If you study leadership, I am sure you, as I do, often find yourself examining and contemplating the weirdest things—like standing beside a lake and watching the ducks, only to wonder, Is the lead duck primarily a transformational leadership duck, or could it be a transactional leadership duck? Do all ducks become leaders of other ducks, or are certain ducks always follower ducks? Do the follower ducks get on the leader duck for not visiting stations (I mean nests) frequently enough?

All kidding aside, the world around us holds some remarkable lessons in leadership if we just pay attention—if we open our minds and contemplate how interactions occur and why events unfold as they do and then look for consistencies that contribute to the success or failure of these leaders.

For good reason, smart leaders seek to avoid the pitfalls and examine potential weaknesses in themselves by comparing their behavior and interaction with those who have demonstrated success.

If you have studied leadership, you know this is not new. Just pick up almost any book on leadership, and you will see that the same general concepts are discussed. However, the examples used to demonstrate these principles are different. It may be as subtle as stories based on how someone lived his life or as complex as the analysis of a significant event such as 9-11. The author’s job in a leadership article is to demonstrate how the event and the leader’s actions brought about some type of success—or failure—for the leader.

With all of that said, sometimes it’s our interpretation of these stories and examples that mean the most. This is true whether you are a sports fan and read a book written by a successful coach or a fan of military leadership and study conflicts between countries. The bottom line is that the method of teaching is in the example and the example moves us to remember it and potentially use the concepts to become better leaders. It is in the context of an example that I relate to you a lesson in leadership.


In Lynchburg, Virginia, a rather small community of 65,000, the chief soon learns who the influential people are. Some are influential because of their wealth, others because of what they do for the community. This leadership story is about a man who is influential for the latter. This man, Tom Gerdy, speaks with his actions.

I met Tom Gerdy a few months ago. He is a local Lynchburg building contractor who is involved as a volunteer with our local chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian housing organization that organizes volunteers to build simple, decent, affordable houses in partnership with those in need of adequate shelter. Since 1976, Habitat has built more than 125,000 houses in more than 80 countries, including some 45,000 houses across the United States.

The fire department partnered with a local church, Victory Christian Fellowship, the police department, and Tom Gerdy to build Victory House, a house that would be used as a safe haven for citizens and visitors who fall victim to an unfortunate accident, fire, or crime. The idea was an outgrowth of our attempt to provide better customer service in the form of restoration and was a part of our overall fire department strategic plan—in effect, helping our customers by restoring their sense of well-being. (See “Victory House” sidebar on page 76.)


I first met Tom in a meeting with the other key stakeholders discussing the overall vision for the Victory House project. He listened very intently to our conversation to see where he could fit in.

I would characterize Tom as quiet, unassuming (even though he is a big man), and slightly withdrawn. Clearly, he was the follower and was following the folks who had the vision for this project. In my estimation, he was looking for a leadership opportunity; however, he needed a clear vision of what the opportunity was and where his skills would bring value.

The conversation continued as Tom carefully took notes and sized up things. At this meeting, he appeared to be anything but a leader. In my opinion, he was looking to us for guidance and direction, and he appeared very comfortable in this role. Our meeting ended cordially, with some specific objectives documented and clearly aligned objectives determined. Little did I realize that this teacher was starting to teach!

Leadership Lesson: Good leaders listen before they speak so they can most appropriately determine how they can add value. All of our roles are first “followership” in nature. Not until after obtaining a clear understanding of the vision and objectives does the leader begin to emerge. The bottom line is that the good leader leads when it is time to lead but is also a good follower when it is time to follow.


The next time I saw Tom, we were at the construction site. Much work had been done to this point; and, clearly, Tom had a lot to do with that accomplishment. He organized things, recruited people, and did the leg work in preparation for this early morning when 50 people of varying skill levels gathered to build a house in one day. Tom caught the vision and then went to work. Once he had the objectives clearly outlined, he didn’t need anyone to tell him what to do or when to do it. He just did it, and we all recognized this as a basic trait of a good leader.

Leadership Lesson: Good leaders can sense when it is time to lead. They assess things based on their expertise and the willingness of the people with which they are working. Once clear objectives have been established, the leader is self-motivated to gather resources and make the vision a reality.


