Your opportunity has finally arrived: the chance to take your company officer’s exam. If you pass, you may be designated as an acting company officer or lieutenant, or you may be needed immediately for the full-time company officer position-no experience required; just do the job. We all agree that this shouldn’t happen, but we all know it does.

What inspired you to take on this responsibility? Are you tired of cleaning fire trucks, mopping floors, and cleaning toilets? I hear this a lot: “I’m taking the exam because I don’t want so-and-so to be my company officer.” Sorry, folks, that’s the wrong reason to take an exam. Do you think that if you achieve the position of company officer, you’ll be able to put your feet up and relax? If you do, you are wrong!

Being a successful company officer in today’s environment is hard work. As acclaimed author Mary B. Smith said, “The only place you’ll find success before work is in the dictionary.” Now, just so we’re clear, to be a successful company officer, you need to be a leader. To be a good leader, there are so many things that need to be done. Are you up for the challenge? It’s gut-check time. Let’s see if you’re ready.

Before I proceed, you need to know that I don’t have all of the answers. In fact, I’m still learning myself. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my time as a firefighter, a company officer, an acting platoon chief, and now a deputy chief. I’m not afraid to admit that my first year as a deputy chief was full of mistakes-leading by position power was the biggest one. This means I was trying to accomplish things with the four stripes on my shoulders-a huge mistake. I was leading with my head, not my heart; with rules, not values. I was trying to light a fire under people, not stoking the fire within; pushing people, not pulling them. These are all traits of managers, not leaders. Keep this important point in mind when reading this article: It’s about leadership, not management. An organization needs managers and leaders, but company officers need to focus on being good leaders.

What qualities or characteristics do you feel you possess that would make you a great leader in your department? Are you honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent? If you are, you have a head start. In the book The Leadership Challenge, Jim M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner surveyed thousands of business and government executives across six continents. They asked this question, What values do you look for and admire in your leader? The respondents identified more than 250 values, traits, and characteristics; however, time and time again, the main ones identified were honesty, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent. Perhaps more staggering, but not surprising, is that honesty has been the No. 1 value for more than 25 years.

Let’s look at honesty a little closer. The first thing that comes to mind, I’m sure, is don’t lie. Duh! Sure, this is part of honesty, but it is more than that. Honesty is also not deceiving people. You can’t make people believe one thing and then do another.

I remember talking to a member of the union’s negotiation committee about some of management’s proposals. I told the person that, in the upcoming exchange of proposals, “We don’t have a lot of issues.” On the surface, this seems like a harmless comment, but it could have been perceived as deception. Although we didn’t have “a lot of issues,” what we had on the table were significant ones. Because of this comment, I contacted this member again as I was driving home and clarified my earlier comments. I made it clear that although we didn’t have a lot of issues, the ones that were on the table were significant. He appreciated the phone call, and I felt better, too. Remember, people want to ensure that their leader is truthful, ethical, and principled and has integrity.

Okay, so you feel you possess the qualities listed above, although I hope you admit that we can always improve. What else makes a good leader? I have some ideas.


As a company officer and leader of your crew, you have to teach your firefighters how to do their jobs. You should be a mentor and a cheerleader. You have to teach them the difference between what is right and what is wrong. If you don’t correct their unacceptable behaviors, they won’t even know they’re doing something wrong. Many times I’ve seen or heard of firefighters out of uniform, not wearing their safety equipment, not following safety procedures (seat belts, for example), or reading a newspaper when everyone else was checking a truck. These behaviors cause huge issues in fire departments. What really gets my goat is they don’t have to. Company officers should be nipping these little issues in the bud, when they are still minor. Coaches don’t let these issues get big.

Coaches also practice (i.e., train) every day to reduce the number of mistakes that their teams make. In Everyone’s a Coach: You Can Inspire Anyone to Be a Winner, Coach Don Shula says that we have to reduce the number of practice errors that are made. To do this he follows five simple rules:

  1. Tell your people what you want them to do.
  2. Show them what good performance looks like.
  3. Let them do it.
  4. Observe their performance.
  5. Praise their actions or redirect them to do it correctly.

Most coaches fail No. 4-they don’t observe their team’s performance. Many times, company officers don’t attend training sessions because they are too busy doing other things. Big mistake! Attend the training session, especially the practical exercise, so you can observe your team’s performance. Then, either praise or redirect (i.e., correct) their efforts.


