Captain’s Corner: Developing Leaders

By Michael Hennigan

International, state, and local fire organizations and the National Fire Academy have all produced leadership conferences that outline the principles of leadership. An understanding of these principles is an important starting point for leadership development, but just as the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once said, “All politics is local.” So, too, is leadership development. Each department must recognize the common characteristics of leadership and then nurture them.

When asked to list the traits of a good leader, most firefighters will recite the same list even though their experiences and departments may be very different: knowledgeable, experienced, honest, trustworthy, good communicator, decisive, humble, fair, consistent, and driven to excellence. Not surprisingly, the Globe Study supports this list; it surveyed 17,000 people in 62 countries, and, with the exception of “experience,” produced the same list. But an awareness of these characteristics does not make a leader.

A question often asked is whether good leaders are born or created. I would suggest that some people inherently demonstrate these traits and might be considered “born leaders”; others must consciously work to develop them.

An organization is defined by the quality of its leaders. So how does an organization develop leaders? Leaders are developed from the top down. If an organization and its members are aware of the requisite traits, then those characteristics become the standards by which those organizations judge their leaders. If a supervisor is unfair or inconsistent, he will not only be deemed a poor leader. In addition, the idea that a supervisor fails to meet these criteria perpetuates the notion that fairness and consistency are not necessary traits to succeed or advance in the department. People respond to what they see, not to what they hear! If demonstrating leadership principles is one of the primary standards used for promotions, we confirm our commitment to the principles.

Accountability and mentoring go hand in hand. Every member of an organization should be held accountable for mentoring and nurturing these principles in their subordinates. The fire chief should be coaching the deputy chiefs to prepare them for the fire chief’s job and holding them to the highest standard of excellence. Deputy chiefs should be mentoring assistant chiefs; assistant chiefs should be mentoring battalion chiefs; battalion chiefs should be mentoring captains; captains should be mentoring engineers; engineers should be mentoring firefighters; and firefighters should be mentoring newer members or volunteers. A major factor in performance appraisals and promotional consideration should include how well a member has mentored his subordinates. Firefighters want to be challenged and empowered.

A department committed to excellence must be prepared to “cull the herd” when necessary. The most demoralizing factor in building an organization striving for excellence is tolerating incompetence. This lack of accountability undermines the efforts of the entire organization and ratifies inappropriate behavior. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric and considered by many to be one of the premier leaders of our time, believed that the bottom 10 percent of the organization did not belong there. Granted, it is a rather extreme notion, but the idea that those unwilling or unable to support the organization in achieving its goals should be dismissed is worthy of consideration.

Beyond the personal characteristics listed above, leaders must develop the following core competencies:

  • the personal skills of good communication in writing and speaking
  • the interpersonal skills of bringing people together
  • team building
  • communicating a vision
  • and bringing this all to fruition.

A leader must understand the dynamics of change and the process for championing change. A leader empowers others and takes pride in developing subordinates to their full potential. Above all, a leader understands the responsibility that goes with leadership and embraces it with a sincere sense of humility.

Although that good leadership begins at the top, the strength of an organization lies in leadership skills from the chief all the way down to the newest firefighter. Every baseball team has a couple of good hitters at the top of its lineup, but a championship team has good hitters all the way down the lineup. We all find fulfillment in our jobs. Let’s strive to develop every one of our personnel to their fullest potential, from the top to the bottom, such that the new recruits as well as the experienced chief officers experience the satisfaction that comes with personal development.

How can a fire department develop leaders?

1. The department’s administration must agree that leadership development within the department is one of its highest priorities and enthusiastically participate in a leadership development program.

2. Adopt core values that include the characteristics of leadership and hold everyone accountable to those values.

3. Develop a leadership course for all members. This class will include not just the principles of leadership but also the responsibilities of mentoring and accountability. For officers, the classes will be ongoing, reinforcing, and expanding leadership principles with reading assignments and discussions. Chief officers can lead these classes on a rotating basis, demonstrating their commitment to the program.

4. Create opportunities for all members to demonstrate leadership skills within the community as well as the department.

There are several givens in the fire service today. One, because of the vast number of recent retirements, our departments have gotten young very quickly. Two, the traditional way of doing business in the fire service does not lend itself to developing leaders. There are no shortcuts. Building leaders is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and requires a new paradigm in an organization that prides itself on tradition and is reluctant to change. But no organization needs good leaders more than today’s fire departments.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” — John Quincy Adams

Captain's Corner: Michael HenniganMichael Hennigan retired as a battalion chief from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department after served 35 years with the department. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from the University of San Francisco. He is certified by the California State Fire Marshal to teach management and tactics. For the past 10 years, he has taught numerous fire departments throughout northern California and is a part-time instructor for City College of San Francisco. He can be reached via e-mail at


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