Building Leaders of the Future


The future of fire service leadership depends on the qualities of the leaders who will influence the direction, the tenor, and the tone of our fire service. We are not doing very well in developing our future leadership. Leaders are assumed to be qualified to lead their organization; and, in general, we have found them “qualified enough” to get by day to day. However, they do not necessarily have the skills to further the fire service mission and vision to lead us into the future.

Ascending to a greater leadership position within an organization generally happens through experience, education, or a combination of both; recruitment and testing; or by default or because of the current leader’s death, resignation, or termination.

The qualifications of a leader are difficult to quantify. Many who may have great qualifications may be overlooked during the vetting process or did not throw their “hat in the ring” for consideration. In my experience, some who may be qualified to lead an organization simply do not want to lead a fire department. Why?

Leaders Are Created, Not Born

There is a theory that leaders are “created and not born”; numerous articles argue both sides of that issue with two schools of thought. One thought is that individuals are born with a unique skillset and possess a rare and natural leadership ability. The second thought is that leaders are made through education; learning; and growing through books read, associations with other great leaders, and from their personal experiences on and off the job.

In The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner opine, “Leadership is an observable, learnable set of practices. Leadership is not something mystical and ethereal that cannot be understood by ordinary people. Given the opportunity for feedback and practice, those with the desire and persistence to lead can substantially improve their abilities to do so.”

Is this not what we want in our fire service? How do we manage those leadership traits in our existing fire service leaders and those who desire to be our future generation of leaders?

There are many excellent examples of leaders in our profession who teach us how to develop effective leadership styles-so many, in fact, that I will not list them for fear of leaving someone out. As a reader of this article and a student of the fire service, you know their names already, since you have worked for them, you are working for them, you have been their students, or you wish you were working for them as a part of their management team.

Failing Forward

Excellent leaders learn from the mistakes of others. High-performing leaders have made many mistakes on their way along the leadership journey. Some organizations use “failing forward” to describe the learning obtained from those mistakes, which they can use to avoid replicating the scenarios that caused the original mistakes.

As a student of leadership, you must understand how those mistakes were made and what lessons were learned. A leader is constantly learning and must remain aware of these emerging issues and challenging situations and respond to them effectively.

Failure is an excellent teacher. As a current or aspiring leader, read all the articles, books, and magazines written by recognized leaders of all successful institutions, not only the fire service. We lead and manage people, we spend money, we create programs, we train, and we respond to emergencies. Great leaders have all made mistakes and have learned from them to become better leaders. Some leaders write books about their experiences, and I suggest you read them to gain an understanding of the lessons learned.

Leadership Vision

Leadership is at its best when its vision is strategic, its voice is persuasive, and the results are tangible. We must understand that leadership is not the end point but a means to bring out the best in your firefighters and staff through inspiration and motivation to affirm their commitment, energy, talents, and skills are used to ensure the organization’s vision and mission are accomplished.

Leaders must have a sense of vision and mission, have a charismatic presence, have an ability to influence staff and firefighters toward a common goal, have the ability to make a decision, and be creative problem solvers. They must have a vision of the future, have a clarity of purpose, have an ability to organize the work, delegate certain obligations, communicate effectively, and understand the prevailing laws and regulations that may enhance or restrict that vision.

We have all worked for leaders with no vision. The question we should ask is, “Where is this department going?” Without a vision, the department stagnates. You come to work without a roadmap, and your firefighters wonder about their future, as the department is in “status quo” mode and not progressive.

As a leader, your energies must be focused on the organization’s vision and mission. Look to the future; do not dwell on the past but learn from past experiences, both good and bad.

The leader must also deal with the most difficult situations that threaten the fire service survival in an increasing hostile political and financial environment. In addressing those issues, the leader must create the future of the organization and seek and seize opportunities to improve the organization’s position and convey to the politicians these visions for the fire service’s future. Today’s leaders must focus their leadership power on building internal and external personal relationships and building trust through role modeling and integrity.

Empowering Your Staff

Create a compelling vision of the future, and communicate that position. Build a commitment of the vision with your staff and political leadership. Some leaders consolidate all of the power at the top and will not allow staff to exercise the ability to manage or to make decisions. This is a disaster for the organization, as fire departments are dynamic organizations, and the requirement to “check in” with the chief to make a decision does not allow the department the flexibility to carry out an order or change a direction in a changing environment, a skill that is so necessary in our rapidly changing world.

Developing Followership

The fire service leader must also cultivate a program of followership among staff and firefighters. There can only be one leader in your organization; others must be active and engaged followers.

A principle I have always believed and practiced is that strong and competent leaders surround themselves with people who surpass them in the talents, the skills, and the methodology of “getting things done.” One advantage of such a relationship is that it extends the fire department’s vision and mission and cultivates and prepares the future leaders of the fire service. For many leaders, this may create a conflict in how they perceive their role as the leader. They may fear that allowing others to take a lead role in a project may somehow dilute their leadership in the organization. However, we must avoid that fear and embrace the concept that it takes a “team” to successfully lead the organization.

This followership group should be able to respectfully and productively challenge your vision and your mission’s change concepts when needed, not just automatically accept your leadership style and direction. We must avoid the illusion that the leader is always right and as a result run the department into the ground.

