The 3 Cs of Leadership

Article and photos by Lance Peeples
I recently had the good fortune to stumble upon a Webcast of a lecture by U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Colonel (Ret.) Art Athens, at In his lecture, Col. Athens relates the story of his mentor, a newly minted lieutenant who found himself assigned to a company with a gunnery sergeant who had seen heavy action in both World War II and Korea. The new lieutenant’s first act was to call the gunny into his office and ask the sergeant what he expected of his lieutenant. The gunny replied that the men of the company will be asking three questions about their new lieutenant: 
1. Do you know your job, or are you striving hard to learn it?
2. Will you make the hard but correct decision even if it costs you personally?
3. Do you care as much about us as you care about yourself?
I have studied leadership my entire career and have read volume after volume on the subject authored by many learned men, but no one describes the essence of leadership as succinctly as Col. Athens in his brief story of a young lieutenant. In his lecture, the colonel boils leadership down to its core components, the 3 Cs of leadership – competence, courage and compassion. Sadly, the 3 Cs seem to be missing in many of our nation’s firehouses today. But perhaps a more in-depth review of these leadership principles will inspire us to begin honing our leadership skills, whether we are probies or grizzled old chiefs.


The first question the grizzled old gunny posed to the green lieutenant was a simple one: Do you know your job, or are you striving hard to learn it? Notice, no one expects perfection, but the members who entrust their lives to you expect you to be working hard at learning your job. If you don’t know what vacant property security (VPS) is, how to defeat a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) window, how to defeat a hockey puck lock, or if you can’t figure out the friction loss in 150 feet of a 1¾-inch line flowing 150 gallons per minute, then perhaps you’re not yet ready to lead firefighters.  

You may be able to fool yourself about your level of competence, but you can’t fool the guys and gals on this one. Just because you are certified doesn’t mean you’re qualified. Those who achieve an officer’s position through political fortune or advantageous friendships must realize that if they lack competence, they will surely be ineffective as leaders. In short, you must be competent and striving to be even better if you expect to lead firefighters into battle!  
(1) Are you competent? Can you force this door? What if it’s got a Fox lock?  Drop-in Bars? A slide bolt? A multilock? How about an American Series 2500?

I’m not talking about going into burning buildings or swinging from ropes like Spiderman–for the most part, that stuff is fun. What I’m talking about here is courage! Will you stand up and tell the mayor that an engine company with fewer than four members is ineffective and dangerous, or will you take the easy road and keep quiet and agree with the mayor to protect your job? Will you stand up against a company officer who is needlessly bullying a junior member, or will you hide like a coward in the shadows? Will you nod yes to a stupid idea from the fire chief, or will you respectfully speak up even if it costs you that coveted captain’s position? No one ever said being a leader was easy. It requires courage.


(2) Courage? Do you do the right thing even if it costs you? Do you make
 the members drill even when they don’t want to? Even when it’s unpopular? Are you a “stand up” guy?

The final question the gunny asked the new lieutenant was, “Do you care as much about us as you do about yourself?” Unfortunately, many fire officers may fail here. They feel that they are better, smarter, and more important than their subordinates. They feel superior. They feel entitled. However, in fact, the officer’s only mission in life is to support the employees who are actually doing the work–take care of them and make sure they have the tools they need to do their job! Are you willing to cover a shift on Christmas day so that the young guy with kids can have off? Do you have compassion? Lt. Howard Carpluk did on August 27, 2007. As he was being slowly being crushed to death in a building collapse, he said, “Save my probie. He’s underneath me.” It’s not about you. It’s about them. Do you have compassion?

(3) Do you care more about them than about yourself?


It may seem that it is not difficult to possess and demonstrate competence, courage, and compassion. Judging by the lack of leadership in many of our nation’s firehouses, however, it appears that we would all do well to post three little questions on our desks:

1.     Do I know my job, or am I striving HARD to learn it?
2.     Will I make the hard but right decision even if it costs me personally?
3.     Do I care as much about them as I care about myself?
One of these traits is not enough. An effective leader must have all three of them.  

Suggested Reading

The following is a brief list of suggested titles to get you started developing the 3 Cs of Leadership: 


1.     Brannigan, Francis. Building Construction for the Fire Service 3rd ed. NFPA 1992. 

2.     Brennan, Tom. Random Thoughts. PennWell, 2007.
3.     Norman, John. Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics. PennWell, 1998.
4.     Norman, John. Fire Department Special Operations. PennWell, 2009.
5.     Kolomay, Richard and Robert Hoff. Firefighter Rescue and Survival. PennWell, 2003.
6.     Casey, James. Fire Service Hydraulics, 2nd ed. Fire Engineering, 1970.
7.     Montagna, Frank. Responding to “Routine” Emergencies. PennWell 1999.
8.     Roop, Michael; T Vines, and Richard Wright. Confined Space and Structural Rope Rescue. Mosby Yearbook, 1998.

1.     United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Official Citations. Highland Press, 1980.


1.     Athens, Art. Capstone Lecture. United States Naval Academy.

2.     Abrashoff, D. Michael. It’s Your Ship. Penquin Group.
3.     Harai, Oren. Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. McGraw-Hill, 2002.
4.     Johnson, WB and G Harper. Becoming a Leader the Annapolis Way.
McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Lance C. Peeples is a veteran firefighter in St. Louis County, Missouri. He is a fire officer II and fire service instructor III. He holds associate degrees in fire protection technology and paramedic technology, a bachelor’s degree in public administration, and master’s degree  in fire and emergency management administration from Oklahoma State University. 

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