Mapping Out Your Leadership Journey


During my fire service career, I have been asked, “If you don’t have a plan, how do you know where you are going?” or “How are you going to get there?” Best of all, I have also been told, “Hope is not a plan.” Being an officer in a volunteer fire department is like a long journey that takes you from the earliest levels of leadership to the top, but you must plan for it correctly.

There are two types of journeys you can have in life. One is similar to a college road trip, where you don’t know or care how you get to the end, and the journey itself is the adventure. Like getting the best pizza on Long Island, it was only “okay.” The other journey is like a long trip for work or with family across the country with various stops along the way. You have a list of places to be with times of events and reasons to be there. Being a leader in your department is like the latter of these two trips.

Being a fire officer needs to be the well-planned journey, not the mindless road trip to some random destination. The “let’s see how we get there” trip will create undue stress and additional work and will get you lost in detours along the way, making your journey as an officer less enjoyable, feel more like a task, possibly keep you from accomplishing your goals, and may not allow you and your department to move ahead.

Map out and plan out your journey before you start; don’t just follow directions given to you by someone as if you are following a global positioning system (GPS), seeing where it might lead you. Remember, the GPS cannot adjust for changes as fast as your mind, see issues before they happen, or shift directions. Once you go off track following a GPS, you get to make a “U-turn” or “recalculate,” not knowing what roads the GPS may put you on. Think of it as your thermal imaging camera: It’s a great tool, but if it goes down, you are still in a building and have to finish your tasks as well as find your way out safely.

Consider this article as a second part to “Climbing the Ladder: from Officer to Chief” (Volunteers Corner, Fire Engineering, September 2011), which will help you plan your personal journey to success. There are many fire service classes being taught on tactics, operations, technical aspects, and safety, but there are a limited number of classes based on leadership. If you talk about, read, research, and look for some of the most discussed fire service issues, you will see that quality leadership or lack thereof is high on that list. The question that keeps coming up is, “How do we fix it?” Sure, there are the National Fire Protection Association Fire Officer Series, many local training classes, and great short articles and books on leadership. However, there is no class or guidance on how to think and plan for your journey that considers your duties, goals, tasks, and knowledge.

The national-level classes cover the three theories of leader types: Great Man Theory (born leaders); Great Event Theory (i.e., Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after 9/11 or President Franklin D. Roosevelt); or, where most leaders fall, the Transformational Theory (leaders are made, and you have choices of what you do and how). The vast majority of us are made into leaders by what we are taught by our current and past leaders; what we have learned about leadership from classes, parents, teachers, and coaches; and-the one that is often forgotten-our own life experiences.

Before You Make Your Map

Before you can create your own journey’s map, you will need to absorb and process many ideas and much information. First, consider that, as a volunteer, you do not hold a paycheck, an evaluation, or many other “work” items over the heads of people you lead as opposed to career firefighters. In some ways, you cannot force volunteers to do things. You have to persuade your members to do what you want and need them to complete. Remember, you are there to serve your community, to keep your neighbors safe, and to ensure that the turnout for the alarms return safely, all without a paycheck. If you always remember that, you will be a step ahead of the pack. It is a very fine line between “I am just a volunteer” and “doing what is required to be done.”

One of the largest challenges volunteer fire departments face is their ever-changing demographics. This has affected the fire service as well as other volunteer organizations, and it will continue to do so for some time. Department membership has decreased while the average age of members has increased, and our leaders have become much younger. These young leaders may have received some of the best technical training out there, but they have fewer life experiences that help them plan, lead, and grow into strong competent leaders. Most of their experiences are limited to high school and college and perhaps their first “real” job. Some might be in the military, or they may have been youth leaders in the Boy Scouts or other organizations, but that is about it. By no means does that make them incapable of or disqualified from being a leader; it just makes it more difficult for them and for their departments to help them grow into what the volunteer fire service wants and needs to flourish now and in years to come. This can be attributed to the social economical changes within our communities. Today, most families feature both parents with full-time jobs who work longer hours and with longer commutes just to make ends meet.

Other types of community organizations need and work to secure good volunteers and quality volunteer leaders. As proof, look at your local youth sport clubs, the Boy Scouts, and school organizations; the same people are volunteering all the time. The minority is doing the work for the majority. This amounts to fewer people with less time trying to do more work, training, and equipment checks as well as responding to more alarms through an ever-expanding service.

Some people feel that these changes are generational; some expect more while giving less and being rewarded for everything they do, expecting to be the “most important” person all the time. Although this may or may not be true, there are indeed generational differences regarding how, what, and when things are expected. How do you encourage and motivate each generation in your department? None of the above is the core issue, but they all can and do play some part.

Along with these changes in our communities are the changes in leadership styles from years ago. Many “old-timers” talk about the drill sergeant approach to fire service leadership, commonly known as Authoritarian (“I will tell you what to do, and that is it”). This is very much needed at times, but it is not the only type of leadership there is, and it will not work in all situations. Who enjoys being berated or yelled at all the time? Not many. So, add Participative leadership, which contends that you are the leader, but you have a committee that has a say or vote in what happens, commonly known as “leadership by committee.” Last, incorporate Delegative leadership, which empowers a subordinate to make decisions and complete tasks (delegating your authority). You must use each of these styles to be successful.

