As our leadership core transitions from seasoned veterans to up-and-comers, it is important to recognize the traits that are needed to be successful in our officer ranks.

In your last promotional exam or assessment interview, a heavy emphasis was placed on your knowledge of tactics, operations or some technical discipline. Let’s call this “Subject Knowledge.” While these bread-and-butter items certainly are important, there is more to the development of a well-rounded individual.

Our officers need to be provided with all of the tools necessary to interact with people. Let’s call these “People Skills.” On any given 24-hour shift, you will interact with employees from the hospital ER; representatives from a host of agencies; volunteers from across the combination system or neighboring mutual-aid communities; and the general public while on calls, delivering fire prevention education or conducting occupancy inspections. Most importantly, you will spend more time with your crew than anyone else.

The bicycle model (Figure 1) illustrates the need to balance the key leadership skills. Bicycle A (strong People Skills, weaker Subject Knowledge) is probably the minority case among our current leaders, while bicycle B (strong Subject Knowledge, but weaker People Skills) most likely predominates. We all would agree that the best situation for our departments would be to have leaders exhibit the traits indicated by bicycle C, which shows a balanced understanding of Subject Knowledge and People Skills.

Figure 1. Subject Knowledge and People Skills Bicycle Model

The key is to be able to identify and improve on the weaker “wheel” of your leadership bicycle. Let’s look at several of the ways we can inflate the “People Skills” leadership tire.


Good listening skills constitute an art that needs to be taught and practiced. Most people in leadership roles struggle with giving others the opportunity to speak. Hearing the message being communicated without interruption is very powerful; as it builds a sense of relationship.

Lt. Lou Lake of Illinois told me that his crew knows when they have his full attention because he looks them in the eye when they shake hands and when they have a conversation. This shows the crew that what they have to say, together or individually, is important.

Try the technique called “mirroring” to communicate back to your team that you understand what is being said: Simply restate or repeat back to your people what you believe you heard, and ask them if you got it right. This is a great way for an officer to build his team members’ confidence in his competency. It shows that the officer cares and actually got the point the crew or individual was making.

You will find that this simple process will bear some healthy fruit, and boost morale as well. Your discussions will become solutions-based instead of complaint sessions. Your crew will bring forth ideas on how to improve efficiency and expertise in Subject Knowledge. The improved communication by the officer will be infectious, and the crew will sharpen their skills when dealing with each other and the bevy of interactions mentioned earlier.

Leaders who invest the time to listen to the people in their organizations tend to develop strong and lasting relationships. They learn and demonstrate an understanding of what is important and what matters in their employees’ lives. The brother- or sisterhood forged in our profession is a result of our ability to relate to each other’s needs, convictions, struggles, and successes. As running calls become a smaller part of our job function, this ability to communicate and relate to each other grows in importance directly in proportion to the increased time we spend with our extended family.


If you think about great leaders in history or in your own organization, you will realize that they all possess a solid foundation of confidence, assurance, and obligation.

A simple formula (Figure 2) can be used to develop these traits in our next generation of leaders: Trust = (C + A + R) ÷ E, which stands for Trust equals the sum total of Credibility, Authenticity, and Reliability, divided by “Ego-Focus.”

Figure 2. Building Trust as a Leader

Credibility is displayed and established by people mainly because of their demonstrated ability and repeated personal actions. Those with experience, knowledge, or time on the job do not automatically possess this strength-personal integrity and what you stand for also count. Recognize that there are those who attempt to achieve credibility by taking the shortcut of aligning themselves with others who already have earned the trust that comes through credibility.

Authenticity of your persona affects the strength of your overall Trust formula. Do you take incremental risks to support your coworkers or subordinates? Do you say what you feel, what you mean, and what you see while acting with the duty to protect your organization? It’s a sign of your personal conviction to succeed based on what is right, our heritage, and the tradition of the service.

Reliability means you learn to manage your expectations and those of your crew in a consistent manner. Put into action those things that you say you are going to do. How good is your word? Prove it!

Finally, never forget that the foundation of your Trust formula can be severely compromised by the Ego-Focus denominator. Trust built strictly on satisfying personal motives has a tendency to weaken the establishment and all the things for which our profession stands. Concentrate on developing a solid foundation based on the value Trust provides to you as a leader within the organization.


A key to a leader’s success in the People Skills arena is to develop an understanding of what motivates your people and to be familiar with this behavior. You can work on ensuring that their expectations are met only after you have developed an awareness of what drives them to be satisfied or dissatisfied.

A person’s satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not opposites but two separate conditions. As a good leader, you need to be aware that your crew can experience varying degrees of both feelings. For example, your people can experience a low level of satisfaction and a low level of dissatisfaction at the same time. This middle area of feelings is referred to as the “zone of indifference.”

We can relate to this as we all have taken a training class in which we received an average score, or a five out of a possible 10 on the evaluation form. The instruction was mediocre, or the documentation or practical exercises were just good enough. If you are able to recognize this condition, you can take steps to improve the satisfaction derived from this experience. People with a low level of dissatisfaction often have minor worries, issues, or problems they are experiencing with the situation. These issues can easily be overcome if a leader provides a level of support that removes the barriers preventing the feeling of satisfaction.

Once you have established a solid foundation of trust and good listening skills, it will be easier to enhance this relationship. Close the loop in the process, and provide good communication. You will uncover what may be causing the degree of dissatisfaction with your people. Ask the questions that produce answers of substance, leading to a good flow of information. Increase your understanding, and then “mirror” what you heard. Before you know it, morale and Subject Knowledge expertise will be at an all-time high!

JEFF SIMPSON, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief of operations with Hanover (VA) Fire and EMS. He has a degree in engineering and is certified as a Virginia state fire instructor II and officer II. He has been teaching leadership, engineering, and strategy courses to businesses for the past 17 years. Simpson teaches regularly at the Hanover County Fire Academy and assisted as a Firefighter Survival H.O.T. instructor at FDIC in Indianapolis in 2005.

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