Leadership Do’s and Don’ts


There are volumes of studies and research on the topic of leadership. Probably hundreds of psychologists and Ph.D.s have written books on the subject. They discuss the difference between “transformational leadership” and “transactional leadership” and many other concepts. This article will not address such leadership theory. We attend many “leadership” classes that seem to really be more about personnel management than leadership skills. Following are some leadership principles, practices, and traits you can use and that may encourage you to pursue more advanced analyses of leadership skills.

Regardless of the size of your department, you can probably name officers who demonstrate exceptional leadership skills and some who do not. I know crews who would do anything their officer asks without a second thought. Then there are other officers who have a fight on their hands with every decision. Where did these good leaders pick up these traits? Did they have good officers to learn from? Perhaps. They may have learned from their fathers or the military. Who knows? But what about us who did not have the benefit of mentors? Can we learn to be good leaders?

I may be criticized for attempting to oversimplify a very complex subject. But is it really that complicated? The practice of assigning or listing leadership qualities is known as “trait theory” and is not without its critics. These people sometimes tend to place more importance on the psychological makeup of the individual. Harvard-based researcher David McClelland concluded that leadership was based not on a set of traits but on a pattern of motives. It is probably partially true that motive is important. If your motives are pure, your actions will surely reflect that. But that is a discussion for another article.

I do not claim to be an expert on leadership. The information I present here has come from watching good leaders, reading books, and attending classes. Unfortunately, some of this knowledge I have acquired the hard way—through my making mistakes and observing poor leaders. I also consulted with several people in respected leadership positions. As I interviewed many fire service leaders and government officials, I found it interesting that many had a hard time defining leadership, but they said that they always knew it when they saw it. They could name people with outstanding leadership abilities and could sometimes list their good qualities, but defining leadership as a quality all its own was tough.


The following concepts were gleaned from my interviews and research.

  1. Leadership is having those who follow you do what you want because they want to. (This is repeated in many ways in innumerable volumes.)
  2. Leadership is different from management.
  3. People want to be able to be proud of their leaders.
  4. Management is about what you know. Leadership is about who you are.


  • Know your job. This is a great influence in making your followers proud to follow you.
  • Lead by example in all things.
  • Do not lie. Ever. Period. One breach of trust or ethics can destroy years of respect.
  • Reward with sincere praise and approval.
  • Do not patronize with shallow or insincere praise.
  • Never threaten; accurately explain consequences.
  • Never talk bad about your superiors or disrespect their authority. This only serves to degrade your position. You are THE example on how to respect officers.
  • Never make promises you can’t keep.
  • Be an optimist. Very few pessimists become good leaders.
  • Have a vision for your department, division, or station, and discuss it with your team. Unite your team in a shared vision.
  • Never confuse power, manipulation, or coercion with leadership.
  • Remember, sometimes it’s not your fault. Nothing you could have done would have made a follower out of some person. “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”
  • Listen to what people say rather than how they say it.
  • Take risks.
  • Do not look to blame others or find scapegoats.
  • Do not deny that a problem exists.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • Be flexible. There is no one leadership style for every situation.

Does leadership—that is to say, followers—come with all positions of leadership? To some degree, yes. But true leadership is more than just the structural hierarchy of the organization.

As I said, many of the people I talked with could not define leadership, although they said they knew it when they saw it. One message I found in this was that a true leader is not one who “lords over” his followers but one whose attitude conveys serving them. It is easy to follow someone who has your interests at heart, even if that person seldom agrees with you.


I encountered many takes on leadership while preparing this article. A few are presented below.

James MacGregor Burns, Pulitzer prize-winning presidential biographer and a pioneer in the study of leadership, offers some concepts that lead you to think about leadership in a different way:

  • Leadership is not about a single leader. Leadership only exists when there is followership.
  • Leadership coexists with dissent. Organizations grow from dissent and dissatisfaction. Who wants blind followers? Different perspectives and challenges to ideas will cause leaders and organizations to grow.
  • Leadership is goal oriented, with leaders and followers working toward common goals.

Chief Michael Evitts, of the Irving (TX) Fire Department, puts an interesting slant on the leadership skill of “listening.” He believes that a good leader not only understand the needs or goals of those above and below him but also can “interpret” those thoughts and goals to others. He attributes Winston Churchill’s success during World War II to his ability to communicate everyone’s goals or needs—the military, the public, the defense industry, and the government. “A good leader is a good interpreter,” says Evitts.

State Representative Linda Harper-Brown points to trust. “Trust in those who work with you is a very important aspect of leadership,” she says. “By placing trust in those around you, you not only improve your own leadership position, but you also develop leadership qualities in them,” she explains. Based on my experiences with many chiefs over the years, I would have to agree. The chiefs who demonstrate confidence in their officers and firefighters stand a better chance of enjoying trust and support from the ranks.


Some believe that charisma and personality alone are the keys to effective leadership, but many of the people who study leadership will tell you that most effective leaders operate within an organization with subordinates who carry out, implement, or express the sometimes watered-down will of the leader. Effective leaders must be in command of management and personnel skills also. The least senior officer in the department must employ the same skills as the successful chief, corporate executive, or politician if he expects to be respected and followed. Otherwise, the officer might be obeyed at times but never really followed. Rick Lasky, chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department, offered the following: “Management enforces rules. Leadership enforces values.” He is quick to tell you that you need both leadership and management skills to be effective.


If you read no other book on the subject, I suggest that you get a copy of the very old book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Many critics might suggest that we have come a long way in the study of human leadership since then. They will point to many complicated theories on the subject. This may be true, but you will be hard pressed to find a better or more easy-to-understand treatment of leadership and personal success strategies for dealing with people. You might find this book at used bookstores for a dollar.

Many scholars have theorized about leadership traits or characteristics. Some say that traits, like the ones listed above, are merely a set of skills anyone can learn. Others believe that these qualities are more innate. Whether people are born leaders or simply learned what works, I uphold the following distinction: “Management is what you do; leadership comes from who you are.”

MICA CALFEE has been a career firefighter since 1980. He is a station captain in the Irving (TX) Fire Department and has served as an MICU paramedic, an EMS supervisor, a dispatch captain, an instructor, and a state field examiner. He has written several articles and contributed to national textbooks.

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