Effective Leadership: Finding the Common Ground Between Leader and Members


This article was writteN with the fire/rescue service in mind, but it can be applied to leaders in any field. The exercises at the end serve as a way to quantify the traits of leadership in your organization. Leadership training should include more than just the mechanics of leadership; it should include also what makes the organization and its leaders work together.

We all know leadership when we see it, and we know when it is missing. Figure 1 shows a fictitious leader. But what is leadership? Leadership may be viewed as the mechanism used by individuals to accomplish a common objective. This article focuses on what happens when the leader and the group/organization do not agree on the objective or goal. What if the group does not want to do what the leader wants or the leader does not believe in the organization’s goals? What if the leader wants to pursue goals that differ from those of the organization? A successful leader must be in step with his organization and must be part of the group; the leader and the group should have a common understanding. The established culture of the organization greatly influences the leader’s performance.

Figure 1. Caricature of a Leader
<i>(Richard C. Cartledge, artist; courtesy of author.)</i>
(Richard C. Cartledge, artist; courtesy of author.)

Respect is another necessary component for effective leadership. But, respect is not a given. A military officer may have authority over a unit, but he will have to earn that unit’s respect. A volunteer fire officer may be voted into office by the fire company and be given authority over the group, but he will have to earn the members’ respect.

A leader must inspire confidence in his followers. This is especially crucial in the fire service, where things can go wrong quickly. Normally, we arrive on a fire scene, report to the command post, and wait for the chief to issue orders. There are times, though, when we have a complex rescue, forest fire, or hazmat call. In these situations, the leader can ask for members’ input on how to proceed: Should we check the air quality? Should we approach from the roof on ropes or use a ladder from the ground? Then, after the discussion, the chief/leader reverts to the traditional role and issues orders. But wait! If the chief holds the discussion before issuing orders, some members may interpret this approach as a sign that the chief does not know what he is doing or that he is weak. Whether to give orders first or brainstorm first depends on the circumstances of that particular incident. The members must understand that each approach has its place in team dynamics.

The following examples illustrate scenarios in which the chief’s decisiveness produced a negative and a positive result.

  • My department was called to an underpass of a four-lane highway that had flooded. We dutifully set up our drafting operation and pumped the water over the side bank. We must have pumped 2,000 gallons per minute for two hours, and the water dropped not an inch. You know it. We were recycling the water back into the underpass. The chief was decisive but wrong. It would have been better to survey the drainage pattern first, but that would have made the chief look weak and it would have taken time.
  • A welder’s truck was on fire on the outside of a building; the acetylene tank had vented a flame at the top. The first-due engine put copious gallons of water on the tank but permitted the flame to continue to burn. The thinking was the venting gas could reignite if the fire were put out. The chief came up and said to extinguish the fire. The chief was right because this was an outside fire. If it had been an inside fire, the proper action would have been to let the fumes burn. The chief knew what to do and made the correct decision.

Learning Leadership

A host of schools offer courses on the fire service officer, incident command, and leadership development. They focus on the techniques of leadership such as how to organize a fire scene, how to interact with other services, how to communicate, and team-building exercises.

There are many books on leadership as well. In my research, I came across some on corporate leadership. One book in particular presents information that may be applied not only to a corporation but also to a fire department or a military organization. The book1 was written by a former executive vice president of Honeywell International and a former chairman of Columbia University Department of Organizational and Counseling Psychology. The authors list 11 reasons business leaders fail: arrogance, melodrama, volatility, excessive caution, habitual distrust, aloofness, mischievousness, eccentricity, passive resistance, perfectionism, and eagerness to please.

Some of the traits may appear to overlap. The authors say that this is because the human mind is complex. I say, each trait has an opposite extreme.