Tom has loads of credibility when it comes to building houses. He has built more than 70 homes for Habitat. In addition, he maintains a very successful construction business of his own. By all accounts, he is a fair man with an incredible work ethic and a keen sense of community spirit. Tom does things for the right reasons, and people understand this very quickly.

Leadership Lesson: The ability to lead people is based somewhat on their perception of your credibility and how much trust they have in you. These concepts are so closely linked that one may compare them to the old chicken or egg example. Rather than think of these two traits separately, it would behoove the leader to realize that they are achieved in concert with each other and at the same time.

It has been my experience that leaders do very little leading until they establish a level of credibility with employees and the employees trust that they are being led in the right direction. For example, the team may ask, “Why should I follow this person when I am not certain he is capable of being successful?” This is important, because people generally want to be successful and want to work with successful people who can help them become successful.

Integrity is the cornerstone of credibility. Employees recognize very quickly those people who gain credibility and achieve goals for the wrong reason or by unethical means. Many successful people lose their ability to lead because of poor ethical judgment. Just one lapse in ethics on the part of the leader may result in loss of the credibility needed to effectively lead the organization.


When we arrived in the morning to start construction, it occurred to me how much preparation had been done. Jacks had been built and numbered, as had the smaller wall sections, such as closets. Materials were arranged on the site based on when they would be needed. The equipment to build was on-site, and so were the people. All of the potential barriers to failure had been assessed and addressed.

Leadership Lesson: Leading is hard work. It takes hours of preparation to effect change in any organization. Recognizing obstacles to success, gaining the support of key people, and finding necessary resources are all done in preparation for leading. In our department, we call this “completed staff work.”

Think about preparation as a sporting event. Much more time goes into preparing to win than the actual competition. Leadership is the same. The leader will ultimately do much more to prepare the organization for change and growth than to actually effect the change.

Tom had done this before; his experience helped him prepare. Nonetheless, when it was time to lead, Tom had completed the preparation phase. All that was left was the work of leading and bringing about change.


As the work started, it became obvious that we had several very experienced people among our group. Some were from the fire and police department, but others were people Tom had worked with before. These were folks who knew how to build a house, run a saw, and hammer a nail. The key people were experienced in building houses and knew the answers to the “what comes next” questions the less experienced folks asked.

Although these key players were recruited because of their experience, it was clear that Tom used these people to develop momentum for the project. Making sure they were divided based on job task then became a matter of organization. While participating in the work, Tom became the overall “big picture” organizer for the project and allowed the key folks to drive smaller objectives and keep things moving.

Leadership Lesson: Even the best leaders will realize only limited success if they don’t have quality personnel. An effective leader needs to concentrate on working in the strategic portion of the time allocation model. Had Tom gotten bogged down in an operational detail, the overall project would have suffered.

The leader needs to have key motivated people who can carry out the operational work. Identifying these folks and getting them excited about your vision then creates momentum. If enough momentum is created, then the proverbial ball starts rolling, and generally only a significant negative event can stop progress.


Tom was the master at making sure that not too many inexperienced volunteers were assigned to any given part of the project. To spread out the wealth of talent, he made sure that folks who could hammer had a hammer in their hand. Those people, like me, who would only hurt themselves or someone else if they got a hammer in their hand generally were assigned to moving stuff and setting up for the skilled folks.

There is no better illustration of this than when the roof trusses were raised and put in place. Although very little skill was required to lift and place the trusses, experienced people needed to be on the roof when it was time to nail them in place and make sure they were squared up.

Leadership Lesson: Not all people in the organization have the same skills. The effective leader makes sure that key people are in key positions at the time they are needed. A part of this is something the leader “grows” through long-range succession planning; another part of the process is making the best out of the folks you currently have. The key is to make sure the people with the right skills are in the right place at the right time.

Effective leadership also values everyone in the organization. Even though all of us have different skill and ability levels, the leader needs to find a place where everyone can add value. In addition, the leader needs to understand and praise all levels of work in the organization. The moral is, the guy who does rehab at a fire or changes an air bottle is pretty important when you need a drink of water or a fresh tank of air. Great leaders praise good work at all levels of their organization.


