Leadership is difficult to define, but even without a definition, we can all recognize it. It`s a complex amalgamation of qualities that makes a person powerful enough to cause the whole to exceed the sum of its parts. In other words, a leader`s true power is not so much in what he can do but in what he can get others to do. There`s a Chinese proverb that says, “A good leader is one whom people respect. The poor leader is one whom people hate. But the great leader is one who will enable people to say when they have finished a task, `We have done it ourselves.`”

John Gardner, scholar, author, counselor to six U.S. presidents, and founder of Common Cause, writes, “The notion that all the attributes of a leader are innate is demonstrably false. No doubt certain characteristics are genetically determined–level of energy, for example. But the individual`s hereditary gifts, however notable, leave the issue of future leadership performance undecided, to be settled by later events and influences.”

There`s no such thing as a born leader. Leadership can`t be taught, but it can be learned.

Let`s get started.


In the past, major corporations developed educational programs to train their leaders. The programs ran the gamut from simple home-study materials to full-blown corporate universities with campuses, courses, and faculties. No matter how big or small the programs, they all had something in common: They were focused on building competencies and skills selected to meet the requirements of the companies. But the programs were not yielding the results that companies expected.

Certainly, the graduates were good managers with specific skills. But good managers could only take the companies so far. To be really successful, companies needed leaders with a broad base of knowledge and experience. One problem with developmental programs was that of scale. The larger the company, the larger the program. The larger the program, the less likely it was to be suited to an individual. Developmental programs were, after all, designed to train a lot of people. Companies found that while it was easy to train managers this way, it was far more difficult to train leaders. And they discovered that leadership–not management–is critical to the success of a dynamic organization.

Today, the direction of training has changed. Instead of “old” methodical basics, employees are more likely to find self-directed learning that helps individuals look for ways to sharpen their own knowledge, develop the ability to access information, and learn more quickly and efficiently.


The way we train people in the emergency services closely mirrors the “old” style of corporate leadership development. We build specific competencies and skills at each stage of our careers. You`re probably being trained this way. Just before it`s time for you to assume new responsibilities, you`re trained to perform the necessary skills.

Mastery is up to you and comes later with experience. Methodically training skill by skill right before you need each one is undeniably efficient, but it`s also halting. You don`t rise through the ranks as much as you plod uphill one step at a time, hesitating before each step. Although this style of development gives you the tools you need to do your job well and can even train you to be a manager or supervisor, it rarely develops leadership. You`ll have to do that on your own.


Although leadership theories are many and the definitions can be quite complex, I want to tell you a secret. Everyone is a leader. Some are just better leaders than others. We all have our own roadmaps and choose our own routes. When one person is given authority and is designated as the “leader,” that person “reigns first among equals.” No one can lead you unless you decide to follow. When you decide to follow, you give another person authority. It`s your decision, your gift.

Leadership–on any level–is a simple matter of consensus. When you stand up and say, “Follow me!” remember that the person you`re recruiting is also a leader. For him to give you the authority to lead, that person has to believe that your value system, mission, and strategy are in perfect agreement with his. Then and only then, will he allow you to take control. And he`ll allow you to maintain that control only so long as you do nothing to violate your consensus–your perfect mutual agreement that you two are together in values, mission, and strategy. Literally, the leader in you has to become partners with the leader in him.

The philosopher Confucius learned much of what he knew about leadership from the guide I Ching, which states: “Radical changes require adequate authority. A man must have inner strength as well as influential position. What he does must correspond with a higher truth. If the revolution is not founded on such inner truth, the results are bad, and it has no success. For in the end, men will support only those undertakings they feel instinctively to be just.”


Knowing that leadership is a simple matter of consensus between you and those who choose to follow you, you now know that someone from the top of your organization can`t walk in and designate you as the leader. Not even promotion to the highest rank will make you the leader. Designation and promotion will, however, make you the “manager” of the organization. Being the leader is something very, very different.


Fortunately, as a person working in emergency services, you already have a number of built-in good leadership attributes. Researchers identified these attributes while studying physicians who made the transition from clinical practices to administration. These specific attributes apply not only to physicians but to anyone who works in the trenches of emergency services on any level.

You`re credible. You have a solid reputation for trustworthiness built on an excellent personal track record.

You`re in great shape. Working in emergency services demands that you be in great shape physically, mentally, and emotionally. You`re willing to take responsibility for people`s lives. The very nature of emergency services is that of taking responsibility and control. You walk into chaos and restore order. That`s your job. You know how to listen and interpret nonverbal cues. You have spent years evaluating patients who couldn`t tell you everything you needed to know before you treated them. You have developed a finely tuned ability to read all sorts of signals to make accurate diagnoses and assessments.

You know how to deal with crises. Because your stock in trade is disaster management, you know how to stay absolutely calm when everyone around you is panicking. You have learned to get your emotions under control in situations that unnerve the average person.

You know how to deal with people. You`re in a profession that allows you to see people at their very best and their very worst. You`re privileged to be part of the great comedies and terrible tragedies of their lives. When you`re called in, you`re in control.


As I have often pointed out, the traditional management style of emergency services is a “military” command culture. Early fire departments and emergency services organizations were the domains of personnel who had been trained by the U.S. Armed Forces, where the system taught them that high-ranking officers gave marching orders to the low-ranking soldiers, who obeyed immediately and without question. When we draw the organizational chart of our traditional workplace, we put the chief at the top and everyone else somewhere underneath. The lower the rank, the lower the slot on the chart. When it`s finished, it`s a giant pyramid. It`s a pretty slick way to get the lay of the land and to see where people fit in.

The problem is that it`s upside down. When you`re the leader, you would do well to flip it over and get it right. You need to get crystal clear on just who works for whom.

When we envision “leading and following,” we mistakenly assume that “leading” is moving out in front and “following” is bringing up the rear. While this might be true when you ride your horse into battle with your troops marching behind you, in real life, the act of leading is most effective when you get behind your followers. Your job is to create a workplace culture that is so safe and supportive that they can do their best. To do this, you have to work for them. Certainly, no one wants to work his way to the bottom. But that is, in fact, what leaders should be doing, modifying at least one aspect of our military traditions of command culture.

If you want to lead and work for the people in your organization, you don`t have to announce a major upheaval. No one needs to scramble to the copy machine with new organizational charts. You merely need to make a small personal attitude adjustment by reminding yourself just who works for whom in your organization. And, once you are clear about the “new chain of command,” you need to take better care of the personnel you serve. Find out what they need to do their jobs, and make it happen.

A rewarding, gratifying by-product of the inverted pyramid management model is that you will be developing confident, competent, experienced leadership all the way to the top. And those on the upper level will be well-prepared to work their way down to your level, as they recognize you as the leader they would one day like to be. n

n MICHAEL F. STALEY, a former firefighter and EMT, is a motivational speaker and heads Port Orange, Florida-based Golden Hour Motivational Resources, through which he also provides consulting and speaking services. He is the author of the book Igniting the Leader Within (Fire Engineering, 1998).

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