Developing Leaders for the Next Generation


Fire and emergency services professional development standards have never been more important than now. The drastic changes in politics, economics, budgets, and government philosophies over the past 15 years confirm the need for enhanced emergency services leadership. We must adapt and change our professional development philosophies and encompass education, training, experience, and self-development into a much more well-rounded focus.

Leadership Theories

Of the many leadership theories around, none of them is the only way, but we must understand each theory and use it for the greater good of the fire service.

Transactional leadership centers on the exchange that occurs between the leader and the follower-i.e., “If you will do this, I will reward you with that.” The leader uses disciplinary power and a variety of incentives to motivate employees to perform optimally. Such leadership focuses on maintaining the normal flow of operations.

Transformational leadership uses and works with followers’ motives to achieve the goals of the leader and the followers. The leader engages with others and creates a connection that elevates the motivation and the morality in not just the follower but the leader as well. A transformational leader’s engagement will go well beyond the routine of daily operations, taking it to the next level with individuals, the team, and the organization.

Figure 1. The National Professional Development Model

Servant leadership considers the leader by nature a servant and concerned with his followers’ needs; hence, he assists them in becoming more knowledgeable, more autonomous, more skilled, and more enhanced in their comprehension. The leader accepts that no one is perfect, everyone will make mistakes, and no one will always perform at peak. Instead, the servant leader focuses on the need for a consistent high level of performance and service and the alignment of the organization’s values within each team member. The servant leader focuses on accountability for himself, his actions, and the performance and actions of the people he leads.

Leaping into Leadership

The leap from one leadership level to the next is complex, but the first step toward fire service leadership, company officer, is the most significant step. A professional development model (Figure 1) can help you be a successful and an effective leader. The model was developed through the research, the experience, and the observations of a large number of great fire service leaders. Reflecting on their careers and experience, you will notice that the most effective leaders are very well developed and well-rounded individuals. Battalion Chief Sean DeCrane of the Cleveland (OH) Fire Department spoke of this in his stellar keynote presentation at the 2015 Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) International ( Well rounded means combining in one package predicated knowledge, skills, abilities, and training. “A high level of competence in fire suppression is critical-and don’t ever understate its importance or underestimate the risk associated with it,” stresses DeCrane.

All fire service agencies need new and inspiring fire officers who are educated, trained, and well developed so that they can eventually step up to lead the organization. It’s an ongoing issue, especially in today’s times as our fire service agencies evolve at a rate far exceeding the changes we have experienced in the past. Fortunately, our predecessors realized this need when they formed the United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy. That has been further enhanced by many national and international fire service organizations like the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, International Association of Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, International Association of Arson Investigators, and International Code Council. Premier training conferences like FDIC International, recognizing the need for enhanced leadership, have provided excellent training and educational programs for future leaders’ development.

Even with all of this available, I am concerned when I realize that nationwide we are quick to embrace the “status quo.” Our striving for mediocrity is far from anything remotely associated with leadership, but it is well embraced in many fire service organizations. “I don’t have enough time” is one excuse used by those who say they want to develop professionally and become leaders, and “If I’m not getting paid for professional development, I won’t do it.” This is a severe, culturally ingrained problem. It has struck a nerve with many, but if you’re going to step up and be a leader, you need to prepare.

Professional Development Model

Professional development is the planned, progressive, and lifelong process of education, training, self-development, and experience that one gains during development. The National Professional Development Model from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Figure 1) clearly illustrates the importance of education and training as set forth in the fire service higher education programs. Note that in the model, emergency response training is more predominant during the initial career years, whereas organizational and skills transition from a shift to an education emphasis.

Share All Your Experience

We start by not accepting anything less than the best in everything we do. Further, we need to teach and share with our youth our experiences, even the failures. Albert Einstein never viewed any unsuccessful attempt as a failure but as a “win” in knowing one more way that didn’t work. These experiences will carry lifelong lessons learned. Today, as I mentor younger fire service members, I frequently refer to situations, problems, successes, and lessons learned related to similar issues they are facing. My father called this the “school of hard knocks education of life.” But many fire officers today never take time to share, mentor, and teach our future leaders.

Make Learning Appealing

As we begin this professional development, we must create an appealing environment. I always remember Chief (Ret.) Dan Jones of the Chapel Hill (NC) Fire Department being positive even when the chips didn’t fall the way he wanted them. He could make a silver lining from any black cloud. As I travel and spend time with department leaders from across the country, someone is always negative. Nothing is ever positive. They can’t make a win-win situation out of anything. These folks are destined to make the same type of leaders.

