Be a Leader Regardless of Rank

Photo by John Gregson.


By David DeStefano

The fire service, like any organization, is comprised of members brought together for a common goal. As a result of membership, firefighters expect fulfillment on one or more levels while working to achieve the goal(s) of the organization. The path to fulfillment is paved by personal desire, hard work, and the guidance of a strong leader.

The leaders outlined in a fire service “Table of Organization” feature titles such as lieutenant, captain, or chief. However, members who do not hold such titles in the chain of command can still have a tremendous impact on the cohesive operation and continued growth of fire department culture and work ethic. This crucial role can be filled by a “leader without a title.”

Each member is part of the formal chain of command. However, firefighters belong to an informal group that may be just as influential as the authorized rank structure in many organizations. The seniority, age group, academy class, company affiliation, or social network to which firefighters belong may hold tremendous sway in the attitude, performance, and ethics of an individual and the department as a whole.

Firefighters who rise to the challenge of leadership are a diverse group in almost every way except one: Their desire to improve the fire service. Regardless of rank, firefighters may exemplify important leadership traits every day. These firefighters knowingly or unknowingly accomplish some of the most important missions in the structure of their fire departments by setting positive examples or fostering a culture of dedicated service in which all members may participate.

Given the existence of the informal network of leadership, what attributes and actions can firefighters of any seniority display that will create a positive impact on those around them?


Embrace Traditions and Champion Useful Change  

Few endeavors enjoy the rich history and tradition of the fire service. The values and ethics that have guided our actions for 200 years continue to provide a path to exceptional service. Leaders will embrace our heritage of service, understand our history, and have the resolve to accept new ideas. These new ideas are necessary to adapt to the expanded mission of the fire service. Tasked with responding to the widest and most complex incidents in our history, leaders in all positions must be prepared to forward useful ideas that address our core goals of saving life and property.


Use Power to Motivate & Support

Members who maintain official or unofficial authority over others in their departments should use their status to support the betterment of the fire service. Leaders working toward improved policies, training, and firefighter safety do a tremendous service to their peers and the organization as a whole. Members of any rank or position can work to follow safe practices and train continually. Providing a positive role model and supporting proper policies within the department will improve the individual AND the entire department when the initiative to learn, train, and pass on the knowledge grows.


Personal and Group Fulfillment

Few people in or out of the fire service want to exist in constant turmoil without proper direction. When a member steps up to lead the firefighters that he is in contact with, he will find a great deal of personal satisfaction in witnessing the growth of those around him and the progress of the whole department. Using the fire service’s heritage as the foundation for future progress, leaders at any level can use their official or unofficial authority to motivate others to advance their knowledge and band together. This strong group of motivated individuals will help lead an organization forward and, in the process, enjoy a rewarding and fulfilling career.  

The decision is up to you. Will you rise to the challenge of leading your fellow firefighters for the good of the fire service?


David DeStefano is a 26-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as captain of Ladder Co. 1. He was previously assigned as a Lieutenant in Ladder 1 and Engine 3 and a firefighter in Ladder 1. He has a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in fire science. He is an instructor/coordinator for the Rhode Island Fire Academy and teaches a variety of fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He can be reached at

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