The Future Needs Leadership

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Jacob McAfee

Although budget and staffing are at the forefront of today’s fire service challenges, not dedicating enough time to being an effective leader, willing to adapt to change, and preparing future generations could be of greater significance. In addition to our fiscal and personnel problems, we work in a multigenerational workforce that can lack significant experience or leadership from the top on down. With baby boomers retiring as fast as we can promote others, we must exude strong leadership and mentor those rising through the ranks to prepare them to become future fire service leaders. Fire service culture is rapidly changing, and without strong leadership, many members will lose the Esprit de corps that has shaped the foundation of the fire service as we know it.

As leaders, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of developing the most important asset we have: Our members. What will the future hold for the fire service if we fail to develop leaders capable of addressing the economic, cultural, personnel, and political challenges that lay ahead? If we don’t foster an environment that allows our chiefs and company officers to constantly coach, mentor, and lead our personnel into the future, we are being shortsighted.

Think about all of the challenges you deal with on a daily basis, such as budget, staffing, standards of response coverage, and labor/management issues. These all seem to be the common challenges, but where does personnel development sit?

As leaders, one of our top priorities should be our personnel. One of my favorite analogies on prioritization comes from John. C. Maxwell’s book Leadership 101. When speaking about prioritization, he discusses the process of not allowing ourselves as leaders to let numerous small priorities distract from what’s most important. If you’ve ever watched a lion tamer, what is one piece of equipment that he always brings into the cage? A stool. This stool typically has three or four legs. The tamer uses the stool with the legs pointed out toward the animal to keep them at bay. Why does this work? The lion gets distracted by trying to focus on too many things at once—in this case, the legs of the stool—in a sense, paralyzing the tiger to keep it from concentrating on the tamer. If the lion could focus on one priority (the lion tamer), the tamer would probably end up having a bad day. Don’t allow yourself to become so oversaturated with other priorities that you forget your focus: Your personnel.

Quite often, developing personnel outside of their ability to perform on the fireground gets prioritized put on the back burner. We all know or have known great firefighters, but how many of us can say we have worked with great leaders? These leaders have taken the time to invest in your personal and professional growth in ways that have changed your core values; one who you would trust to follow regardless of the circumstances. Often, this number is minimal. More often, the fire service relies on positional leadership based on position or rank within a department.

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To build the foundation of an effective leadership culture in your organization, you must develop two foundational elements: Trust and influence. These core elements will shape the foundation of your future success.

With multiple generations in the station, each having different beliefs, history, experience, work ethics, wants, and needs, it can be challenging for a leader to develop, inspire, and mentor your personnel for the future. This challenge increases when your company officers have only a few years’ experience more than the members of the company.

Have you been at a department/station where, once shift change is complete and the typical morning duties are finished, you look around and the station is empty. Each member has gone to their living space only to come out for a call or meal times. As a leader we must invest time with people not just spend time with people. We must provide guidance and mentorship for our members in order to develop them into strong leaders with the discipline, work ethic, integrity, knowledge, and communication skills to develop trust and influence the current culture.   

As I reflect on my leadership experience in the United States Marine Corps (USMC), the same type of challenges existed when it came to developing leaders. There were people from all walks of life that spanned multiple generations, and it seemed like we were always required to do more with less. Sound familiar? Each member counted on his leaders to develop him so that he may progress as a leader himself.

As a paramilitary organization, the fire service can definitely relate to the use of positional leadership. But is that leadership? Does your position or rank automatically make you a leader? No! Even in the USMA, the most effective squad or team had to trust in your ability and influence as a leader, not just a figure of rank. To develop affective leaders that don’t rely solely on positional leadership, we need to develop trust with our members and invest time in their development.

Mentor, coach, and implement the effective succession planning that’s needed to motivate and develop a multigenerational workforce capable of shaping a successful future. A leader’s personnel will gladly follow his direction without persuasion, rank, incentives, or fear of retaliation. They will follow because a level of trust has been formed that has allowed the leader to influence them is such a way that they will not only follow because they’ve been told, but because they want too. Never forget to pay attention to your most important asset.


Jacob McAfee is a 14-year veteran of the fire & emergency services, serving in a variety of capacities across the military and Department of Defense (DoD). He is the assistant chief of fire prevention and operations at the United States Air Force Plant 42 Fire Department in Palmdale, California. McAfee’s career began with the United States Marine Corps as an aircraft rescue fiirefighter stationed at Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona. He was honorably discharged from active duty in October 2007. He has mentored and lead personnel in Iraq as a captain and division chief. He followed his tours by working in a number of capacities including assistant chief of operations, fire marshal, fire prevention chief, training chief and health and fitness coordinator as a civilian with the DoD. 

McAfee has master’s degrees in occupational safety and health and emergency management from Columbia Southern University. He is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and he is an instructor for the California Office of Emergency services—hazardous materials section, the California State Fire Marshal, and the American Heart Association. McAfee also instructs hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, and incident command courses throughout California. He is IFSAC/Pro Board certified as a chief officer, master instructor, haz at technician, hazmat incident commander, hazmat officer, EMT, technical rescue technician, aircraft rescue firefighter, and US&R specialist.

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