The goose is a fascinating creature: steadfast, brave, and loyal. The goose understands the importance of being a good follower and that the best followers make great leaders. When a goose is sick or wounded, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay until the sick member of the flock is able to fly again, or dies. Geese take care of their own. After caring for their ailing friend, they launch out, joining another formation or catching up with their own. Much like firefighters, they share a mission in life. Geese instinctively understand what is difficult for some humans to grasp: Two heads are better than one, and there is safety in numbers (freelancing is a thing).

As a relatively new fire officer, I know there is much to be learned both on and off the fireground. Effective leadership skills are crucial to a smoothly operating fire company. Firefighters are simply thrown into the job of company officer to sink or swim. It is difficult at best to go from coworker to supervisor overnight. To do so with little education or preparation can make for a long and difficult road for a newly promoted officer.

Why choose a goose as an example of leadership? What could a bird, considered by many to be a nuisance, teach fire service managers? What comparisons can be made between the goose and a good fire service leader? Let us begin by defining leadership.


Leadership is defined as (1) an act or instance of guiding; direction, guidance, management, or (2) the capacity to lead others, to command.1

President Dwight D. Eisenhower defined leadership as the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.2 The armed forces of the United States know the importance of preparation for the leaders of tomorrow. The name Eisenhower has become synonymous with dynamic leadership. He was truly a master craftsman in the demanding art of leadership. He understood and developed leadership’s core qualities-character, vision, action, and confidence. How do we apply this to geese and fire service leaders?


The first quality of leadership is character. The lead goose instinctively understands that the geese entrusted to his care look up to him and expect him to always have their best interest at heart. The flock has probably known this goose since birth. The lead goose has had a lifetime to gain the respect of the flock he now leads.3

A good fire service leader must learn this quality. The leaders of tomorrow need to hear from the first day on the job they are earning the respect of those they will lead in the future. How you treat people from the time you are the newest recruit and as you pass through the ranks will be your legacy. To be known as a person of character is vital to becoming an effective leader.

Leaders with character are infused with humor and humility. They are inclined to treat the individuals in their organizations with respect and receive respect in return. Leaders with character are self-aware and honest with themselves as to their own strengths and weaknesses. They are endowed with the sincere desire to constantly improve.

The leader with character is open-minded and able to respect adversaries and learn from them. Leaders with character are action-oriented. They have clear organizational goals in place, and the group as a whole follows the leader as they strive together to meet those goals. The goal is to push your team to reach its full potential. “Good leadership consists of motivating people to their highest levels by offering them opportunities, not obligations.”4


Any goose within a flock could fly south instinctively and alone. They follow the lead goose because they trust its vision and ability to follow the best and safest route. Nature has shown them that together under the watchful eye of their leader is the safest place to be. The common goal of the seasonal flight to their summer and winter homes is known and understood by all. A leader with the ability to spark imagination with a compelling vision of a worthwhile end that requires a stretch beyond what was thought possible is the leader who will be readily followed.

Chief Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department is such a leader. He rose through the ranks of the department. He dared to envision a different fire service. His goals and visions are clearly known to those he leads, and they willingly and enthusiastically follow. He has brought the Phoenix Fire Department into the 21st century as one of the most respected fire departments in the world.

A proficient leader has a vision and is intensely focused on outcome and results and has a workable strategy in place to achieve the desired outcome. The vision is communicated and shared with those who must work to achieve the common goal. The leader with vision guides his team to meet these shared goals and objectives.5


A goose can have the respect of the flock, trust, and devotion. It can envision wintering in a sunny southern climate or summering in the cool place of its birth. But, if it never takes flight and travels toward the common goal, that goose is no leader at all. In other words, a leader must be a person of action.

The same applies to fire service leadership. The leader can be a person of deep character and tremendous vision. If there are no actions, the leader and those being led have nowhere to go. See what needs to be done, and do it. It is that simple. How many of us have known an officer who took the easy road? As long as the calls are answered, the rest will take care of itself. This type of officer never inspires those he leads to reach their full potential. What they do is look at their job as something to be done, another 24 hours to get through.

Inspired, action-oriented leaders see each day as an opportunity to learn about their chosen career. They encourage those around them to learn and accomplish all they can. There is a difference between a job and a career. A job is simply a way to earn money. A career is a path of lifelong learning and actions set toward the goal of improving the service provided and those that provide the service.


The lead goose is confident in his ability to lead his flock to their common destination. The flock is confident in the leader and shows this confidence by “honking” encouragement to the lead goose as they journey together.6 The confidence and respect is mutual between leader and follower. The support is there to encourage the leader to press on and the followers to give their best effort. It allows a follower to pick up the slack as necessary when the leader tires. The lead goose can fall back and allow the next in line to lead while he rests.

The foundation has been laid so that the young leader is confident and able to lead. There is no concern or “power struggle.”

Preparation for leadership is part of life for the flock. The newly appointed leader will fly to the front and lead on toward journey’s end. This allows the lead goose to rest and regenerate for a time.

What a fine example for fire service leaders. Imagine training those you lead to one day take your place, being secure enough in your ability to lead to train the leaders of tomorrow. This is a radical departure from old firehouse ways of studying by yourself. Leadership training and nurturing were seen as possible threats to personal advancement.

The changing of the guard is inevitable. Why not prepare the future leader with training and guidance under the watchful eye of a competent leader? The job will flow much better if there is someone who can do your work in your absence. The “trainee” will benefit from the guidance and preparation you can provide. When the time comes for them to advance, their crews will benefit from the confidence and ability instilled by their leader.

