The Leverage of Leadership


Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.
-Colin Powell

Leadership is the most important issue facing the fire service today. If organizations can focus on developing value-driven, principle-based leaders who take responsibility and make themselves accountable up, down, and across the chain of command, every other issue will take care of itself.1 Leadership has always been a vaguely indefinable quality with elusive characteristics. Developing leaders to their full potential remains one of the great challenges for organizations today.2

Firefighters can be extremely loyal and supportive of the mission. However, their leaders must possess leadership ability or they will lose their support. Strong leadership can be the backbone of an organization and produce a force-multiplying effect on employee performance. Although leadership itself may be complex and difficult to define, effective leaders exhibit certain simple, definable traits and key abilities. They lead by example, communicate and convey their message effectively, build trust and are trustworthy, maintain their accountability, and mentor and develop others.

Lead by Example

Modeling the desired behavior is perhaps the best way to lead by example. Nobody likes a hypocrite or wants to follow someone who does not practice what he preaches. Under transformational leadership, this is called “idealized influence.” Leaders exhibiting idealized influence are loyal, humble, positive, honest, and competent (1, 21).

I feel very fortunate to have had positive role models throughout my career and my life. One of my early role models was legendary fitness guru Jack LaLanne, a true leader who, by his personal example, inspired millions of Americans to be health conscious and physically fit. I met Jack in person and was inspired by him. One thing that he said to me still resonates today, “There are plenty of days when I don’t feel like working out, but I do it anyway, because I know when I stop working out, things are going to stop working.”

That statement has motivated me through many workouts. I am proud to have competed in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge for 21 consecutive seasons, and I look forward to competing this year. You cannot just advocate something as significant as firefighter fitness and performance without demonstrating your personal commitment to it.

Communicate Effectively

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.
-Ralph Nichols

Communicating effectively is essential in leadership and impacts nearly every aspect of your life, from your employment to your personal relationships. Ineffective communication was cited as the number one mistake leaders make. Too often, leaders don’t communicate; overcommunicate; communicate inappropriately through outbursts, anger, or blaming; or don’t communicate clearly. Leaders also may fail to communicate their vision in a meaningful way, assuming that those reporting directly to them intuitively understand (2, 2). Leaders must be aware of the messages they are sending-consciously or not-whether written, verbal, nonverbal, or paraverbal. This requires self-awareness and social awareness and an ability to perceive even subtle changes in personal interaction.

Furthermore, don’t leave the “leader’s intent” to chance-tell your people what you want and why you want it, and provide an example of what success looks like. Effective leaders are effective communicators who can communicate well up and down the chain of command and across typical organizational boundaries.

Additionally, I recommend exercising a concept known as the democratization of power. By providing an adequate flow of accurate and official information, you reduce firefighter dependency on the rumor mill or on information sources that may have their own editorial agenda. The democratization of power allows firefighters to form their own opinions with more complete information. Leaders who communicate well can create a vision for those who report directly to them and have the ability to tactfully communicate honestly to help support good decision making. Additionally, they can create crossdepartmental connectivity through communication, fostering effective collaboration. Effective communicators are active listeners who understand and can relate to the people with whom they are communicating. Perhaps the biggest communication mistake is failure to listen. Not listening to feedback, ignoring alternative viewpoints, or failing to seek clarity through active listening can undermine leadership effectiveness and trust.

Build Trust

You cannot buy trust at any price. But slowly, over time, you can build it for free.
-Jeffrey Gitomer

Building trust cannot happen overnight. Trust is built over time and requires integrity and consistency. We build trust by doing what we say we are going to do. Nothing erodes trust faster than overpromising and underdelivering. Leaders may promise their commitment to an effort but should avoid guaranteeing results that may be beyond their control. Trust involves big character traits like honesty, fairness, and competence and seemingly small behaviors such as routinely showing up on time, sharing credit, giving credit where credit is due, staying technically and tactically competent, and taking ownership of your mistakes. Leaders must be more focused on results than on personal credit for a team accomplishment. Failing to do these things may at times seem minor, but they are minor betrayals of trust. Trust can be difficult to build and easy to lose.