As Tom circulated through the construction site, he moved from task to task, organizing the strategic portion of the work. While doing this, he also participated. Whether it was nailing a stud or cutting a piece of wood, Tom was a part of the team’s work.

As the team leader, Tom demonstrated that he was committed to the group’s work and the success of the project. Moving very quickly from one area to the other, he provided energy and enthusiasm for the entire group. Tom was not an absentee leader.

Leadership Lesson: The leader must be committed to the organization’s work, and the workers need to see that commitment. Even though we chiefs work in the strategic part of the organization, it is at the street level where the work takes place. The leader needs to support the workers and frequently provide direction and enthusiasm and demonstrate energy that keeps people enthusiastic about the work’s progress. Leaders also need to remind people of the vision and constantly encourage them to reach it.


Building a house in one day is quite an endeavor. It requires many people, all staying focused on the goal, and tremendous energy. This energy is created and maintained by positive momentum and constant forward progress. Tom is the master of momentum.

Not being one of the most talented construction workers on the site, I looked for those opportunities that provided direct supervision or that required none. Those tasks that required very little supervision usually were communicated as, “Let’s move these materials and distribute them evenly around the house.” For example, by distributing siding materials around the house appropriately, the skilled workers would not have to go far to get the siding when it was needed.

I wondered why this was not done during the preparation phase so that we didn’t have to waste our time moving it during the project. Clearly, someone could have already moved these materials. In fact, to be quite honest, it seemed moving these materials was unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. You know what? Moving all that stuff around was, on the one hand, very unnecessary, but on the other hand, it was one of the most necessary things we did.

Keeping folks busy maintained focus, energy, and momentum. When workers hit a lull and it was easy to lose focus, Tom had everyone moving things around. He maintained the momentum of the project during lulls in the work by tricking us into thinking we were adding to the preparation of some event that would take place in the future.

Another important role Tom played during the project was to recognize slow work and jump in to provide a “jumpstart” or give that group additional resources. The effort to put shingles on the roof was a great example. We really had only two people on the roof who knew how to shingle. The rest of the workers on the roof, while full of enthusiasm, lacked experience. Recognizing that the roof teams were not making good progress, Tom grabbed a few experienced people from another area and headed for the roof. The few minutes he spent up there and the addition of experienced people got things back on track.

Leadership Lesson: Leadership is multileveled in that it takes place at the organization’s strategic, operational, and task levels. The many types of activities our organizations are involved in at any one time can illustrate this. Planning committees, work groups, process improvement groups, shifts, and battalions are just a few examples. The leader (who may be you) is responsible for achieving the objectives and helping the organization survive the change process. Compounding the complexities of leadership at these multiple levels is the fact that many of us who lead formally are involved at all of the various levels.

Momentum and focus are very important if the leader is going to guide a group toward a common goal. Think about how many times you have seen project work groups that start out with a full head of steam hit the proverbial wall and then struggle to make additional progress. Perhaps it was because all the easy stuff was done first and the people lost direction and focus after the initial burst of energy. Maybe the excitement for the project died down a bit, and people went on to other things.

Regardless of what causes the lack of progress, it is the leader’s responsibility to maintain momentum and energy in the effort. Perhaps it may be as simple as recognizing it isn’t wise to pick all of the low-hanging fruit early in a project or strategic effort. Save some of the low-hanging and easy stuff so that when folks are struggling you can give them something simple that adds value to the overall effort. Keeping people moving toward the goal at a steady pace may be as important as anything the leader can do to ensure the organization’s overall success.

The effective leader must also recognize that direct involvement or the assignment of additional resources to a work effort may be necessary to ensure the success of a project or organization. Workers need to see their leaders during difficult stages of a process and know that they are committed. Being there to help out, reorganize, and provide additional resources is a positive leadership behavior.


Shared experiences build team integrity, and nothing makes those experiences more positive than when the leader and team members have a sense of humor. Tom used various humorous situations to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere.

