Positive Leadership Traits

Photo by Tony Greco.

By P.J. Norwood

Although I am far from a leadership expert, I have had my share of good and bad leaders. From the private sector, to the military, and on to the fire service, I have diverse experiences to share with you.

Many blogs, articles, and books discuss the difference between leaders and managers. There are great fire service, military, and private sector leadership books that I would recommend if you are interested in exploring further.

Let’s analyze four leadership traits by examining a leader vs. a boss.


A BOSS blames others for breakdown.

A LEADER fixes the breakdown.

Regardless of a positive or negative outcome for any situation, as a leader, the ultimate blame rests on your shoulders. If someone in your organization makes a mistake (which he eventually will), the goal of a good leader is to analyze what occurred and why it happened. Then, the leader must focus on putting a plan together to minimize the same mistake from occurring again.

The fire service is dynamic, and each and every call will be different; there are no absolutes. We expect our personnel to make perfect decisions under imperfect situations. As a leader, you must recognize and understand that no fire will go “perfect.” No emergency call will go flawless. Many incidents will go very well. However, there will always be something on which it can be improved.

To improve on something, you must evaluate all the processes involved. When you evaluate the system, you may uncover issues or problems within the system, the employee, the training, or the policies or procedures. The issues can range from a breakdown in training, communication, standard operating procedures(SOPs)/guidelines (SOGs), or a whole host of other topics. The only way to fix it is to address it. We fix problems not by assigning blame but through analyzing and putting a plan forward to address the issue through the proper channels to minimize the chances of reoccurrence.


A BOSS inspires fear.

A LEADER generates enthusiasm.

When I arrived in Fort Knox, Kentucky, two days after high school graduation, I listened and obeyed orders based on fear. That fear decreased during the training as it turned into respect. The respect came to the surface as it became evident that the training we were receiving was meant to be the difference between living and dying. Today’s firefighters and recruits still need to understand that the training they are receiving can mean the difference between life and death. But, today’s firefighters—for the most part—understand the mission. If they don’t, there are bigger problems.

Leaders need to understand and connect with the men and women who work for them by motivating and creating enthusiasm for the department, the team, the organization, and the mission. Many firefighters indicate that there is a morale problem in their department. Although this may be true, leaders must get to the underlying contributing factors.

One way leaders can begin overcoming or preventing poor morale from creeping in is to promote enthusiasm and increase open, honest communication. Encourage company and department pride. Encourage and support both financially and physically pride projects. Get out and talk with the members and ask what the issues are. Then address the issues. If firefighters know you care and you simply just don’t provide them with lip service you will inspire and create enthusiasm with the ranks.


A BOSS takes credit.

A LEADER gives credit.

Leaders of organizations must understand the importance of putting their most valuable resource—their employees—first. Any officer who has the opportunity should promote those that work for him. Every interview should be about the men and women who worked tirelessly and aggressively toward the common goal of saving lives and protecting property.

Leaders look for and take advantage of every opportunity to give credit to their employees. There are no firefighters who want to be recognized for “just doing the job.” However, every firefighter should be recognized when he goes above and beyond; departments should conduct award ceremonies that acknowledge these individuals and teams. These ceremonies should not be an opportunity to give everyone a trophy; we are not and should not be like little league (where everyone gets a trophy). But, when someone in your organization goes above and beyond, he should be recognized.

Beyond ceremonies a leader should use two simple words every day that goes a long way. A sample “Thank You” is something that many leaders forget to use that should be used every day! But, it must not be lip service it must be genuine.


A BOSS says “I.”

A LEADER says “We.”

No leader should use the word “I” in an interview or conversation when speaking about an incident or the organization. All too often, we see so-called “leaders” write articles or blogs, conduct TV interviews, or teach a class where some will start counting the numbers of “I” in the conversation. A leader will say, “The men and women of my company, organization, and department…” Leaders know it’s about the employees and not about them.

Tip: If you are a “leader,” go back and read your articles and blogs, watch your TV interviews, and analyze your work. If you are using the letter word “I” more than “we” or “they,” you have work to do.

Leaders have many responsibilities and, in many organizations, the tasks often outweigh the time available each day to complete them. True leaders realize the challenges, but they also understand what leadership is truly about. It’s about the people who work for you to meet the mission of saving lives of those in need. It’s about them, it’s not about you.

Author’s note: Fire Engineering Books and Videos has some spectacular titles, including two from my favorite fire service leadership writer—Frank Viscusso. Step Up and Lead and Step Up Your Teamwork are two of his books that every current and future leader should have! There are other good titles as well, but I consider Frank a friend and mentor, and I wanted to share his books here.


P.J. NORWOOD is a deputy chief training officer for the East Haven (CT) Fire Department and has served four years with the Connecticut Army National Guard. He has authored Dispatch, Handling the Mayday (Fire Engineering, 2012); coauthored Tactical Perspectives of Ventilation and Mayday DVDs (2011, 2012); and was a key contributor to the Tactical Perspectives DVD series. He is a Fire Engineering University faculty member, co-creator of Fire Engineering’s weekly video blog “The Job,” and host of a Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio show. He is certified to the instructor II, officer III, and paramedic levels.

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