If you have violated a personal trust, meet with the injured party one-on-one and talk about what happened, why it happened, how you feel about it, and what you’re going to do about it.3 Don’t get caught up in or contribute to gossip. If someone comes to you and begins to talk about someone else in a negative way, stop the conversation and recommend that you bring the person being discussed into the conversation (3, 151). Failure to demonstrate this common level of respect to those not present will likely make those who are present question how you talk about them in their absence.

Trustworthiness requires a utilitarian perspective and that you demonstrate genuine respect and care for others. Colin Powell said, “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”4 I firmly believe that the same holds true for firefighters.

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

As a supervisor, you must communicate your basic expectations to those reporting directly to you and learn their expectations of you. In addition, you must take time to learn their personal and professional goals and find ways to assist or support their achievement. If you haven’t done this yet, do it now, because it is difficult to build trust without demonstrating this interest in your members or maintain accountability to standards or expectations if you haven’t communicated what those standards or expectations are.

Maintain Accountability

Lack of accountability, not holding yourself or others accountable for performance or behavior, can have a profound impact on morale. Yet for many, accountability and discipline are synonymous and have negative connotations. Humans are emotional creatures and may take discipline personally. However, “discipline” comes from the root word disciple, which means to train, to teach, to mold. If a football coach does not maintain discipline and hold his players accountable to a standard of performance, then he would not be preparing the team for success come game time. Fire service leaders, much like football coaches, must maintain accountability if they want to lead a highly reliable service organization. Leaders must remember that the goal of discipline is behavior modification and not merely to punish a nonperformer or problem employee. Whether the issue is a matter of insubordination or a lack of education or training, it is best to take an educational and systematic approach and follow a five-step method of coaching or counseling.

  • Let the employee know that the behavior is unacceptable and attempt to gain consensus with that person.
  • Let the employee know what is specifically expected.
  • Discuss how that person’s current behavior affects the team and the organization.
  • Lay out potential future consequences for failure to modify his behavior.
  • Offer the employee encouragement, support, and resources to make the necessary change.

I consider this a fair, friendly, yet firm approach for maintaining accountability. Deal with corrective actions and discipline promptly and privately. Praise in public but discipline in private. Although your urge may be to address issues quickly before they can compound, fact finding is necessary. Avoid jumping to conclusions with three-fifths of the facts and without taking the time to gather as much information as necessary to be accurate. After fact finding, define the issue much like you create a problem statement.

Furthermore, you must define the goal or desired outcome; next, determine what actions you plan to take and understand your reason for recommending those actions or strategies, focusing on the behavior rather than the individuals involved. Discipline managed well can build trust and maintain accountability. However, handled poorly or administered unfairly, it can undermine any trust that had been painstakingly built over time.

The most difficulty I had dealing with discipline was when I received a counseling memo from my supervisor for my failure to hold someone else accountable and ensure that all company inspections were completed prior to a newly imposed deadline. Initially, I did not agree with the discipline and resented the process. I felt that this was not an intentional error; it was merely an honest oversight and didn’t warrant disciplinary action. I wanted to blame others or the system for my failure, but I eventually took ownership of the fact that my lack of verifying the completion of all inspections resulted in one being missed. Had I done what was required of me and verified the completion of these inspections in the fire district’s database, I would have noticed the missing inspection before the deadline, corrected it, and spared my supervisor and my subordinate from this process. I recognized that I am human, I made a mistake, I learned from it, and I am better in my role because of it. I have gained an appreciation for everyone who took the time to discipline me during my formative years of development. I now recognize that discipline as part of my personal development.

Develop Others

Before you become a leader, your focus is on developing yourself; once you become a leader, that focus shifts toward developing others and aligning their values and priorities with the organization’s. Developing others requires emotional intelligence and self-confidence. It is incumbent on you as a leader to provide opportunities and promote the success and accomplishments of others. Recognizing employees for their contributions improves performance and takes advantage of human capital. Bosses who recognize and reward their employees for their hard work inspire more of the same and generate loyalty.

Great leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders.
-Tom Peters

In Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead, authors James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer make a correlation between buffalo and geese and highlight the need for leadership at all levels for an organization. In a herd of buffalo, there is only one head buffalo, and that buffalo is the only one permitted to lead. The rest of the herd will follow that head buffalo in good direction or bad. Buffalo hunters realized that if they took out the head buffalo they could decimate the herd, because none of the remaining buffalo know what to do in his absence. I imagine that we have all worked for a buffalo manager during our careers or have seen senior managers with a great deal of institutional knowledge leave without first sharing that knowledge and contributing to organizational succession.

