Basic Traits of Effective Leaders

by Clayton James

Noted leadership expert and New York Times best-selling author John C. Maxwell states, “A company cannot grow without until its leaders grow within.”1 Simply stated: Weak leaders equate to a weak organization. Strong leaders = a strong organization.

What is a leader? Simply defined, a leader is a person who influences others to move in a certain direction. Do not confuse the term “leader” with manager, administrator, or power-seeker. Neither necessarily denotes a leader.

There are different types of leadership. Leaders in your department may be appointed or promoted (formal leadership). The official authority to influence a company, shift, district, or battalion has been bestowed on these formal leaders, usually in the form of trumpets. Department members appoint the informal leaders. These leaders can be the more senior firefighters who newer members try to emulate. The “new hires” try to “follow their lead” and know that they can “trust” them.

Leadership in and of itself is flavorless. It’s like money–how it’s used determines if it’s good or bad. Good leaders use their influence to invest in other people. Poor leaders use their influence for personal gain and self-promotion. This is where a term like “abusive power” comes into play. If you’ve been in the fire service any amount of time, you have certainly witnessed how “one bad apple can spoil the barrel.” Nothing can bring a crew or shift’s morale and cohesiveness down faster than a negative leader seeking to influence others to maintain a bitter, rebellious attitude. Our strong fire service desire to “fit in” and promote brotherhood can even allow negative people to have more influence in a group than positive people.

Qualities Of A Good Leader

What makes a good leader? Regardless of whether leadership results from the chief’s promotion or “the crew’s” looking up to the person, a good leader possesses some essential qualities. According to Maxwell, leaders must have integrity, justice, conviction with a positive focus, and must be disciplined and secure.2

Integrity means that your words and actions match up. For the informal leader, a mismatch results in loss of credibility and the loss of the ability to influence others. For formal leaders given leadership responsibilities, resentment and bitterness can develop in those they are trying to influence. You can’t tell your firefighters to “always wear your gear in immediately dangerous to life or health environments” when you’re a battalion chief who runs in to investigate a response in nothing but a white shirt and brass bugles. Company officers can’t demand that company members complete hands-on rapid intervention team training while witnessing the class in station wear with their cup of coffee. The first rule of leadership is to be the example of what you expect others to be.

Justice means that the leader rejects dishonest gain. This issue is in the headlines almost daily–the Enron scandal, insider trading by corporate executives. The list goes on and on. Businesses and governments are in desperate need of leaders who are just and trustworthy with the resources with which they’ve been entrusted. If you think stealing station supplies is funny or a “company benefit,” you are headed for a crash course with humiliation and shame, not to mention criminal liability.

Conviction and maintaining a positive focus can be tough traits to maintain. No organization is perfect, and some are facing some harsh financial realities in our current economic climate. Conviction is holding tight to your core values, which is easier said than done. If your core value is firefighter safety, upgrading older apparatus to provide all of the safety features identified in the 2007 edition of NFPA 1911, Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, can be a daunting ask. It’s easier to walk away from a problem, because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” That mindset will earn you more television time, but it won’t make you a good leader. “Convicted” leaders hang in there to develop a solution based on their core values.

A positive focus does not mean that you live with your head in the clouds. It doesn’t mean you do not recognize the problems. You may have to accept some that you cannot change. You can even have a bad day and vent to the proper channels. In the end, maintaining a positive focus means that you don’t dwell on destructive issues. A positive focus will allow you to see solutions to problems. Any firefighter can flood the chain of command with gripes and problems. Leaders with a positive focus provide solutions.

Discipline can be defined as doing the right thing regardless of the moment, the people involved, or the personal benefit/risk. Most departments define “the right things” through department procedures or guidelines. Officers must enforce the policies and procedures that come from the chief’s office. Leaders don’t have to agree with the rules of the organization, but they do have to follow them (all leaders) and enforce them (officers). Simply stated, officers who skip policy because it’s not convenient or “to keep the crew happy” are failing their duty to the organization.


How do leaders become secure in their abilities? For most, this can be a challenge. How do leaders stay secure and strong? First, confidence is gained through learning. Take a class, read an article, take some action to improve yourself. Instead of reading the newspaper after the evening meal in the firehouse, pick up a trade magazine and read one article of interest. Most of these fire-related magazines also have a companion Web site where you can view the highlights of the articles if you do not read the full text. If you would like a formal leadership position, attend your local community college. General education classes will help you develop the ability to think critically and look at issues from more than one perspective. Leadership classes teach you about the habits and behaviors of effective leaders as well as the common pitfalls to avoid.

If you want to develop your leadership ability so that you help the organization instead of hinder it, find good leaders and watch them. Seek their advice. Get a mentor who can provide insight and give feedback related to whether you are on the right path.

In the end, the best leaders desire to serve others. Put your people ahead of your agenda. Be confident, and develop confidence in others. Lead with a true sense of caring, and you will see your influence increase. If you’ve been around for a while, you know that there is always a need for good leadership in the fire service.


1. Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leaders Around You. (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, Inc.) 2003.

2. Maxwell, John C. Leadership Promises for Every Day. (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Inc.), 2003.

Clayton James, a 16-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain and training officer for the Newport (KY) Fire and EMS Department. He has associate’s degrees in EMS and fire science and is pursuing a B.S. in fire science through the University of Cincinnati Open Learning Fire Science Program.

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