Are You Ready for a Leadership Role?

By Frank Viscuso

A firefighter who worked on an engine company his entire career was recently promoted to the rank of lieutenant. On his first day working in his new position, the other officer at that station called out sick and the newly promoted lieutenant was assigned to the ladder company for the first time. A few hours into his shift, his company responded to a fully involved warehouse fire. Their assignment was to set up an elevated stream so the engine crew could pour water on the fire from a distance. It was a defensive attack.

He told the driver where to position the apparatus. The driver had worked on a ladder company his entire career. He had also been on the job for the same amount of time as the lieutenant. He was one of the most experienced aerial ladder operators in their department. Having raised and positioned the aerial hundreds of times, he felt the suggested position was incorrect, so he did what a good driver is supposed to do—he spoke up: “Lieutenant, the stream will not reach from this location. We should move the apparatus in about 20 feet.” 


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The lieutenant heard the driver’s opinion but decided to discard it. He did what so many others in leadership positions do: He treated the suggestion as a personal challenge to his authority.

“Position it where I tell you,” he sternly ordered.  

The driver and the other two firefighters on the ladder company did what they were told. After raising the aerial and establishing a water supply, they began to flow water, and they missed the fire by 20 feet.

This newly appointed officer made a classic mistake of confusing position with experience (see #7 below). These types of mistake happen, but people in leadership positions need to learn from them. If they do not, they may not be ready for a leadership role.

Not every member of a team is ready to lead. In fact, some departments have a bad habit of elevating uneducated and sometimes incompetent individuals to the highest level within the organization. This needs to be corrected. A fire service leader must be educated, competent, and prepared.

You may not know for sure if you are ready to take on the role of a team leader. I believe you are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to have it all figured out. One of the best ways to develop your leadership skills is to take action before you feel ready. We learn, grow, and change by doing, not by thinking about doing. I was once asked if I knew of any good leadership exercises. The truth is that the best way to practice being a leader is to lead others in a mission of some sort. I often speak about Leadership 101. If you are unfamiliar with it, here is a summary. There are four steps to leading:

1.      Identify a problem.

2.      Assemble a group of people.

3.      Develop a solution together.

4.      Solve the problem.

If there were a step 5, it would be rinse and repeat. Do this enough times and people will begin to see you as an effective leader.

To lead a team, you also need other people who are ready to lead at various levels within your organization. To successfully lead, you have to identify your key players–your critical few. Leaders have distinguishing characteristics, and so do people who are not ready to lead others. In my book Step Up and Lead, I thoroughly cover leadership traits and skills. Let’s take a moment to talk about the opposite side of the coin. It’s important that we are able to determine who is ready to take on a leadership role and who is not. The list below can help you make that determination.

10 Signs a Person May Not Be Ready to Lead

1. Can’t handle pressure. Leaders are often admired, but they are also often criticized and sometimes even ridiculed.  A true leader understands this and is able to put it in perspective. Sidney Greenberg once said, “A successful man (or woman) is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him.” In the fire service, it’s not difficult to see how someone handles pressure. We deal with high-pressure situations on a regular basis. When a person takes on a leadership role, however, the pressure intensifies. The leader is no longer responsible only for his actions; he is responsible for the actions of a team. Note how a person handles challenges and controversy. Does he play the victim or blame others? By definition, victims aren’t leaders. Leaders step up and take charge during difficult times.

2. Inadequate people skills. Most people who have inadequate or poor people skills do not know it.  When you are around someone who has strong interpersonal skills, that person has the ability to make other people feel important and is the type of person others enjoy being around. The leader listens, pays attention, offers advice, and leads by example. There is a popular saying about leaders who are committed to improving their skill with people:  “Leaders are readers.” One of the best ways to improve people skills is to read the right books. When you see team members reading self-help and personal growth books, you know their head is in the right place.