Conversely, a flock of geese fly in that distinctive chevron pattern for a good reason. First, they have mastered the concept of teamwork and have realized that by using the lift of the one in front, the others can fly much farther together than they can alone. When they honk, they are encouraging the ones in front to keep going because they know that when they tire it will be their turn to take the lead, so not only are they allowed to take the lead from time to time, they are expected to. And the pattern in which they fly allows the whole flock to have a vision of where they are going.5

Successful organizations operate similarly to a relay team with a smooth transition of the proverbial baton from one leader to the next, which requires that leaders codify much of what they do and share what they have learned with others. Smart leaders with a genuine interest in organizational success will invest time and provide opportunity to develop leaders at all levels of an organization and recognize and reward performance. The challenge can be persuading those in leadership not to develop an inappropriate proprietary ownership of their role and thus be reluctant to relinquish control or share information. The success of an overarching leader in a lower rank whose influence exceeds his authority may be threatening to some managers.

“Do not let your ego get so wrapped around your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it.”
-Colin Powell

True leaders recognize that no one has all the answers. Soliciting input and involvement in decision making and allowing others an opportunity to lead are necessary to stay successful and productive. Involving new members can bring energy and new perspective. Without energy you may be able to accomplish tactical goals, but it’s not likely you will achieve strategic ones. Often, frontline personnel have a better handle on what is going on day to day-what’s working and what’s not-than those of us in the office.6 Only leaders who listen to others, recognize the value of their input, and commit to developing others are likely to be viewed as successful.

Effective Organizational Culture

Leaders are responsible for creating direction, establishing priorities, and shaping organizational culture. Regarding strategic planning and organizational renewal, many consider the three main levers to be structure, policies, and leadership. Structure is essentially your organizational chart, policies are your management practices, and leadership is a matter of personal conduct. The problem with policy-driven organizations is that often members don’t connect with the policy or only comply with it out of fear of discipline; many policy statements are too lengthy and cumbersome to be practical or remembered. If a policy has a staple in it, it is too long for me. Organizations driven by values that leaders exhibit and members internalize are more likely to create purposeful commitment to those values. Organizational structure and management process changes can be rather heavy, blunt tools for attempting to change behavior. Conversely, changes in leadership can range from drastic to subtle-even subtle changes may produce dramatic results.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
-Leo Tolstoy

Leaders in the fire service or in any occupation must consider personal changes in their own practices and behaviors if they desire different results from their members. They must become social architects if they want to have a positive impact on their organizational culture and on how employees think, act, and feel about the job.

Absolutely everything good and positive about our organization and absolutely everything bad and negative about our organization is woven into the attitudes of our members.

The best analogy for organizational culture comes from Chuck Burkell, executive education programs manager at the National Fire Academy. Organizational culture, he said, is analogous to the mortar in a brick wall. It can be so strong and supportive that the wall can withstand virtually any challenge or so weak and so decayed that the wall will fail under virtually any pressure. True leaders shape and harden their organizational culture through example, communication, trust, and accountability and by developing their members.


1. Alyn, K. (2012). Leadership Lessons for Formal and Informal Fire Service Leaders. San Luis Obispo, California: Higher House Publishing.

2. Ken Blanchard Companies. (2006). “Critical Leadership Skills, Key Traits That Can Make or Break Today’s Leaders.” [Research Findings]. Retrieved from

3. Gitomer, J. (2008). Little Teal Book of Trust. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

4. Powell, CA. “Leadership Primer.” Retrieved from

5. Belasco, J A. & Stayer, RC. (1994). Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead. Atlanta, Georgia: Warner Books.

6. Sargent, C. (2006). From Buddy to Boss: Effective Fire Service Leadership. Tulsa, Oklahoma: PennWell Corp.

WALT W. WHITE is chief of the Sacramento (CA) Fire Department. A graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, he has a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from California State University, Sacramento and a master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He participated in Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative as a member of Cohort X. He is also a participant in the Naval Postgraduate School’s Executive Leadership Program.

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