If you look at the three types of leadership, you cannot subscribe to just one all the time. There is a time and a place for each form. For example, use Authoritarian leadership to “Clear the roof now!” in an imminent collapse danger. Use Participative leadership, for instance, if you need to make a large purchase and need input and ideas from the people around you to complete the project (e.g., a truck committee). Use Delegative if you have to ask one of your subordinates to complete a task for you (e.g., plan and run a drill). Each type has its place; you just need to know when to use each one. But remember, as the leader, you will be held accountable for the outcome of your decisions.

What Type of Leader Are You?

To lead, you must first know and understand yourself NOW, not years down the road. Understanding your wiring from the beginning can help you become a better leader in the future. Is this a nature vs. nurture issue? I believe it is both. The nature side is that with which you were born-i.e., blue eyes, brown hair, and so on. You can mask them, but you can’t change them.

On the subject of nurture, our life experiences make, change, and mold us into the people we are today and dictate how we lead. This is where technology can be your friend. A vast number of Web sites offer questionnaires to help determine “who” you are. Although they will not give you the total story, they can give you insight into how you are made up, how you may make decisions, and how you interact with people.

Next, ask someone such as a current or past leader whom you respect or, for the younger members, an adult leader of a youth program to which you formerly belonged and in which you participated such as a scoutmaster or a coach. If they know you well enough, they should be able to help you determine who you are and how you can improve yourself.

With knowledge from course work such as the Fire Officer Series, general leadership seminars, the leadership styles, and finding out “who” you are, you now can plan your journey of becoming a leader.

Get Out the Pen and Paper

Although technology makes life easier for many things, there are times when it is much better to “go old school.” For most of us, we can type much faster than we can write, and it is easier. By writing in lieu of typing your ideas, you will have more time to think about your journey; the final destination; the stops along the way; and, most importantly, how to get there. However, by writing it all out by hand, your thoughts will most likely be shorter (short sentence or phases), single in nature (“turn right onto Route 94”), and have more meaning. You can then determine where you are as a person NOW and see what leadership styles work for the duties you are assigned.

Read, re-read, and fully understand your job description and the assigned duties for your rank, and have a feel for what is expected of the next rank up. As a side note, if your duties are not in writing, they don’t exist. There is no possible way to know and understand your job duties and responsibilities and to compare them with anything if they are not written down. Knowing and understanding your job responsibilities will help set your short- and long-term goals.

Your personal goals must be in line with your rank, responsibilities, and level of authority and the department’s overall vision and mission. If they fall outside of one or more of these aspects, your chance of completing the goal (a stop along your journey) will be very limited. For example, if your department does not offer or have a need for a technical rescue or dive team, why spend time making that part of your journey? Although it might be a fun stop, it will pull you away from your final destination (being a successful leader).

Most of us remember being told by a parent or telling our own children that you cannot do everything; there is not enough time in the day and, in some cases, not enough money. Well, being a leader is like being a parent-you have to look at the big picture and sometimes say “no,” not only to your firefighters but also to yourself, which sometimes is much more difficult. Your personal goals and ideas must fall in line with your assigned duties; that is how you will be measured as a leader by YOUR leaders. You may complete all of your personal goals but still miss key job tasks or duties and fail as a leader.


Your personal goals are just that: personal. They will have to come from the heart, the mind, and the soul. It might sound odd, but they are something you have to put some thought into, not just paint quickly with a broad brush.

The goals you have will fall into four general categories: short term, long term, tangible, and nontangible. The short vs. long term is something easy to think about and plan out. Short term represents a few days to a few weeks, while long term can represent months to a year or more. The tangible goals are those you can easily confirm when they are complete. The equipment is in service, the purchase has been made, or the drill schedule is complete. The nontangible goals are much more difficult to complete, and you may not be able to determine when they are completed. In many cases, the nontangible goals tend to mend broken relationships, morale, or public image. It is difficult to tell when you have reached your goal in any of these tasks, but they can be the most important goals to complete.

Many leaders follow a “boss” who has burned some bridges. The relationships within your station, between stations, within the town, or even the county and your community can be damaged very easily by disagreements between one or two people. Mending these relationships is not easy; it takes time and is the most difficult to complete. Sometimes, it can be as easy as having a cup of coffee and a long talk. Other times, it might have to wait until people change out of their office because of the severity of the damage that has occurred. Do what you can to repair relationships, but do not allow them to overwhelm your time for your entire journey.

Your Duties

Know your duties, tasks, responsibilities, and schedules. List all of the duties you have been assigned and place them in time groupings to schedule for a smooth journey. Weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly work items are found at each rank within a department. If you have to complete equipment checks once a week, teach one drill a month, and create the equipment replacement list for the apparatus, those tasks are easy to plan out. Write them out, and use one of many calendar programs on a computer or smartphone to help set dates and times.