Even though everyone was working hard, Tom realized that without a positive and “fun” atmosphere the experience would turn people off. During a really furious stretch, and about the time we were going to raise a large wall section, Tom yelled for everyone to stop working. I could not believe he was going to take a break when it appeared all of us were focused and really driving. When the last hammer had stopped, Tom yelled for everyone to take a break. As I went to unsnap my nail belt, he yelled, “Break’s over.” That’s right; we got a nine-second break. We all had a good laugh as Tom lamented that he was getting soft—breaks usually lasted only six seconds!

Leadership Lesson: The people who work for us will work harder if they enjoy what they do and are relaxed. A part of every leader’s responsibility is to make the work environment a positive place.

Correctly timed humor can do wonders for refocusing the team’s work and sending a message about the work and the environment. Leaders who are uptight and serious all of the time create a very uptight and serious work environment. This type of environment is not conducive to self-motivated workers taking a risk and trying new things. We certainly have to be serious on occasion, and no one is advocating an unprofessional work environment, but successful leaders need to make humor a part of their life and the lives of their employees.


Needless to say, you are not going to construct a house in one day and have everything go as planned. This was true in our building with regard to a missing roof truss. Earlier in the day, we had divided the trusses into two piles in front of the house. (You didn’t miss the part of the article on moving things, did you?) The actual placement and securing of the trusses didn’t take very long; however, lifting them to the roof was another matter.

Using leverage and physics to our advantage, Tom would call for a group of about five or so folks to raise one end of the truss toward the roof line while others held the peak and back of the truss down toward the ground. As the truss was raised, and at just the right time, Tom would call for the group to raise the rear of the truss using the outside wall of the house as a lever. The process made it easier for the folks on the ground and those working to secure the trusses.

As you can imagine, it was not until about the last one that the two groups of truss lifters got it right; this provided plenty of humorous ammunition for Tom.

The problem would be with the last truss; we were one short! Without the last truss in place, we would not be able to get the plywood on the roof and begin to paper and shingle the roof. Almost without missing a beat, Tom said, “Well, that could be a potential problem.”

We knew there wasn’t a load of extra materials on-site and that this could be a real holdup. I mean, you don’t just find prefab trusses lying around in just the right size on a Saturday afternoon.

As all eyes moved to Tom, we could see that he was already developing a plan for solving the problem. A few key people and a little time to construct a truss from scratch, and the project was off and running again. As with all of our little unforeseen issues that day, our leader handled it with a positive attitude and a “can do” spirit.

Leadership Lesson: As chief of a department, I can tell you not all news is going to be good. Bad things are going to happen to all organizations. We certainly want more good things than bad to happen in our organizations, but no leaders can expect all positive outcomes for their organization.

How organizations rebound from these bad events usually depends on how the leaders behave and how the employees engage based on this behavior. Employees look to their leaders during times of crisis for confidence and direction.

It is also very important for the leaders to recognize emerging problems in their organizations. The effective leaders not only solve problems as they arise but also look for potential and emerging problems continually and then do something about the problems before they become career killers.

A few leaders let their ego get in the way of admitting the organization has a problem. They seem to believe that if they don’t recognize the problem, it won’t be there and, consequently, won’t reflect negatively on their ability to lead. Fortunately, most leaders know that this is far from the truth and that, in fact, this approach will compound future problems for the organization.

As Tom demonstrated in the example of the missing truss, it is important not only to recognize the problem but also to communicate the problem to all of the people involved. If you want employees to be engaged in fixing things, you must include them and yourself as a part of the solution.

Leaders must also accept responsibility for the problem. You may need to read that again, so I will state it again: Leaders must always assume responsibility for the problem. That is your job, and to do less does not speak well of your integrity. Many people may have caused a project to fail or a problem to develop, but if you are in charge of the system and those people, you must stand up as the leader and assume responsibility.

Taking responsibility as a leader does not have to be a bad thing. For instance, when you ask employees about traits they most admire in leaders, when you get past honesty and integrity, you are most likely to hear humility—humility in the form of the leader saying, “I don’t have all the answers” and “I do make mistakes.” Humility makes leaders human, like the folks they lead, and, consequently, a part of the solution when fixing a problem. As mentioned earlier, humor can temper the humility and put employees at ease.

When bad things happen, it is not time for the leader to disappear and wait for things to die down. Quite the opposite. When bad things happen, it is time for the leader to be most visible. The leader’s visibility demonstrates responsibility and, more importantly, shows a commitment toward making the situation better.

