Leadership in the Real World


Every chief knows that effective leadership is a key ingredient for a well-run department. This is especially true at the company officer level, where organizational values and goals meet the reality of human nature and the fire service culture.

Unfortunately, in many fire departments nationwide, members don’t receive the training that will equip them with the skills that they need to be effective officers and leaders. It’s not about halligans and hydraulic tools but about the interpersonal skills required to influence and lead others.

Promoting firefighters on Saturday and expecting them to operate as effective leaders on Sunday without any preparation or training is setting them up to fail. Just as we don’t send firefighters equipped with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) into burning buildings without training them on how to use it, we shouldn’t place fire officers into leadership positions without training them on the “tools of the leadership trade.”

The need for quality leadership training is not limited to a specific size or type of department or dependent on the make-up of the current leadership team. Effective leadership is the common ingredient found in all great fire departments.

The ideal method to groom the future leaders of the fire service is to combine a solid academic leadership training curriculum with a practical mentoring program. Unfortunately, most fire departments do not have the resources or experience to implement such a program.

So what should we do, throw our hands up in despair and give up? Absolutely not! The hallmark of the American fire service is that we are action-oriented problem solvers. We may not control the events that happen in our lives, but we do control how we respond to those events. There are things that we can do as individuals regardless of how our departments choose to address the leadership training vacuum.

The one positive activity that we can all engage in is self-development. If you are a regular reader of Fire Engineering, you are no stranger to the self-development concept. And the best way to succeed in your self-development activity is to start with a well-thought-out plan.


So where should you begin in your pursuit of personal leadership development? What skills and behaviors should you work on first? None! As important as leadership skills are, mere techniques and skills can never compensate for the lack of a strong personal internal foundation.

Before we can consider leadership skill development, we must first make sure that we are building these skills on a solid footing containing the two most powerful elements of fire service leadership: character and competence.

General Norman Schwarzkopf, the famous American Army commander from Operation Desert Storm, said, “Leadership is a potent blend of strategy and character. But if you have to be without one, be without the strategy.”

My personal experiences as a firefighter and fire officer for more than 37 years have convinced me that General Schwarzkopf’s opinion about character and leadership is right on the mark. I don’t care what rank or position you hold in your organization or whether you are from a career or volunteer department, followers want leaders of good character with the integrity to walk the leadership talk. Without character, there is no foundation for trust. And without trust, there is no effective leadership!

Fortunately, I believe that the fire service attracts good people and that our work, for the most part, is self-motivating. This is a solid and powerful combination that helps us build character and establish trust.

However, trust is not earned solely based on character. You might be a person of good character, but if you don’t have a high level of technical competence in firefighting and emergency operations, people will not be willing to put their welfare in your hands. Nobody will follow an incompetent, especially when lives are at risk!

To be influential in the fire service, you need to be a competent and confident leader. You cannot have true confidence without being technically competent. You must know your job-there is just no faking it!


If you have not built a personal foundation of character and competence or are not willing to put the effort into growing in these areas, I don’t believe that any amount of leadership training or set of superficial skills will make you an effective leader. That’s leadership in the real world. Character and competence are the cornerstones of trust, and trust is a prerequisite of influence and leadership.

Once you have ensured that your internal foundation is in place, you can boldly start down the road of personal leadership development.

So how should you get started with your personal leadership development plan? The path to great leadership requires us to work from the inside out.

All leadership begins with self-leadership. Work on yourself first. After you have gotten yourself “straight,” you will possess the legitimacy, the confidence, and the ability to be effective in your dealings with others.


How do we get ourselves straight? Consider the following three-step process.

1Promote yourself. Your department may promote you, and although formal authority is great, you will never be an effective leader unless you choose to promote yourself. “Promoting yourself” means letting go of the past and preparing yourself mentally to accept the responsibilities of your new role. A great way to do this is to “think like the leader” now, before you get promoted. As situations come up in your unit or department, ask yourself how you would handle them if you were in charge. Watch carefully what other leaders do, and evaluate the results of their actions (or inactions). The wise man learns from his experiences, but the wiser man learns from the experiences of others.

When you get promoted, it is critically important for you to follow the old Fire Department of New York doctrine and “be the part, look the part, and act the part.” This is a great philosophy to adopt and practice when you are promoted to any new rank.

Expect early tests of your authority, and meet them head-on with firmness and fairness. If you don’t establish standards and limits early, you will live to regret it. Getting others to accept your promotion is an essential part of promoting yourself. None of us are immune to social pressure or cultural forces, but they do not control us and should not be used as an excuse for our failure to act and do the “right thing.” The dog didn’t eat your homework; the devil didn’t make you do it. You are free to choose, and you are responsible for your choices. Leadership is a choice! You are who you choose to be! Choose to accept the responsibilities of your rank and promote yourself.

2Find your voice. As formal leaders, we are called to make decisions that involve issues and points of view that we may not have considered before. What was funny in the back seat doesn’t seem so funny in the front seat.

Ideally, we should make decisions that reflect our character, values, and moral codes. But in reality, most of us go through life without associating what we are doing with a sense of purpose or a process of reflection. We simply respond on auto pilot or give in to social pressures and customs.

As leaders, we need to do the introspective work that serves as the foundation of our important leadership decisions. In this introspective process of reflection, “finding your voice,” you clarify what your standards are and what’s important to you. It is the catalyst of personal leadership.

Have you ever really given any thought to what you value and what you will be willing to stand up for? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. But if you don’t have a firm foundation in what you stand for and what you believe in, it’s difficult to lead with confidence in the direction that you want to go.

Finding your voice is the most important leadership development activity that you engage in. Why? Because every other decision that you make will be influenced by your values (your voice).

What do you value? Where do you want to go? Where do you want to lead your team? The time to find your voice is not when you are under stress or confronted with difficult decisions; the time to find your voice is now!

3Walk the talk. Walk what talk? Walk the talk that you scripted for yourself when you “found your voice” in step 2. “Walking the talk” is the by-product of personal integrity. It is the ability to “do” what you claim to “be.” Walking the talk is where we practice personal leadership in the “real world” under “real pressures” with “real people.”

Leaders can use verbal persuasion to influence behavior in the short run, but people want to know who you are and what you believe in if they are going to follow you when the going gets tough. You need to communicate your vision and values to them. The only form of communication that can really be believed is behavior.

By walking the talk, you establish credibility as an individual, not just as a leader. When you build your credibility, you increase your reputation capital, and reputation capital is the currency of leadership.

I’m a blue collar guy when it comes to the subject of leadership development. I believe that we need much more than just motivational stories and leadership theory. I believe that we need practical, real-world skills that work in the fire service culture.

But before we can effectively practice the skills of leadership, we must establish ourselves as believable, credible, and trustworthy leaders. If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message. To be a believable messenger, you must stand on a solid foundation of character and competence and then promote yourself, find your voice, and walk the talk.

ROBERT BURNS is a retired battalion chief from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Prior to his retirement in 2011, he served the FDNY for 37 years, the last 18 as a chief officer. In addition to having been an adjunct instructor teaching leadership at John Jay College, he led the curriculum development group responsible for designing and delivering the leadership modules of the FDNY promotional training courses for lieutenants, captains, and battalion chiefs. He served as the director of the New York State First Line Supervisor’s Training Program at the FDNY Fire Academy from 2007 until 2010. He now conducts leadership training workshops around the country.

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