Ron Kanterman: Leadership Excellence


We’ve all had bosses who appear to be good leaders but who are terrible managers and vice versa. Both disciplines take hard work. Management entails lots of planning, organizing, staffing, delegating, budgeting, and other responsibilities. Can you be a good leader and a good manager at the same time? Or good at one and not the other? Or lousy at both? Yes to all three!

Leadership isn’t necessarily what’s on your collar. Respect for rank comes with that rank, but respect for you as a person comes with having the right stuff. Think about the best leaders, officers, and firefighters you ever worked with. What made them what they were? I’ll guess they were trustworthy, dedicated, and well-read people with great integrity who had respect for others at the highest levels. Also think about the worst leaders you’ve come across. You can learn from the bad ones too because you also know what not to do!

It’s more than difficult today than ever before to navigate through the shark-infested waters of town or city hall, budgeting, labor-management issues, staffing, and our customers. The fiscal downturn is still upon us, the public is demanding more services, Oabamacare will change the way we do EMS, and everyone has a camera. Take a lesson from the Boy Scouts of America: Be Prepared!     


Consider the great leaders of all time. They were able to lead the masses and bring them to the place they wanted their people to be. Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Abraham Lincoln, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Fiorello LaGuardia–all of these leaders had one thing in common: vision. If you are going to be a leader in your organization or the leader of your organization, you must have a vision. Don’t confuse your vision statement with a mission statement. Most emergency services organizations have a mission statement that includes words like service, dedication, best, customer, quick, efficient, effective, ability, and so forth.

A vision statement is much different. It’s your opportunity to dream a little and shape your vision into what you believe the organization should and could look like. Put aside the budget and all the other current obstacles, and develop your vision for your organization. Once you’ve done that, share it with your staff. It may become a group vision at this point and then start to filter down to the line. “Our firehouses are 100 years old. We need new quarters. My vision is to build new firehouses.” Sounds impossible? If you don’t believe in your own vision to start with, it will never ever come to light. You must believe it yourself for you to make others believe that it’s possible. If a vision just came to you and you responded in your head, “That will never happen,” either modify the vision, still keeping with your ideals, or change the situation preventing fulfillment of the vision.

The leaders above were effective because they were also all great communicators. They all had a vision they believed in that they could share and communicate to the masses and thus change the lives of others. If you want to be an effective leader within your organization or beyond, you must have a vision, the passion to make it work, and the ability to communicate it at all times and at all costs. Most importantly, you must first believe in it yourself.


 A leader has to strike a balance among all the members in the organization. When I ask my students where they get their values, most answer, “from home” or “from parents.” We are a product of our environment. We read about kids in bad neighborhoods growing up in a single-parent home, surrounded by drugs and crime; the media reports that some are in gangs by age 12. Once in a while, we see a success story of one of these kids who got out and made something of himself, but most do not. They simply become a product of their environment.

Each member of the organization brings his own set of values to the table. As a leader, you must not only deal with them but understand them, too. Your job is to sort through the pile of values on the table and bring everyone to a common ground. That sounds easy—but it isn’t! It takes hard work and perseverance, but you need to rise to the occasion.


This is the cornerstone of good leadership. Communication must be clear and concise to be effective. It’s almost like giving fireground commands over the radio. Almost. You must be consistently open and effective to maintain your leadership. Honesty and integrity are key. If you lie to your people and they find you out, you’ll never get them back. Don’t ever lie. Your leadership legacy depends on it.  Learn the art of active listening. Body language is a big part of it. Listening with crossed arms, rolling your eyes, taking deep breaths, and checking your watch all send negative signals. Make sure to show an interest in your people or anyone else you are speaking with. Shut out all the distractions, lower the radio, turn down the scanner, clear your desk, and close the door. People want to be heard, so listen. Don’t forget the basics like dignity and respect; yes, treat people like you would like to be treated. Take the high road. Even when the team manager is kicking dirt on his shoes and screaming profanity, the umpire quietly takes his hand and points to the top of the stadium, indicating, “You’re out of here.” Not that you should throw them out, but remain calm, evaluate the problem, and quietly and effectively deal with it. Screaming matches don’t work; you’ll lower yourself to a level where you needn’t be. Show patience and courtesy even when the other person does not. Here’s where your leadership skills really kick in again. 

On the other side of communications, keep the information flowing. So many of my students say, “They tell us nothing.” No excuses. Bulletin boards, e-mail, chat rooms, notices, and good old one-on-one or group conversations can get it all done. Send more, not less information, so the troops can never be uninformed.


You must create the environment and lead by example. If you continually let the tail wag the dog and the day comes when the dog must wag the tail, you will have to go over Mt. Everest to get there. You must set the stage, create the environment, set the tone, and do whatever you have to do, but you must lead at all times, not just when it’s convenient. You are charged with setting the tone for ethical behavior, even if you were the biggest prankster in the firehouse or told the best dirty jokes.