One thing the leader should never do is hang his head, even for a moment. If you lose confidence in your ability or the organization’s ability to rebound from the problem, what are your employees supposed to think? How do you think they are going to act? As my grandfather once told me, “The mark of a man (leader) is not created in how he acts when things are good but more in how he acts when things are not going well.” It is easy to lead when all things are going great and much harder when things are not.


Any person who has built a house knows that timing is everything. Certain parts of the building process must be done before others can start. The worst-case scenario is for tradespeople such as the plumber and electrician to have scheduled your job and not be able to work when they show up. This can mean the difference in building a house in six months or a year. Now imagine the precise timing required when you are trying to build a house in one day!

Tom had the timing aspect almost down to the minute. For instance, the electrician was scheduled for about the same time as the roof trusses were put in place. It didn’t make sense to have them there before the framing on the inside was complete, since they couldn’t run wire and all of the folks on the inside of the building would have been in the way. The same was true for the plumber, heating and air, siding, and landscape folks. All of these skilled people knew when to show up based on Tom’s experience and keen sense of timing.

Leadership Lesson: Timing is critical to the success of a leader. With regard to the organization, the leader needs to have a keen sense of when the time is right to introduce change or initiate new programs. In addition, timing is critical when it comes to holding folks accountable for poor performance or praising their positive contributions.

From an organizational perspective, the leader’s success is dependent on the abilities of the employees. For example, to accomplish a given objective, your employees must have the proper knowledge, skills, and abilities to implement and sustain the objective. If they don’t, the objective will fail.

Just as is true for house construction, successfully leading an organization requires that certain things happen before others. For instance, you cannot hold people accountable and responsible for their behavior and actions unless you have previously outlined what your expectations are. Additionally, as we mentioned earlier, leaders cannot expect to facilitate successful change until they have established some level of trust and credibility.

In addition to organizational timing concerns, the leader also has to be aware of political timing. Things within the organization may be in desperate need of modification; however, if the political support is not there, you will fail. It doesn’t matter how right or necessary the issue that needs to be resolved is at that time.

A good example of poor political timing is the leader’s advocating additional staffing when budgets are tight and other areas in government are being forced to cut back. In this scenario, the leader may appeal to the politicians that it is unsafe to operate without additional staffing. The appeal for public support might sway the politicians to provide additional personnel, even when it is against their best judgment. The end result is the organization will lose somewhere else, or the leader ultimately loses by having to leave. Keep this in mind about political support and timing: When politics break down into a win or lose situation, there will always be a political loss to go with the political gain. The bottom line is that you may win the battle only to have your organization ultimately lose the war.


Another lesson on leadership and house building is derived from the manner in which Tom took care of the people who worked that day. He personally saw to it that each of us had food, water, and a bathroom fcility. In addition, he was constantly watching out for our safety by making sure we were wearing our gloves and eye protection.

The manner in which Tom interacted with people showed a deep commitment to the welfare of each person. He would ask how we were doing and would also stop to praise our work. He realized that to successfully complete the project he needed workers, and those workers needed to know that he cared for their personal and psychological welfare and safety.

Leadership Lesson: The success of the leader depends on the followers more than any other factor. If their first concern is for their own safety or welfare, they will lose focus of the vision and objective.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory main-tains that people in general need their basic health and security needs to be taken care of before they commit to higher-level needs. This established theory has been proven time and again in connection with building organizations. The leader needs to be tuned in about how to make sure the needs of employees are constantly addressed.

It is up to the leader to maintain a check on the people’s welfare and to frequently engage them in conversation regarding their feelings and welfare. A big part of what the leader does is shaking employees’ hands and slapping their backs. They are the ones who get things done and, subsequently, make the leader look good. They are the most important assets of the organization; without their support, the leader will not be successful.


A few days ago, I watched a local news story about Tom Gerdy. The focus of the story was a national award he won from Habitat for Humanity. As he was interviewed, it was obvious he wasn’t comfortable with the attention. The reporter asked about the number of homes Tom had built for Habitat. His answer was that “it wasn’t important.”

