gloom of night at zero dark into a fast-moving, dynamic environment under austere conditions with limited information and limited resources? The company officers, the small unit leaders who are tasked with the responsibility of two, three, or four lives under their supervision and a clearly defined mission in front of them (find the victims, put out the fire, extricate and treat the patient). They are the linchpin of the entire operation. Poorly led troops will inevitably fail. No chief officer is conducting the search, flowing water, or venting the structure. It is the small unit leader—the sergeant, lieutenant, captain of a unit, the crew leader, or the officer in charge who is responsible for the mission’s failure or success. They are where the rubber meets the road. The goal, therefore, is to train effective small unit leaders. How do we meet this goal? First, don’t reinvent the wheel. The template offered by our military is effective—not perfect but effective. Follow it. It is a continuum of training. Begin leadership training early, prepare them for the next step, train them while they are in that step, and then begin training them for the next one. It’s a race to the top.

Effective Follower

Start by teaching what it means to be an effective follower. Provide a grounding in basic leadership concepts to the newest members, whether in recruit school or during on-the-job training or a mentorship. It doesn’t matter. Teaching this early is critical to the military. Why? Because effective followers become effective leaders. They understand a purpose higher than their own. They understand the mission is paramount. They know that someone must lead and that someone must follow. This knowledge, coupled with an understanding of basic leadership principles, creates a foundation for future growth in leadership. (Ask a Marine recruit with more than three weeks in boot camp what “JJ-DID-TIE-BUCKLE” is; he will shout out 14 leadership traits faster than you can don your personal protective equipment.) This grounding teaches basic leadership principles. The first is, be an effective follower; as you move up, you become an informal leader and then a formal one. The second, and significantly less obvious, is that you create an inoculation. By teaching the expectations of good leadership and creating an understanding of what that looks like, your newest members will have knowledge that begins to create a figurative wedge. That wedge allows them the space to not assimilate and become part of the problem if they have a dysfunctional leader. If not, what stands between that firefighter and becoming part of a cycle of dysfunction? Teach leadership from the beginning.

Informal Leader

The next phase is understanding what it is to be an informal leader. The senior firefighter (driver, chauffeur, technician, specialist) should have a broader perspective of what leadership looks like at that level. First, it prepares them for formal leadership if they promote to officer. Beginning leadership training after the brass is pinned on is too late. That lack of knowledge has potentially already led to poor behaviors and sets that future leader on a path to failure. Train early, train often, train hard. And so it is with leadership. This “informal leader” training helps to prevent a cycle of dysfunction. When a new firefighter shows up on shift, what happens to the “old” new firefighters? They now are your informal leaders. They have an opportunity to coach, mentor, and model. But, if they do not understand how that role works, if they assume that since they got nothing from their leaders that now it’s their turn to pass on nothing, we will continue with the race to the bottom. Knowledge, training, and education will lead to a different path.

Formal Leadership

The final piece of the continuum falls into place with formal leadership as an officer. This is where we truly are lacking. Ask any fire service organization with limited training dollars where it is investing, and most would say they focus on our newest members as they enter the fire service. Why? Because this represents a difficult transition, from a point of limited knowledge to a point of proficiency. I would respectfully disagree.

The hardest transition in any organization is from troop to leader. As a test of that theory, ask any one-month probie to solve a problem with limited information in a fast-moving dynamic environment under austere conditions. You would assume the probie would get it at 100 percent, right? Ask that same thing of a one-month lieutenant, and the expectations are vastly different. This is where the degree of difficulty increases. This is where we need to invest. Our formal leaders need the same intensity of training that was provided to them as recruits because, at each rank, they need to go through “boot camp” all over again. If you do not, then make sure you understand the Peter Principle.1 A clearer analogy would be this: If the U.S. military trained its leaders the way the fire service does, training may be a little bit for the most junior officer and then, after that, you figure it out as you go. We would lose wars at the rate of most third-world nations.

So, what training are you conducting to prepare future lieutenants and captains to be effective small unit leaders? What training are you giving them while in rank? What training are you conducting to prepare them to be battalion chiefs, deputy chiefs, and assistant chiefs? The assumption that a good lieutenant will make a good captain is flawed. Would a good driver of a passenger vehicle necessarily make a good tractor-trailer operator? The training must be constant, ongoing, comprehensive, cohesive, and systematic. This creates a continuum of training and mirrors the process the military adheres to—a new corporal will go to an NCO Academy, and a general will go to Command and Staff College. This should never be a one-shot approach.

Once you’ve committed to a continuum of training, the plan is simple. Train. You cannot expect to have a healthy, functional organization unless you invest. We’ve talked about an overall plan, but the question is where to start? Start with your middle, your small unit leaders. Your quickest return on investment will be with those leaders who are influencing others right now. You cannot anticipate success on the fireground or incident scene unless you have resourced the training of your company officers. If you have not given your small unit leaders the tools, the knowledge, and the training and education they need, don’t be surprised when they fail. If you are an organizational or a strategic leader who bemoans the small unit leaders, the unit officers, the shift leaders in your department and your budget shows a small, single-digit percentage dedicated to training them, you are a hypocrite. Invest. Be creative. Have a mission mindset. Ask any Marine, Airborne, Ranger, PJ, SEAL, or other prestigious military group, “How would the accomplishment of your mission be affected if you didn’t have all the resources or the time needed or if the weather were an impediment or conditions changed?” The answer will always be the same: “The mission will still get accomplished; we will find a way.” That needs to be the fire service’s rally cry when it comes to preparing future and existing company officers for the fight. Give them the resources, train them, then let them succeed.


1. The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. The first edition was written in 1969; there have been several editions since. The authors are Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. Basically, the Principle states that given enough career time, employees will be promoted to their level of incompetence and remain there.

Marc S. Davidson is a 33-year public servant with more than eight years in the Marine Corps and 25 years in fire and rescue. He served as a volunteer in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Maryland and is a 22-year veteran of the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department, where he is a lieutenant. In Fairfax, he spent 18 years on the line in busy houses as a bucket firefighter, an engine and a truck driver, and a truck officer. He previously was a basic training officer in the Training Division and has recently returned to that division to develop an Officer Development Training Section. He instructs on leadership and tactical fieldcraft and coordinates multiple training opportunities for the region’s aspiring and incumbent officers.

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