Part of being proactive is to build effective relationships with people. Cooperation seems to work most of the time, and your cooperating with your team is as important as your team cooperating with you. Sit and listen to their points of view and ask for their input. Let them know upfront that you may not use their ideas, but you want to hear from them. Try a brainstorming session even though the first one may be more like a light drizzle. If your people have never been asked to contribute to the cause, you may get that “deer-in-the-headlights” look. It’s okay for you to start it off with an idea or two, but then let them do their thing. You’ll be very surprised to hear what comes from your troops. It lends itself to ownership.

When you are each locked in your corners, and trying to get to “win-win,” move to higher ground. Agree to disagree if you have to and move on. At least you agreed on something. When you are a disciplinary meeting, always reserve judgment after you have all the facts. Don’t rush to judge! Do your homework and when you’re wrong, admit it and don’t get defensive.

As the leader of an organization, you are expected to continually contribute in moving the organization forward. Generating new ideas generates excitement among the members. Try new things. If something new doesn’t work, then try something else. Get out of the box and see what everyone else is doing. Smash the box and either rebuild it or go without it. I posted an article on called “Smashing the Tactical Box.” It discussed different ways to go about attacking a fire in today’s climate of hydrocarbon loaded buildings, using foam or dry chemical. (Don’t think it’s crazy until you experiment and try it.) Leaders are expected to get out the box. Get out, get rid of it, lose it, or smash it, but do something.

Show flexibility with your team. That could mean adjusting working hours for the administrative staff, accommodating a shift person with different hours for a personal problem at home, or bending the rules but not breaking them.

Develop yourself functionally and technically so you can speak, operate, and lead at the proper levels across the board. You don’t necessarily need to know how every new tool operates or have it in your hands when you’re at the higher levels of the organization, but you need to understand the concepts so you can support the need. I can’t make a 4:1 Z-rig mechanical advantage system, but I know what it’s for and why the rescue company needs this device to operate.


Your immediate staff will help deliver your message or, more importantly, your vision. You rely on them every day whether you’re in or out of town. If you haven’t developed them to your level, you’re cheating them and yourself. Bosses that have “held back information because they can’t know what I know” need to get out of this business. You must delegate for development purposes and stand behind them in case they should trip and fall. Be there to catch them, stand them up, and guide them forward. There are many tools that you can use for staff development. Consider the following:

·         Clear goals and objectives. Establish annual goals and objectives for the staff. Have them give you input on what they think is important to the department and to moving it forward.

·         Constructive feedback. Set up a system of constructive feedback. Telling your staff or even your line firefighters they “screwed up” on an operation without specific information accomplishes nothing. Constructive feedback changes behavior and sets it in a positive direction.

·         Rewarding performance. Start out with a thank-you now and then or even a handshake for a job well done. Reward groups of people as well, not just individuals. Everyone at all levels wants to know they did a good job and to be acknowledged. A pizza, a meal, or even a cake on the firehouse table does wonders. Start a trend.

·         Training and personal development. Encourage your staff to train at the highest levels whether they attend conferences, the National Fire Academy, or other meaningful training. It doesn’t have to be firematic all the time either. Maybe your deputy chiefs need a report writing class and an English “tune-up.” Send them.

·         Flexibility. Exercise this with everyone if possible, but especially with your staff. People have problems and sometimes the leaders have to solve the problems. Maybe someone needs steady days for a while for child care or to take care of a sick family member. Accommodate the staff whenever possible within the guidelines of your rules and regulations. 


Our customers dial 911 and ask us to come and make their problem go away. The average American doesn’t know or care whether we are paid or not—“I dial 911 and somebody shows up and helps me.” That’s the bottom line. But it goes deeper than that. Leaders must keep up with their town’s demographics; few communities’ makeup in the country is stable; people are always moving in and out and the ethnicities, religions, and genders change rapidly. New cultures bring new challenges for the emergency services and, as the leader, it’s your job to keep up and ensure that your new customers are getting what they need. You may have to meet with community or religious leaders to better understand who they are and what they need. Approaching your constituents respectful to their traditions, culture, or religion will speak volumes and probably get the code compliance you’re seeking.  

Don’t forget your internal customers as well—everyone in your department under your command. You need to fulfill their requests in the station as you would out on the fireground. Your people are your greatest asset—take care of them. Other customers include the other municipal agencies (e.g., the police, the department of public works, parks and recreation, etc.) Take care of them the way you would want them to take care of you when you call for assistance.