Whenever you can, schedule the weekly equipment check on the same day and time each week as much as possible. Why? If others know you are there on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m., members may show up and help. You have now gained some much needed assistance, something that all leaders need. The help you receive will also be a teaching moment for you as a young leader and will reinforce the skills of the firefighters you lead. And, most importantly, you are paying it forward. Realize that there will be times when you will not be able to make a scheduled day or time; when that happens, let the regulars know. This shows respect to those who assist you and, in return, you will receive respect, and even more-they might even complete the truck check for you that night. However, don’t make it a regular occurrence; it is still your job.

For a quick example of planning, think about the monthly drill that you have been assigned to plan with goals, an audience, equipment, and timing. For goals, create a short list of the takeaways for those who attend, such as the following:

  • Learn and refresh emergency self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) procedures.
  • Equipment-15 SCBAs with spare bottles, filling station, full personal protective equipment.
  • Timing-15 minutes of intro and demonstration, 15 minutes of hands on (five minutes per procedure), 30 minutes of mask course in truck room, 15 minutes cleanup (fill bottle and SCBA check), 15 minutes to close out and make any announcements.

You just planned a simple nightly drill. For a larger or a complete list, add steps. To make the following year’s duties and tasks easier, file your lists! Knowing that the hose was getting toward the end of its usable life or that a number of SCBA bottles are pushing 15 years old will help you start next year’s list. Keep a file of all the drills completed in the prior years. They can be used as a quick fill-in when plans get changed as well as a recipe book for future drills. Make adjustments, and change them year to year to make them more effective and to keep them fresh.

As previously mentioned, always pay it forward. Once you have moved up in rank, pass on your lists to the member succeeding you. He can take what you created, make it his own, improve it, and move forward. Why make someone recreate the wheel? The history created in your file will aid you and your replacement as well as the department.

The Next Rank Up

You know your jobs and responsibilities, so why should you know your bosses? Your job is to do your job, period. If you do your job correctly, on time, and to the best of your ability, all ranks above you will have a chance to be successful. One of the easiest ways to undermine a leader is to have subordinates who do not do their jobs correctly. I have witnessed this, and it is by far one of the lowest, must destructive, and undermining forms of mutiny there is. It is a sign of a weak-minded, self-centered “leader” who does not have the best interests of the department at heart and craves power only for himself. These so-called leaders can be found in many locations, and as it is with all history, they will repeat themselves in the future if “they” are not happy. Watch for signs of this happening, and end it.

Part of your job is to assist your boss and fill in for him if he is not there. Remember, you have “three points of life” that must be kept in balance-family, job, home-that need your attention outside of the firehouse. So, when the time comes that your boss needs some help for a short period of time (i.e., business trip, vacation, family time), this is the time to step into his spot to cover. This will do many things. First, the work will be completed. Second, you will learn and grow during this time with the different and typically more advanced responsibilities you will complete. Last, it will give an opportunity to the younger firefighters who have been assisting you to step into your spot and cover some of your duties while you work your way up. But, do not do all the work for your boss or take the fall/heat for your boss’s work/effort or lack thereof. Up to this point, most things have been positive, but this is real life. If you are a lieutenant and you are running all the drills, doing the paperwork, and so on, and most of this should fall on the captain, say so! That is not how the chain of command, good leadership, and a fire department progress. It will create resentment and factions within the department. You cannot delegate your entire position away and still be called a leader.

Your Journey’s Map

Now, the journey you have planned needs to be adjusted and changed for each position, rank to rank, because of the changing responsibilities, your growth, and how it interacts with the goals and mission of your station and department. But, as previously noted, many of the core items, baseline tasks, values, and leadership styles will never change.

You have a job with a list of responsibilities that you must accomplish on a regular schedule. Some of them you must do by yourself or direct (Authoritarian); for some, you will lead a team that makes a group decision (Participative); others you will be able to hand over to someone you trust to run for you (Delegative). But, in the end, you are responsible for your assigned tasks and must be willing to take responsibility for their outcomes. Never stop being a student of the fire service; it is ever-changing. New ideas, tools, and tactics are being created and improved on every single day.

Being a leader in a volunteer fire department is difficult, challenging, rewarding, heartbreaking, and exciting. It is the third most difficult job behind being a parent and the President. But, if you remember to plan and map your journey (personal directions) with goals (stops along the way), you will reach your destination (completing the rank’s job safely) and be happy and proud of your accomplishments. Good luck, and enjoy your journey.

TIMOTHY PILLSWORTH is a member of the Washingtonville (NY) Fire Department. He is a past chief and life member of the Winona Lake Engine Company, Orange Lake Fire District in Newburgh, New York. He has presented at FDIC and FDIC East on engine company operations and leadership and has authored/co-authored many articles on personal protective equipment (PPE), volunteerism, engine company operations, and attack system flow testing. Pillsworth is the author of the PPE chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II. He is a project engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Your personal goals are just that: personal. They will have to come from the heart, the mind, and the soul. They are something you have to put some thought into, not just quickly paint with a broad brush.

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