We must present helpful teaching, making the learning environment one in which we constantly learn by using the three learning domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Fire service leaders can impact teaching with the positive affective mode of learning as students and future leaders learn basic concepts to ultimately apply them to situations and affect outcomes. This is true learning and understanding. This concept is usually accomplished when leaders share knowledge and experiences and allow for mistakes.

If we want to progress, we have to share our knowledge, good and bad, with our youthful leaders to be, since their future depends on it. We must be dynamic in sharing our knowledge and create engaging learning environments. A leader profile needs to encompass several areas to meet these challenges and changes that we will face.

First, we must find motivation that exceeds all previous levels, bringing newfound excitement to the leadership training we deliver, including college degree programs. The excitement level that the leader brings carries over and motivates the followers to the same level or higher. We leaders must enter the education setting with a true teaching attitude, not one of just doing the bare minimum. Leaders need to develop the right attitude about professional development. Attitude starts with evaluating whether you are meeting the mission statement of the fire service-i.e., truly developing future leaders and your department through your leadership, mentoring, and education.

Second, evaluate whether your professional development program is realistic. Is it appropriate for your situation, your operations, your equipment, and so forth? Although higher levels of training are great and have their place, are we meeting all the basic needs of the future leaders we serve? Many of these basic needs include writing skills; interpersonal and group dynamics; job-predicated knowledge, skills, and abilities; and leadership training. If not, we need to reevaluate what and how we are teaching/mentoring.

As we begin developing these new leaders, we must ensure that we are creating level-appropriate environments in which to mentor them. Nothing frustrates an individual more than to be placed in a position beyond his capabilities. Evaluate each person and be brutally honest with them.

There is a considerable need for a well-rounded firefighter in today’s fire service. We tend to relate everything in professional development to training. That is not accurate; there is much more to the equation than training.

Training is the process of teaching a person the particular skills or behaviors needed for an art, a profession, or a job. But we need to teach more than just skills or behaviors for today’s environment and most definitely for future environments. We need to incorporate the National Professional Development Model into developing well-rounded firefighters. To training, we must add education, experience, and self-development.

Education is the process of teaching someone in a school, a college, or a university knowledge, skills, and understanding. Many higher education programs would help make a more well-rounded firefighter, such as degree programs in fire science, business management, emergency management, health and safety, and others.

Experience is the accumulation of knowledge that occurs from repeatedly performing actions or witnessing others performing them and having them happen to you during a specific length of time. This is where mentoring comes in. A great mentor can help you find these components of experience outside the walls of your organization. Experience comes in many shapes and sizes.

Self-development is the awareness, the attitude, and the personal attributes you have cultivated, mentored, developed, and matured that must be individually developed and refined based on training, education, and experience. Self-development requires you, the individual, to be an opportunist. When it presents itself, you must quickly seize the opportunity and the experience and knowledge you can gain from it.

Professional Development Plan

In the fire service professional, development is a critical element of leadership and professionalism. When we accept the responsibility of leadership, we also accept an obligation to continue our training, education, learning, personal experience, and growth and to work to improve our effectiveness. As fire service organizations, we must strive to provide continuing guidance to our most valued resource, our personnel, through a carefully crafted professional development plan that meets the specifics of the organization.

Table 1 lists the recommended training courses for aspiring lieutenants, captains, and battalion chiefs, respectively. Note that the basic education foundation for each rank builds on that of the previous rank with additional educational requirements and challenges. As you can see in the professional development plan, the additional training required better prepares you for that particular leadership role’s work challenges. Recognize that you advance from managing a small group of people to leading larger groups in the organization-management and leadership are distinct roles.

Management involves controlling processes and people. Many of those in first-level supervisory positions such as lieutenant do a lot of day-to-day operational management. Management has the three characteristics. First, you reach goals by working with and through people and the available resources. Second, it is a series of closely related continuing activities. Third, the goals are reached by working with personnel and other resources that are available through the organization.

Not that company officers do not lead, but the proportion of management compared to that of leadership is routinely greater, so there are initial leadership classes and training in the matrix for this level. As you continue in your career, note that the courses lean to a more leadership and an administrative focus at the captain and battalion chief levels.

DOUGLAS K. CLINE is a 35-year veteran of the fire service, a retired chief, and the assistant chief of professional development with Horry County (SC) Fire Rescue. He is a past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and was named the George D. Post Instructor of the Year in 2000. Cline hosts Fire Engineering‘s BlogTalk radio show “Training and Tactics.” He has a bachelor’s degree in social work and education from Concord University and is an international speaker and author.

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