What was important to him was that people who otherwise would not have a home had one. He was most thankful to all of the people who helped him build houses. He deflected attention from himself to the people who helped him succeed as a leader.

Leadership Lesson: If you are the leader, it is not about you—it is about the people who make up your organization. Taking credit for their work just because you happen to be the leader is an injustice to you and your people.

The successful leader realizes that success comes because the drive and commitment of the people make it happen. Leadership is about helping people grow and making them better because you are there.

As you can see, Tom Gerdy taught all of us a great lesson in leadership the day we built Victory House. As I watched television that night, he was still teaching me. Being humble is perhaps the greatest leadership lesson of all. True leaders don’t need praise and acknowledgement because that is not why they do what they do. True leaders care about people and managing their growth. It is through your employees’ growth that you are acknowledged. Needless to say, Tom caused all of us who were paying attention to grow that day.

Leadership is many things, and successful leadership is certainly dependent on many other factors not mentioned in this article. Only you can guarantee your overall success as a leader. However, I am positive that if you follow Tom’s basic leadership concepts, you will be a more successful leader. n

C.V. “BUDDY” MARTINETTE is chief of Lynchburg (VA) Fire & EMS, an Instructor IV with the State of Virginia Department of Fire Programs, Incident Support Team operations officer, task force leader for Virginia Task Force II of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Program (US&R), and an US&R rescue specialist instructor. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from Hampton University and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program and has received the designation of Chief Fire Officer by the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. Martinette is the author of Trench Rescue, www.trench rescuebook.com (Warwick House) and lectures nationally on specialized rescue operations and fire service leadership.



In August 2001, Lynchburg (VA) Fire & EMS published a long-term strategic plan that redefined the department’s vision, values, and purpose. During the strategic planning process, it became the department’s vision to create “an environment where customers are safe and feel secure through community partnerships and innovative utilization of resources.” In addition to this vision, it is the department’s purpose “to form partnerships that cultivate a safe environment through education, direction, and resolution to fire, emergency medical, or life safety situations.”

Victory House. [Photo by Robert Lipscomb, public information officer, Lynchburg (VA) Fire & EMS.]


As the department’s strategic plan was developed, it was divided into five basic focus areas: Community Environment, Resource Development, Public Relations, Organizational Development, and Regional Cooperation. The concept of Victory House originated in the Community Environment focus area of the strategic plan.

As are many other progressive fire departments in the United States, Lynchburg is concerned about its ability to provide restorative services to victims of fire and other disasters. To continue providing innovative and compassionate services to the community, our department felt that it needed to be more aggressive in assisting disaster victims during their time of need.

Although the local Red Cross and the Salvation Army have always done a great job helping find shelter for victims of disaster, they can offer only short-term solutions. With this in mind, our department felt there was a genuine need in the community for long-term temporary housing for disaster victims. In this spirit, the vision for Victory House became a reality.

For Victory House to be completed, our department partnered with the Lynchburg Police Department, the Victory Christian Fellowship Church, and a local building contractor to raise the needed funds and construct the home. The house, which was built on church property, is modeled after many of the Habitat for Humanity homes throughout the nation. On completion, the home will be fully furnished and available for families to use in an emergency. It will be equipped with a residential sprinkler system, a complete burglar alarm system, and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. It is designed to be a safe, comfortable place for disaster victims to stay while they reorganize their lives.

As its ongoing commitment to this partnership, the Victory Christian Fellowship Church has agreed to maintain and operate this home after its completion.

The house was named Victory House as a symbol of the Lynchburg community’s commitment to triumph over tragedy. Following its completion, the home will be dedicated in honor of a New York City firefighter and police officer who lost their lives at the World Trade Center disaster on September 11, 2001.

Groundbreaking for the home took place in May 2003. The shell was built in one day in a “barn-raising/blitz” fashion. At press time, it was anticipated that the home would be ready for occupants by early summer 2003.

ROBERT LIPSCOMB, a 13-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain and the public education officer for Lynchburg (VA) Fire & EMS and a nationally registered paramedic. He has a bachelor’s degree in middle childhood education from Lynchburg College and is licensed by the Commonwealth of Virginia to teach grades 4-8.

No posts to display