We all need to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. Shared leadership and interdependence give us each a chance to lead as well as opportunities to rest. As with the goose, we are all interdependent on the skills, abilities, and resources of each other. None of us are as good as all of us! You can leave a much greater legacy by sharing knowledge and inspiring the confidence of tomorrow’s leaders.

Confidence is the backbone of leadership. You must have confidence in yourself, your decisions, your actions, and your visions. You must share this confidence with those you lead, and they must have the same confidence in you. A leader with confidence must give responsibility to the group and have the courage to foster independence. Without this sense of independence and trust, members of the group may feel insignificant and become irresponsible as a result.

There is a confident leader in all of us. However, true leadership does not take place only on the fireground. It often takes place back at the station, in private, and is largely unnoticed. By helping those around you as they struggle and tread their way through their daily grind, you become an integral part of their lives, providing encouragement and faith in their abilities. By doing this, the leader inspires them to reach their full potential and accomplish their goals.

If you want your crew to be confident, disciplined, and have self-control, you must first possess these traits. One of the most powerful things you can do is to lead by example. You are an influential role model, and everything you do will be watched.

Vince Lombardi once said, “Leaders are made; they are not born; and they are made just like anything else has ever been made in this country-by hard work.”7

We all learn various lessons as we travel through life. Sometimes it is from parents, teachers, or friends. Some lessons are learned in a classroom; others come from observation. The lesson in leadership the goose gives us is from the observation of its instinctive behavior. Given the broad scope of leadership, it is much too important to be left to chance. Effective teamwork is rooted in the understanding of how the right group of people can work together toward a common and well-defined goal. They can accomplish more as a unit while encouraging individual initiative and shared leadership.

Leadership, whether developed or natural, provides the foundation on which all things develop, grow and mature, and change. Leadership qualities must be looked for and cultivated early in the firefighter’s career. It is critical to differentiate between the skill of performance and the skill of leadership. Not every player will make a good coach. The natural leader will stand out. The trick is identifying those who are capable of learning leadership over time.


Here are several traits to help identify whether someone is capable of learning to lead.

• The past is an excellent way of predicting the future. The person who has engaged in successful leadership activities in the past should be given every opportunity to cultivate his leadership abilities.

• The person who has a vision for the future is a person with an important leadership quality. As one of the core qualities of leadership, vision is an essential trait. The eyes of the person with vision will light up when you ask about their dreams, goals, and plans. These people are at their best when there is a challenge before them.

• The next one may come as a surprise to many: A constructive spirit of discontent is crucial to a leader’s effectiveness. I am not speaking of the chronic complainer with whom we all have worked, but rather the person who is always looking for and finding a better way to do things.

• Potential leaders will have a demonstrated desire to take on extra responsibilities. They are not content with merely doing their job; they want to learn all aspects of the job. They have a natural desire to learn and help.

• Effective leaders complete tasks in a timely manner. There are people who take on additional responsibilities only to leave them undone when the limelight fades. The true leader takes on these tasks and enjoys the challenge of seeing them to completion. Mental toughness is important for the leader.

• No one who is an effective leader will be liked and adored all the time by all the people for whom he is responsible. An effective leader must develop the ability to discern the proper and fair course of action and to stay the course. Leadership is not a popularity contest. Strangely enough, however, the best leaders, those who hold true to the standard of fairness, are among the favorites of their coworkers.

• Peer respect is another important factor in effective leadership. Peer respect doesn’t reveal ability, but it can show character and personality. Trammell Crow, one of the world’s most successful real estate brokers, said that he looks for people whose associates want them to succeed. He said, “It’s tough enough to succeed when everybody wants you to succeed. People who don’t want you to succeed are like weights in your running shoes.”

Maxey Jarman, who built Genesco into the third largest apparel company in the world in the 1960s, used to say, “It isn’t important that people like you. It’s important that they respect you. They may like you but not follow you. If they respect you, they’ll follow you, even if perhaps they don’t like you.”8

It is not enough for a person simply to have all these qualities of leadership. Much like a flower in a garden, these qualities must be given the proper cultivation to fully develop. The challenge for the fire service leaders of today is to identify, cultivate, and mentor the leaders of tomorrow. Learn, adapt, identify, train, and lead. Be a goose!


1. Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition. (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995).

2. Dwight D. Eisenhower. In The Speaker’s Electronic Reference Collection, AApex Software, 1994.

3. Hutchison, S., K.E. Valentino, & S.L. Kirkner, “What works for the gander does not work for the goose.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology; 1998, 28:2, 171-182.

4. Sugarman, Karlene, Winning the Mental Way. (Step Up Publishing, 2002).

5. MacArthur, John, “19 Characteristics of Leadership.” Audiotape of presentation to Master’s Seminary Class, Sun Valley, Calif.

6. Cohen, Lawrence J. “Fixed action patterns for the birds,” Boston Globe, page H3, Oct. 10, 2002.

7. Staley, Michael F. Igniting the Leader Within. (Fire Engineering Books and Videos, 1998).

8. Smith, Fred, “Spotting a New Leader.” Leadership Journal; 1996, Vol. XVII:4, 30.

LORI P. STONEY, a 16-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant and paramedic with the Homewood (AL) Fire & Rescue Service and has served as the department’s training officer.

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