Seven Deadly Sins of Fire Service Leadership, Part 1

By John K. Murphy

There are many things fire leadership does right. However, there are times the department simply goes sideways because of some glaring leadership errors—either incidental or intentional—on the part of the chief and the department’s leadership team responsible for the direction, management, and leadership of the organization. Many of us have read or heard about the “Seven Deadly Sins,” as there is a religious nexus and many media portrayals and management articles written relating them.

The modern concept of the Seven Deadly Sins is linked to the works of the fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus, who listed evil thoughts in Greek from the Catholic teachings. The original Seven Deadly Sins are the following:

The more modern version, according to some business writers, is the following:

  • Bitterness
  • Insecurity
  • Egoism
  • Hubris
  • Dishonesty
  • Isolationism
  • Fear

Leadership is a shared responsibility with the fire officers on your staff and those you lead. Your fire department has all of the characteristics of a large navy vessel. The course and direction of that ship depends on the leadership of the “captain,” the training and expertise of the “crew,” and the integrity of the ship. A “leaky ship,” taking on water will soon sink; a “tight ship” will carry out the mission with ease and efficiency. The success of a fire department begins and ends with the leadership. If leadership fails in its role of communication, budgeting, planning, personal encouragement, long-term vision, and a supportive and knowledgeable staff, then the leader and the leadership team fails, as does the department.

There are many more comparative descriptors of the Seven Deadly Sins of Fire Service Management. For this article, I chose the following seven based on my leadership experience and working at the national level, observing other fire service leaders.


1. Lack of Courage of LeadershipLeading from the Rear

I have worked with seven different chiefs in my career. They all had different personalities, and I learned from all of them. The worst chiefs were the ones who were never present, mentally or physically, and they engage in the blame game. I had one chief whose whole job consisted of working with the politicians at the local, state, and national level and was never in the department; the assistant chief ran the department, and he was not an effective leader because he did not have the power to make changes or to enforce any aspect of management required for this position. I have also had chiefs who were in the office every day but were working on their pet projects, which did not effectively benefit the department and its strategic needs and resources that were required to advance the services it provided. There was no growth in the department, and no services were delivered to the community.

I have also worked for a couple of amazing chiefs who were fully engaged in the process, the politics, the firefighters, and the staff, and we made unbelievable progress in growth, staffing, and the services and their delivery. There are not enough of those personalities around in the fire service.

In many cases, we have leadership from the rear; the chief is not physically or mentally present in the department and possesses weak management and leadership styles with ineffective delegation to the lower ranks. Consequently the department’s goals and mission are not being accomplished. This leads me to believe that the chief has no idea how to get those goals accomplished. Strong leaders must take courage in facts, strategies, the team, and its tactics and act on that information. Sometimes they fail, but if they learn from that failure, we are all better off. That’s how fire service leaders win the charge and avoid a deadly sin of reactive and crisis management.


2. Parochialism—Focus on Unimportant Issues

Parochialism is the state of mind whereby one focuses on small sections of an issue rather than considering its wider context. I cannot tell you of the number of meetings I have attended to discuss the minutiae of topics previously discussed while not actively discussing the big problematic issues facing the department. Ineffective leadership becomes involved in and focuses on parochial matters, losing the sense of the greater picture that led to the discussion and planning session in the first place. What a waste of time, energy, and talent! Strong and effective leaders will frame the big picture and assign the details to small committees to iron out the implementation of a particular program.

As is often stated, “The devil is in the details.” However, let’s not let the “devil” slow down or stop other programs on the drawing board. At times, we fail to multitask and assume or delegate other important programs to other capable people on your staff to include interested firefighters. Poor leaders like to focus on the parochial issues in the department as it provides an avenue for the chief to avoid other pressing problems of the department. The reality is it makes them look busy while accomplishing nothing.


3. Lack of DirectionFuzzy Leadership

One of the worst leadership traits is fuzzy leadership with no clear direction provided to the remainder of the organization or its staff. When I was hired by a department, I was the only other chief officer. The department was in a rapid change state, transitioning from a predominately volunteer organization to a combination department. There was no direction from the chief as to how he defined the scope of work and my role in this transition; there was even less direction to the other staff members as well. It appeared that the chief’s set goal was to transition the department with no details attached, apparently thinking the department would transition itself. When I approached the chief and asked what he wanted me to do to ensure the success of the transition, his response was, “If I have to tell you that, I’ll fire you and hire someone else.”

I left that extremely short meeting with the goal of ensuring the success of the transition with the other staff, setting the direction and providing the details necessary for a five-year transition period as outlined by the chief. This lack of detailed direction by the chief could have ended in disaster without a clear plan; people’s best efforts to accomplish the goal may have cancelled each other’s best efforts, causing the organization to spiral downward toward chaos. Clear, concise direction is what the department needs for success; it is up to the chief and staff to provide that direction.


4. Failure of Effective Communication

Our industry does not communicate very well on a daily basis. As odd as it sounds, we have too many useless or meaningless communication outlets such as e-mail, notices, memos, policies, directives, phone calls, and several others. Generally, we do well on the fireground because we need to be specific in our command and control models, which are specific in communication since it is in life safety form.

In a nonemergency situation, we have many forms of “interpretations” of the verbal direction from the leadership; our minds will “filter” the message and meaning. In my experience, if the leadership desires to be effective, a well-written communication with a formal meeting will send a “crystal clear” message so all those responsible for carrying out the chief’s intention will be on the same page.

Communication becomes filtered by your own desires, ego, experiences, and/or interpretation, whereas it should be, “This is what I hear you saying; is that correct?” You can then move on with clear and concise direction. Too many times, the chief communicates his desires to one group or another, a lot like throwing chicken feed (information) down in the pen, with the fire officers pecking at the tidbits of information and formulating their own ideas of what the goal of the chief’s communications really mean. Clear, concise communication between the chief and the leadership will ensure the success of your organization outlining its goals and objectives. The end results desired will ensure success of the organization.

Next month, I will continue to review the Seven Deadly Sins and offer some solutions to avoid these deadly sins.


JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of career service; is a practicing attorney; and is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues at local, state, and national fire service conferences. He is a frequent contributing author to Fire Engineering and a podcast host.




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