Always personally support your department. If the department leadership talks negatively about it, especially in public, then what could you expect from your people? Most of us support our departments by simply wearing a marked shirt or jacket or by displaying a window sticker on our cars. Remember, however, that you are now a “marked person” and what you do affects not only you but the whole department. When a firefighter gets arrested for drunk driving, the news will report that “an off-duty firefighter” or “a volunteer firefighter with 25 years of experience responding to road accidents was arrested for drunk driving.” It will only be worse if you’re an officer. If you’re the chief, forget it. What you do and say in a leadership role affects the entire organization.

If you are at or near the top, discuss with your companies, divisions, bureaus, and units why it’s important for all of you to align yourselves with the department’s goals, objectives, and guidelines. If you’re a company officer, lead your members to the alignment “trough” and have them take a sip. Many firefighters and officers have told me that they work in a four-platoon system that has in effect become four separate fire departments within one. Each shift and shift commander does it a little differently or, in some cases, a lot differently.  It gets real interesting when a firefighter is detailed to another shift for overtime and is admonished by the officer for doing his job the way he knows how. “We don’t it that way on K shift,” the K shift commander tells him. Alignment is the key, and leaders at all levels are responsible for it. Align the fire prevention bureau with the suppression forces. Align the shifts. You’d think standard operation procedures/guidelines (SOPs/ SOGs) would have taken care of that. Align the line and the staff. It’s OK if everyone is singing in different keys as long as everyone is singing from the same sheet of music.

Sharing is another way to get collaboration within your department. Share your ideas and solicit new ideas from within. Share your successes and lessons learned and document them. We’re getting better at that lately. If we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes. Take advantage of collaborating with other agencies as well. Many jurisdictions form task forces with police, fire, and other municipal services working together. Get on to these task forces and do some cross-jurisdictional work. As a leader, you are looked on to do such work; encourage others to do the same as well.


You must also know your department—every function, position, policy, procedure, SOP/SOG, rule, regulation, what to do, and what NOT to do. You have to know your people. The success of every good leader I have known came from their ability to lead and having good people around them to carry out the mission. As a 20-year chief officer, I realize that most of my successes came from my deputy and battalion chiefs, line officers, and firefighters. I used to love talking to chiefs who thought they were bigger than their department members. I always had to break the bad news: “They’re bigger than you and, by the way, probably much better.” They never liked that. Get that valuable input from your staff, look at best practices, and benchmark with your peers and professional associations. Today’s fire service leadership has no excuse not be on top of current information and technology. No excuses—a fire department in the world of 2014 can’t operate like it’s 1955. Successful leaders are part of local, county, state, and national organizations so they can get what they need to stay ahead or at least keep up.

Part of thinking and acting strategically is consistency in how you handle your people when things go right or things go wrong. It’s most important when things go wrong. Inconsistency can ruin a department, whether it’s allowing four different shifts to operate four different ways or it’s preferring charges against one volunteer when two of them committed the bad act. Consistency is critical to keeping the ship not only afloat but upright, on course, and moving forward at all times. Leadership makes the world move in a positive direction, so contribute.

Training the troops, the staff, yourself, and cross-training are the hallmarks of strategic thinking. Fire departments that don’t train or do very little training are doing a disservice to themselves and community they serve. In fact it’s more important to do more training when things are slow than when they’re busy. When things slow down, we tend lose our edge. A large city on the East Coast reported an alarming rate of firefighter injuries in the middle to late 1990s every night on the news. I called a friend who was a deputy chief at the time, who said, “We’re losing our edge because the number of fires is down. With the influx of the new kids who haven’t seen a lot of fire duty like we did in the 1970s and 1980s, we’re getting hurt. We need to do more training.” Present opportunities for training. Take companies out of service if you can. If you’re too small, get mutual aid to cover you so you can get out and train. If you’re a volunteer outfit, use a neighboring company to cover your area so you can get to the fire academy at night or on a Saturday morning to get in those live burn exercises. There are many training ideas available through online programs, books, and magazines. Bring them the resources they need to train and get the job done. As a leader, it’s simply your job.


What will they say about you at your retirement party or your funeral? Maybe the standard answers: He was firm but fair… a good husband and father. . . a good boss. . . he cared . . . we learned a lot from him. . .dedicated . . . could be trusted. . .  never lied to us…and so on. If you think they may not say the things you want them to, then you may have some work to do!


RON KANTERMAN, a 38-year fire service veteran, is a career chief in southeast Connecticut. He has a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, is an accomplished author, and lectures on a myriad of fire service topics around the country. He teaches graduate and undergraduate fire science and emergency management and various courses at the National Fire Academy. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and writes “Chief Kanterman’s Journal,” a monthly column featured on He is also half of “The Back Step Boys” on Fire Engineering’s Blog Talk Radio shows.

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