Let’s take arrogance as an example. It can be manifested by the exaggerating of one’s worth in an overbearing manner. However, there is a range of behaviors associated with arrogance. One person’s arrogance may be another person’s overconfidence (acknowledging your powers and abilities while ignoring your weaknesses). The leader may think he is self-confident, but others may see him as arrogant. The point is that even a good trait can be taken to extremes. Just as the opposite of arrogance is overconfidence, the other traits have opposites such as bland, unchanging, rash, gullible, involved, compliant, plain, aggressive, sloppy, and abrasive.

The scale in Figure 2 is for arrogance. Zero, or neutral, is the point between the two extremes. Arrogant is assigned +5; overconfident, -5. To start your evaluation, begin at zero. You can then move up in the range to arrogant or down in the range to self-confident. If the leader leans toward being arrogant but not to the extreme, for instance, assign a +2 on the scale.

Figure 2. Leader and Arrogance
<i>(All figures by author.)</i>
(All figures by author.)

Either extreme can cause problems, depending on the organization. If the members have a great deal of self-confidence, they may want a leader strong on self-confidence. An organization made up of individuals who are on the arrogant side may tolerate or expect a leader who is arrogant.

In Figure 3, the leader, in red, is low on the arrogance scale-he has much self-confidence. The crew, in blue, believes the leader has a high degree of arrogance. The result is an imbalance, and the boat tips.

Figure 4 shows that the opposite can also be the case. If the leader, shown in red, is high on the arrogance scale, he displays a sense of self-importance. If the crew, shown in blue, is low on the arrogance scale, they expect the leader to show more humility. The result, again, is imbalance, and the boat tips the other way.

Figure 3. Imbalance: The Organization Believes the Leader Is Arrogant
Figure 4. Imbalance: The Organization Wants a Leader with More Humility
Figure 5. The Organization and the Leader Are on the Same Page

In Figure 5, the leader and the crew are matched for the trait of arrogance/self-confidence. The boat is balanced.

The 11 traits of a leader can be graphed together. The organization’s expectations of the leader are on the positive side at +4 in each category, and the leader is at -4 in each category. The graphic in Figure 6 shows this result in pink.

Figure 6. The Leader Is on the Negative End of the Scale in Every Category

If the leader is on the positive side at +4 in each category, and the organization is at -4 in each category, the graph would show that difference in orange, as in Figure 7.

Figure 7. The Leader Is on the Positive End of the Scale in Every Category

If the leader and the organization have similar traits, the leader and the expectations of the leader overlap, and the graph looks like that in Figure 8.

Figure 8. The Leader and the Crew Are on the Same Page in Every Category

In real life, the leader and the organization differ in complex ways, as reflected in Figure 9.

Figure 9. The Leader and the Organization Are Above and Below by Category

Traits are tools used to accomplish goals. The leader is not expected to have extreme behavior, although it is hard to criticize the captain of a nuclear submarine for being too much of a perfectionist. It is also expected that the leader’s traits will differ from those of the members. The leader has to know when to push for goals and when to back off and wait for another day. The organization’s goals can be accomplished when the leader makes the right choices for his organization.


1. Dotlich D and P Cairo. Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb to the Top-and How to Manage Them. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Author’s note: The assistance of Robert E. Murray, REM Associates, Princeton, New Jersey, and Jim Breen, ROCO Rescue, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is gratefully acknowledged.

MARYON J. WILLIAMS JR., Ph.D., P.E., was a volunteer firefighter for 20 years. His last position was captain of the high-angle rescue team and an emergency medical technician. He has degrees in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech and Rutgers University (NJ), where he patented a heart assist device. He has held teaching positions at Rutgers University and the Medical College of Georgia. He is a practicing engineer engaged in condition monitoring on ships.


The following exercises involve evaluating the leadership traits of leaders and the organization. Table 1 covers the leader’s traits; Table 2 covers the organization’s traits. Both leaders and organization members should fill out each table so that any differences in opinion will become clear. There is no right answer. The end result will be a measure of compatibility based on the traits of leadership.

To complete the two tables, place a check in the column that best shows each trait. Start the analysis at zero. Proceed in the following manner:

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