You Are What You Preach

By Sal Scarpa

How do you know what people believe in? How do you know what someone stands for? What is it that guides an individual? What are his or her principles? Think about your supervisor or the chief of the department–do you know what is important to them? How did you come to that conclusion?

If I were to tell you that laziness is a virtue or inconsistency is everyone’s right, would you believe me? What if my actions (or inactions) led you to believe that I was an indecisive person or you observed me being impatient with my employees? Wouldn’t you come to the conclusion that I had a difficult time making decisions and was rather short tempered?

People judge you on what you say and what you do; and what you do is often a physical manifestation of you say. Generally, people do and say what they believe. Their actions implicate their beliefs and we form opinions based on what we observe. If this is true, the axiom–you are what you preach—is an important concept for officers to grasp.

Power in Preaching

Becoming an officer in the fire service is a big step for many individuals. For those who make that critical first jump from firefighter or driver to officer (captain, sergeant, or lieutenant), the first supervisory position you will hold is fraught with challenges and changes. Fortunately, for many of the opportunities (a.k.a. challenges) you will face, training is available to help prepare you for those challenges (we’ll call this the officer development program). For example, I would expect a new officer to be well versed in patient care, extrication, firefighting strategy and tactics, etc. In addition, my hope is that you also received some mentoring along the way that perhaps will help you with decision-making challenges and important concepts like situational awareness. Needless to say, not all the answers come along with the shiny gold badge.

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Some challenges are not so obvious, however. For example, when you utter something at the kitchen table about uniforms, suddenly the chatter amongst the crew turns to the day’s attire. You may turn around and notice that your members have tucked in their T-shirts or polished their shoes, or something similar. Or perhaps they overheard you grumbling about a new standard operating procedure (SOP) that’s come down from the chief. Next thing you know, you may find your members blatantly disregarding it because they thought that you were not in favor of it and were going to disregard it as well. Suddenly  you realize that the words you say carry a bit more meaning than perhaps they used to.

The fact that you are an officer now means you must exercise a bit more caution when making offhand remarks. Your words carry a little more weight now and have a bit more meaning. Something you may say in jest or casually speaking can readily be misconstrued.  If it is perceived that the rumor mill has started because of something you said, you may quickly find yourself in the shift chief’s office explaining a comment that was taken completely out of context.

A Higher Standard

The higher the rank, the more pronounced the effect. Offhand comments by the fire chief or his/her staff can quickly become policy. If the operations chief was quoted in a casual conversation as saying that he supported duty shorts during the summer months, he may be surprised to find officers at the kitchen table later discussing different styles and colors of shorts the department should buy. Thus, care should be taken when making statements or issuing directives as an officer. This may not have been something that was taught in your officer development program, but it is surely an important consideration.

One of the things that my boss told me when I was promoted to battalion chief was that now more than ever I would be held to a higher standard. I always knew the fire service and public service employees in general were held to a higher standard. The public expects more of us than they do the private sector. There was a time when scandalous headlines were the bane of private sector organizations–some CEO ripped off his shareholders or insider trading brought a corporate giant to its knees. Today, unfortunately, you can’t watch the evening’s news or read a newspaper without learning of some government corruption or a public official being disgraced by a scandal. Ever notice that when a firefighter is arrested for a DUI accident that the headline is not simply “Joe Smith was arrested and charged with DUI” but rather “Fire Captain Joe Smith from the XYZ Fire Department was arrested and charged with DUI”? This somehow seems much more newsworthy.

It’s true, we are held to a higher standard. Our customers expect public servants to operate in a fashion that does not allow us to bad mouth our bosses. When was the last time you saw a fire chief blast the mayor or city manager on the evening news? My guess is it would be shortly before they were fired. As public servants, being held to a higher standard means that everyone around us–our customers, our employees, and our bosses–pay attention to what we say. So we must choose our words wisely.

Lead by Example

As an officer, you must also realize that although your subordinates are looking up to you and listening to what you say, they are also watching to see what you do. We’ve all heard the phrase about talking the talk and walking the walk, but this is especially true for officers. The people who work for you (as well as those who work beside you and above you) are watching to see that you embody what you espouse. If you are adamant about safety and always harping about seat belts, speed limits, and safety vests (all incredibly important), then you best be sure to model the behavior you expect in others. Lead by example, not by direction. Being the only one on the highway at a traffic accident who steps off the rig without your safety vest will not go unnoticed.

RELATED: Tips for Helping a New Officer Cope with Personnel Problems

As a leader it is important that you practice what you preach. Do you say what you do, and do what you say? If you say you’re going to check on a part for one of your drivers, you have to follow up and do it or your will quickly lose credibility and become known as that unreliable officer. One thing you will learn fairly quickly if you haven’t already is that a reputation is something that is easily earned and hard to shake. Make sure that the reputation you build for yourself is one you will be proud of and something you would like in your superiors.