As stated above, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I’m not afraid to admit to them. Authors Kouzes and Posner make this statement, “Learning doesn’t take place in the absence of mistakes.” Now, when you make a mistake, you must admit to it. You will maintain your credibility if you do so. Brian Ellsworth, a good friend of mine and another deputy chief of our department, has this mantra, “If you mess up, ’fess up.” Mistakes are part of growing and sometimes are the result of risk taking-another great trait of good leaders. Don’t be afraid to lose; but when you do, don’t lose the lesson.

Consider the following:
  •R.H Macy failed in retailing seven times before his store in New York became successful.
  • Abraham Lincoln failed twice in business and was defeated in six state and national elections before being elected President.
  • Theodor S. Geisel, better known to the world as Dr. Seuss, had gone to 23 publishers before six million copies of his book were sold.

There is great value in mistakes. All good leaders encounter unexpected hurtles. All leaders get knocked down-but if you’re talented and good, you can get back up.


A leader will never accomplish what he wants done just by ordering it done. Trumpets, stripes, and firmly barked orders no longer work (except on the fireground). Good leaders say what they mean and mean what they say. They walk the talk. Their video is in sync with their audio. One of the quickest ways to lose credibility with your crew is to say you’ll do something but don’t follow through. Good leaders follow procedures, rules, and guidelines. If a leader breaks rules, he is indirectly telling his staff, “It’s okay not to follow my rules.” If a leader doesn’t agree with a procedure, a rule, or a guideline, he will challenge the process by asking questions. He will try and change things that he doesn’t agree with; however, if he is not successful in doing so, he had better follow them.

Never forget the effect you have on your people. Both optimism and pessimism are equally contagious. Leaders are optimistic. They don’t look at difficulties as problems; they view them as challenges or opportunities. It is way too easy to look at incidents and see them as problems, but what leaders do is embrace the challenge. They tackle the issue with a different mindset. They look into the future and see what benefits will be achieved by solving the problem. If you have ever successfully conquered a challenge, you know what I’m talking about.

When faced with a difficult or ethical decision, the author of It’s Your Ship, Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, former commander of the U.S.S. Benfold, says, “Never fail the Washington Post test. Ask yourself, If what I’m about to do appeared on the front page of the Washington Post tomorrow, would I be proud or embarrassed? If I knew I would be embarrassed, I would not do it. If I’d be proud, I knew I was generally on the right track.”

Leading by example is so important. When I walk into a fire hall, regardless of where it is in North America, show me an enthusiastic crew, and I’ll show you an enthusiastic company officer. Show me a lazy crew, and I’ll show you a lazy company officer. Sorry, folks, but it’s just that simple.


Leaders take responsibility. They don’t blame others when things get tough. They figure out what needs to be done and then they do it. Let’s face it, sitting around the coffee table and participating in “blamestorming” exercises is easy; that’s why so many people do it. Leaders know that this is wrong and interrupt these useless discussions. In Jim Clemmer’s book, The Leader’s Digest: Timeless Principles for Team and Organization Success, he says: “The fact is that stuff happens. Life isn’t fair. Whatever hits the fan certainly won’t be evenly distributed. The best approach to dealing with things that cannot be changed is to accept them. The worst thing we can do is to succumb to the Victimitis Virus and “awfulize” the situation by throwing pity parties in Pity City. When the doo-doo starts to pile deep, a leader doesn’t just sit there and complain (usually about ‘them’); he or she grabs a shovel. We may not choose what happens to us, but we do choose how to respond-or not.”

Leaders also know the impact of negative questions. Questions that start with who, when, and why. Who didn’t clean the truck? Why didn’t Firefighter Smith put his gear away? Why didn’t they (by the way, who are “they”?) consult me when they drafted that policy? Why don’t they do something about that lazy chief officer? When are they going to listen to me? Leaders know the negative vibes that these types of questions breed. Leaders ask questions that start with “what” and “how.” What can I do about the dirty truck? What can I do about the gear Firefighter Smith left on the bay floor? How can I motivate that lazy chief officer? I’m sure you can see the difference between the two types of questions. One of them is pushing the responsibility to someone else; the other is helping fix the problem-seeking an opportunity.

Are you taking responsibility for your own actions and those of your crew, or are you participating in the pity parties that take place in Pity City? During your next tour of duty, keep track of the number of times you start sentences with who, when, and why. I bet it is quite often.

But the good news is there is hope. You can catch yourself. Stop in mid-sentence and take responsibility. Just one person can stop this endless circle of blame.