Attributes of a Good Leader

We find great leaders in all disciplines, including private industry, politics, and the military; some have had decades of training and leadership experience, and some we would follow through the gates of hell. We can be those leaders.

How does the leader get to this challenging position in the fire service? Many factors that make an excellent leader begin with basic leadership elements and hopefully culminate with a seasoned and superb leader for your organization.

The developing leader must have the following basic elements:

  • Training that encompasses basic firefighting skills with command leadership experience.
  • Education that includes at a minimum an associate degree up to a bachelor’s or master’s degree, a doctorate, or a doctor of law (JD).
  • Fire service leadership designations such as executive fire officer (EFO), chief fire officer, membership in the Institute of Fire Engineers (USA branch), or other designations.
  • Experience in leading people, in participating in organizations outside of the fire service or in civic activities, in holding elected positions, and in public speaking.
  • Leadership experiences outside of fire department disciplines.
  • Mentorship with someone who has those talents you desire to acquire and emulate.
  • Personality that includes integrity, education, intelligence, a sense of humor, common sense, kindness, self-awareness, and generosity. Must be comfortable with change-facing, promoting, facilitating, and sometimes forcing change.
  • Education and experience in the political process.

We must recognize those who control our destiny are the elected officials in various-sized communities. These elected officials have many obligations and demands, and the fire department is one of many asking for funding to provide those essential services. Our job as leaders is to have the political wherewithal to educate those elected officials on the vision and mission of the fire department.

Leadership and Management

Leadership and management are two distinct functions. The manager’s task is getting things accomplished; the leader’s responsibility is to set that direction. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, John P. Kotter indicates that management is not leadership; rather the issue is how individuals can keep large, complex, and unwieldy organizations operating reliably and efficiently. He writes that organizations and their human components need to understand that the terms leadership and management are used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences and separate, distinct functions. Leaders lead; managers manage.

Management has a well-defined set of processes such as planning, budgeting, creating job opportunities, solving problems, staffing, performance measurements, and the like. Your managers are your staff, assistant and deputy chiefs, lieutenants, and captains. Managers help you and the organization get things done. They are not the leaders.

Leaders are different in that they will lead the organization into the future and find and use opportunities to further the organization’s success; provide a vision of the future for the managers to manage; get your staff to buy into that vision; and empower those individuals to do what it takes to produce useful change. It takes managers to get things done.

Remember President John F. Kennedy’s bold statement in 1961 to send a man to the moon? He had the vision coupled with the labor and expertise of thousands of others to make that vision a reality. Enormous human efforts and expenditures made what became Project Apollo a reality by 1969.

Do we still have those leaders in today’s fire service? I believe that we do, although the thought that a few extraordinary individuals at the top can provide all of the leadership required for the organization to succeed is a fantasy and possibly a recipe for disaster. The fire service needs to train our future leaders with education, mistakes, sweat equity, and experience so those new leaders will take our profession into the future successfully. This takes a team effort using qualified and committed management, a strong team approach to building the future of the fire service, and the vision from the leadership to take us in the right direction.

The Future

Two sayings used in reference to the fire service are “200 years of history unimpeded by progress” and “analysis paralysis.” What does this say about the leadership of our industry? On the fireground, time is of the essence; but in the conference room, we slow to a snail’s pace on decisions and moving the department forward. This is a failure of the leader to have a vision and to have the courage to enact that vision and get others onboard to make it succeed.

The fire service needs superb leadership as we are facing daily challenges by others possibly more qualified to lead our organizations. In October 2015, the mayor of Detroit replaced an experienced, long-time fire commissioner with a police officer with a law degree who was the building and safety official with the city, saying, “The fire department doesn’t need a top-flight firefighter at the top. Rather, the mayor wanted a leader with the ability to transform practices within departments, something the fire department sorely needs, plagued as it is by problems with old equipment, inefficient distribution of supplies, and old fire stations that make for unsafe living conditions.”

Is that a good move or a slap in the face with regard to our current leadership’s ability to transform a department? Time will test this appointment, but the trend across the country in cities and towns is to recruit and hire an outside person with a vision and experience and training in other disciplines to move the fire service to a new level.

How do we prepare to be in a leadership role and take our industry to a new level? We must recognize the new challenges to fire service leadership and be prepared for the future of a changed fire service.


Kouzes, J and Posner, B. (2012) The Leadership Challenge (Fifth edition). Jossey-Bass, 2012.

Useem, M. “How to Groom Leaders of the Future,” In: Financial Times Mastering Management, Prentice Hall, New York, 2001.

Kotter, JP. “Leading Change: Why Transformational Leadership Fails.” Harvard Business Review, January 2007.

JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, has been a member of the fire service since 1974 as a firefighter/paramedic. He retired in 2007 as the deputy chief with Eastside (WA) Fire & Rescue and chief of Sammamish, Washington. He is an attorney whose focus is on employment practices liability, employment policy, internal investigations, firefighter health and safety, expert witness, and consulting on risk management for private and public entities. He is a frequent speaker at FDIC, a monthly Fire Engineering blogger, one of the attorneys on Fire Service Court Radio, author of the “FE Legal Issues Blog,” and a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and serves as its legal counsel.

Captain’s Corner: Developing Leaders
Growing Leaders Using E.M.P.O.W.E.R.ment
Using Past Lessons to Prepare Future Leaders


More Fire Engineering Issue Articles
Fire Engineering Archives


No posts to display