Leadership: The Right Tool For The Right Job

By Barry Bouwsema

Leadership is like beauty – it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it. – Warren Bennis

Leadership in the fire service is the ability to influence people toward the attainment of goals. The end result on the fireground may be “putting out the fire” but how we arrive at this destination is largely determined by the road we choose to travel.

There are many theories on leadership and the characteristics of effective leaders. One common theory is the Contingency Theory of Leadership (Fiedler, 1978). This theory matches the leader’s style with the organizational situation. It suggests that effectiveness depends on a proper match between the leader’s style of interacting with subordinates and the degree the leader could control or influence the situation. What does this mean for the fire service?

The leader or company officer can be effective if three conditions exist. First there must be a good leader/member relationship. There must be a bond of mutual trust and respect between the officer and his crew. The crew must have a level of confidence in its leader to be effective. The bottom line is: if the crew doesn’t trust you, it is less likely to follow you.

Second, a favorable situation for leadership and goal achievement is more likely if the task is structured. Specifically, this means that job assignments are formalized, the goal is clearly stated and understood, there are set performance standards, and there is a level of accountability. All these elements exist at the fire scene if the crew is well trained and the officer fills the command role. An organized fireground is more likely to produce a positive outcome.

Third, the leader has a formal position of power. In the fire service, power is inherent with the officer’s position. It should be noted that “legitimate power” is initially granted by the crew, but it is up to the officer to maintain the leadership position through “expert power” (French & Raven, 1960). In other words, it is the officer’s responsibility to have the knowledge and skill to do the job in order to be viewed as a leader.

The contingency theory also suggests that “task motivation” is different than “relationship motivation” and that both are necessary for strong leadership. Therefore, the officer must adopt two different leadership styles: task-oriented on the fireground and relationship-oriented in the station. Task motivation is required when a specific job (firefighting) and specific goal (fire suppression) are apparent. The relationship motivation model is preferred when the tasks are less structured (fire hall duties). What works well on the fireground (task orientation) works poorly in the fire hall. The company officer who is a strong leader on the fireground may need to tone down the orders and authority when back in the fire station.

The best leadership style for the fire service depends on the situation. By understanding what makes an effective leader and the different leadership styles, the company officer can use the right tool for the right job.

Barry Bouwsema is a company officer for Strathcona County Emergency Services, Sherwood Park, Alberta. He has been in the fire service for 20 years, and is a graduate of Athabasca University with a bachelor’s degree in General Studies. Bouswema lectures paramedic students at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and teaches firefighters (NFPA 1001) at the Emergency Services Academy.

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