3. Values do not align with those of the organization. Leaders are culture creators. They are passionate about developing the right culture. Passion comes from values and beliefs. If a person clearly does not believe in the mission of the team, he is not the right person to help develop the culture you are trying to create. One way to determine if a person believes in your mission is to determine if the individual has been a good follower. Often, good followers become good leaders because they have learned to adopt a vision and move toward that direction for the betterment of the team.

4. Doesn’t like being uncomfortable. Leadership is about change. The fact is, if you are not achieving your desired results, change is the only option. Change is uncomfortable. There is no way around it. When people avoid change, they become trapped in their own comfort zone, and no one will ever achieve anything significant without stepping outside of that familiar zone and into unfamiliar territory. Leaders realize this. They also acknowledge that the only constant is change.

5. Puts personal needs ahead of the team. A person who refuses to give credit where it is due is not ready to lead others. Leaders know that for them to become important they have to consider themselves the least important person on the team. Trying to take the spotlight all the time is a sign of immaturity and selfishness. Others recognize this flaw immediately and tend to hold back from giving their best performance. A strong leader understands that everyone on the team has needs and tries to accommodate those needs along the way. Leaders realize that the shortest least significant words in the English language are “I” and “me.”

6. Sets bad examples. This one is obvious, but it needs to be mentioned. Even if a person is a strong producer, if he sets bad examples along the way, others will follow those examples. Take the person who uses foul and offensive language regularly. When he reaches a leadership position, everyone on the team will think this is acceptable. If team members become comfortable enough talking this way around the lunchroom, it’s only a matter of time before they say the wrong thing at the wrong time outside of the workplace.

7. Confuses position with experience. Title, position, and rank represent something significant and should not be diminished. That being said, many people in leadership positions need to stop trying to act as if they have more experience in every area than all of the other members on their team combined. The fact is that we can all learn something new from every member of our team. Even if you do have more experience than most, don’t discount their personal experiences that may provide valuable insight when you need it. The fire service does not need more officers who lack experience. We need more leaders.

8. Is inconsistent. A team leader cannot afford to be on one day and off the next. Yes, personal challenges will happen and there will be times when a person isn’t on top of his game, but that’s different. When inconsistency is the norm, the individual is not stable enough to lead a team on a regular basis. This quality and all of the others listed above can be overcome as long as the individual doesn’t have the ninth and tenth signs.

9. Is indecisive. An indecisive person is described as “not having or showing the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively.’ Leaders make decisions, period. They don’t sit on the fence and wait for everything to be perfect. They look at the options, make a decision, and act on it. When a person takes too long to make decisions, rules often change and opportunities are lost. The “politically correct” thought process of “I feel strongly both ways” can take its toll on a team of people hungry for a clear decision and a precise action plan. A person simply cannot make progress without making decisions.

10. Is unable or unwilling to take corrective action. When a person is unaware that he is doing things incorrectly or showing poor judgment, sometimes all he needs is a little guidance. The real problems occur when the person is unable or unwilling to take corrective action. If the person is unable to do so, most of the time this weakness can be overcome with training and effort. Being unwilling to do so, however, is a completely different animal. People unwilling to do the things that need to be done have no place on your team and certainly should not be put in a leadership role. In the fire service, we have a word for people who are unwilling–insubordinate.

Before you accept a role that will require personal responsibility and accountability, ask yourself, “Am I ready for a leadership position?” Consider the same question when considering a person for a leadership role on your team. If that person has a few of the characteristics listed above, address them or reconsider the appointment for the benefit of the team.   

Don’t forget, most of your skillset will come from doing. If you feel you possess some of those nonleadership characteristics, acknowledging a weakness is a key to growth. Educate yourself. Read books. Attend seminars. Look around and find people in leadership roles you admire and study them. Emulate the things they are doing that impress you, but don’t lose your personal flair or style.


Frank Viscuso is a keynote speaker and a deputy chief and a tour commander in Kearny, New Jersey. He is a co-creator of FireOpsOnline and the author of six books, including Step Up and Lead.

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