Attitude is the key element to great leadership. It’s more important than success, failure, facts, money, ability, and even experience. If you want people to follow you, you must possess a great attitude. Poor leaders have poor attitudes. Good leaders have good attitudes and great leaders have great attitudes. In the words of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “When you change your attitude, everything changes.”

Earlier in this article we talked about leading by example. Well, if you’re the type of leader (and I can’t really call you a leader if you do this) who walks into your firehouse or division and right off the bat start talking about all of the negative things going on-you start bad-mouthing your peers and senior officers or rambling on about all of the things that are wrong about the last truck that was just purchased-you need to check your attitude.

At last year’s Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, Eddie Buchanan, a division chief for Hanover (VA) Fire and EMS, gave a very compelling keynote speech. He stated, “We’ve all got our do-somethings, do-littles, and our do-nothings. But let’s do a gut-check here for a minute. Where do you and I fit in? That last policy or directive that came down that you didn’t like or agree with, or the do-little that acts like a flaming idiot most of the time … how do you handle those situations? I gotta tell you, I was surprised to find my attitude compass needed a little calibration. The more I actually listened to what I was saying and how I was acting, the more I realized how negative I was. Does your attitude compass need to be recalibrated? Mine did.”

As a leader, how did you handle that last change that you had no control over? Leaders know that there is a long list of items that we can’t control. Some of these are political or economical-and, as we all know, sometimes the chief makes decisions that we can’t control. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow offers this advice, “The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.” I believe that is pretty solid advice. If a leader is going to maintain a positive attitude, that person has to realize that stuff happens. To maintain a positive attitude, leaders must know when it is time to accept change. They don’t have to agree with it, but they have to accept it. Cynicism isn’t leadership. Leaders bring hope and possibility. Move on, and put your efforts into something that you can change.

Now, here’s the best thing about attitude-it’s a choice, and you get to choose it. Unlike certain types of change-rules, the station you get assigned to, or the leader that you work for-you are in total control of your attitude. I’m sure many of you have heard about the FISH! Philosophy, but if you haven’t, the true-life story that inspired the FISH! Philosophy came from the Pike Place Fish Co. in Seattle, Washington. This philosophy has been, and continues to be, taught to all types of organizations all over the world. It is based on four principles: Be There, Play, Make Someone’s Day, and Choose Your Attitude.

According to the FISH! Philosophy, “Choosing your attitude” is not always putting on a happy face or feeling pressure to adopt the outlook that’s officially acceptable. Sometimes angry or sad are called for. That’s why choosing your attitude is about being aware of what your attitude is and that it does affect you and others. Once you are aware of the impact, you may view your attitude differently, even if the situation or person that upset you hasn’t changed. Then you can ask yourself, Does my attitude help me or others? Is it helping me be the way I want to be?

“Choose your attitude asks only that you make your own choice and not try to pass it off on something or someone else. Once you accept that you are the only one who is choosing your attitude at this moment, you can decide whether to keep it or shape it into an attitude that’s more satisfying. You control your attitude, not the other way around.”

So, what do we do on those days that you can’t control your attitude? You just need to be aware of it, as explained above. I believe you need to tell your staff that you’re having “one of those days.” You need to keep your distance. Don’t get involved in discussions that will bring out the worst of you. Remember, a positive attitude is contagious, but a negative one is more so. I believe your staff will appreciate your honesty on those bad attitude days, and you will maintain your reputation as the leader who has a great attitude.

• • •

I have made plenty of mistakes, but I really think I’m starting to understand this thing called leadership. I don’t have all the answers, but hopefully I’ve helped a few people understand some of the traits and characteristics that I believe make good leaders.

Continue to learn every day. Read a book; attend a training session; and, if possible, attend an educational conference every year. There are a lot of supervisors who believe they know it all, but what they generally know all about is from the past. There might be experts of today and of the past, but I don’t believe there are experts of the future. If you want to become better, you really need to concentrate and work at making those changes that will help you become better. It’s hard work, but I know you can do it.

I am a student of life and will continue to learn and do my best every day. I hope you will to-for yourself and for the future of the fire service.


Abrashoff, Captain D. Michael. It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy. Warner Business Books, 2002.

Clemmer, Jim. The Leader’s Digest: Timeless Principles for Team and Organization Success. The Clemmer Group, 2003.

Kouzes, Jim M. and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge. Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Shula, Don, and Ken Blanchard. Everyone’s a Coach: You Can Inspire Anyone To Be a Winner. Zondervan, 1995.

“Choose Your Attitude.” FISH! Philosophy Web site:

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