Silence is Not Golden

It seems like many years ago, in grade school perhaps, I remember hearing the phrase “silence is golden.” As a parent, and a movie-goer, I can appreciate this concept as much as any librarian. Few and far between are the times when we are left alone with our thoughts or a good book. Moments to reflect and opportunities to plan are more deliberate if they can be accomplished in silence.

Yet the silent officer is often ill-perceived. If as an officer you simply don’t say much, what do you suppose you crew thinks of you? Do you think they wait around wondering when you will bestow some words of wisdom upon them? Do you believe that a philosophy of “I will speak only if it’s important” will enhance their trust in you and your ability? I would venture to say probably not. Chances are they will simply see you as disengaged or disinterested in them and/or the organization. Either way, “dis”-ing them will not help make you a good leader.

In a similar vein, as an officer you probably have more of an opportunity to weigh in on policies or projects that impact your people and your organization. In the interview component of my company officer promotional process I was asked, “Sal, why do you want to be promoted?” Without hesitation and with conviction I responded, “I want to be in a better position to influence change.” If you fail to voice your opinion in officers’ meetings or choose not to participate in committees or projects that impact your people and your work, you are failing to use your positional power to potentially generate something positive. Those whom you supervise may not share the same opportunities. If they perceive that you are squandering your chances by remaining silent or non-participative, you may have forfeited an opportunity to reinforce your relationship with them.

“Pipe Down Blowhard!”

The opposite of silence can also be problematic for officers. Every person probably has an opinion or thought on just about everything that goes on in the firehouse. Whether it’s an updated SOP, a shift in tactics, or a new truck–chances are every firefighter in the station has something to say about it.

Having an opinion on something is one thing; expressing your opinion about everything is quite something else. Do you know that person in your station or on the other shift who is quick to offer up their two cents on every little thing? Are they more often than not negative opinions? Or are they quick to jump on a bandwagon? People insist on commenting on everything under the sun often are not well informed about the topic at hand. Their views are often knee jerk reactions or first impressions rarely based on careful thought.

As an officer, your opinion matters and is important to many. However, be careful in passing judgment and judicious in offering praise. Take the time to learn the facts, ask the right questions, see for yourself, and draw your own conclusions. Once you’ve done so, choose when it’s appropriate to offer your insight. If you’re deciding on a new set of extrication tools, your input could be incredibly valuable and appreciated. If the topic is changing the color of the wash rags, maybe you don’t need to weigh in on that one. Remember, people are paying attention to what you say as well as how often you say something.

How Do You Say…

Finally, it’s important to note that how you speak is equally as important as what you say. Consider the many conversations you have throughout the day and the different folks you interact with. When you are at work and speaking with your boss, you generally will try to have a professional tone, use good grammar, and avoid slang terminology. With your peers, you may be more relaxed and much less formal. When at home playing with your kids, you may have an entirely different form of interaction– much more playful and with words that perhaps aren’t even actual words.

The point is that we can project a different persona with our language and our voice. I was presenting a training program recently at a conference. Conference staff were quite insistent that all presenters use the lavalier microphone that was provided. Unfortunately, the one that was given me didn’t work and I had to do without. The room wasn’t terribly big and had really good acoustics, so I was confident I could project my voice in a manner that ensured everyone could hear me. In general conversation at home and with friends, I have a tendency to mumble and mesh my words together, so I make it a point to be clear when I am presenting. After I was done, a gentleman came up to me, shook my hand and said, “Man you’ve got a set of lungs on you!” I thanked him for his remarks and knew that I had projected well.

Every circumstance you find yourself in, whether in your personal life or as a newly promoted officer, will require a different tone, projection, and use of language. Be selective in using your “I AM THE BOSS” voice with your personnel. It gets old fast! Be firm and emphatic when it’s appropriate and conversational when you’re around the kitchen table. Always be professional when dealing with your boss and the public. And consistently project a confident image with your personnel; it will help build their trust in you, which is crucial for every new officer.


In many ways, what you say (and how you say it) is a reflection of who you are. As an officer, your words carry more meaning than when you were firefighter. Choose your words carefully but don’t be afraid to voice your opinion or lend your expertise to a project. Consider your audience when you are speaking and use language, tone, and grammar that reinforce your persona and project a positive image of you and the fire department.

Sal ScarpaSal Scarpa is the deputy chief for the Shawnee (KS) Fire Department. He has served more than 24 in the fire service for both career and volunteer fire departments and is a national presenter on leadership issues. Sal has an associate’s degree in fire science, a bachelor’s degree in public administration, and a master’s degree in leadership studies. Sal is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program at the National Fire Academy, recognized as a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). You may reach him at or

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