Transformational Leadership for Fire Officers

By Bob Leiper

The business (and government) environment is always changing. Because of the rapid pace of information transfer that computers and the Internet have enabled, change is now occurring at blinding speeds. This rapidly shifting environment requires a different form of leadership. To deliver results in today’s business and government setting, a leader must thrive at the edge of chaos, inspire innovation and creativity, and develop work models that can sustain a competitive advantage. Such attributes are called transformational leadership.1

The fire service is not usually known for cutting-edge management practices.2 To make the large-scale changes necessary to create and maintain an efficiently managed organization requires transformational leadership.3 While there are some “natural” leaders, most officers need to be trained to create loyal and committed subordinates to support the change. This is accomplished in three ways:

1. Developing a link between the elements or activities of work and a higher purpose or greater accomplishment.

2. Convincing subordinates that pursuit of that purpose rises above self-interests.

3. Enhancing and empowering the subordinates’ desire to reach their highest potential. 3

Like any successful training program, the transformational change process must be planned, structured, and nurtured. The first element in the development of a training program is the identification of the underlying skills necessary for implementation of the desired outcome. The second element is the development of the process steps, using the skills mastered in step one. The final element is continued support and feedback on the use of the newly acquired skills and programs.


The skills necessary to transform and empower leaders to succeed include self-awareness, goal setting, listening, managing conflict, and using feedback.4 The tactics and strategy for acquiring or developing each of these follow.

  • Self-awareness: Leaders must understand more about their own feelings and behavior and how they impact others. They need confidence and self-esteem to be inspirational. Fire officers must be taught to understand and confront their own “style” and learn how to tailor it to the personality and needs of each subordinate. (3) Structured training by human resource professionals will develop the positive outcomes to build trust, confidence, and effective leadership.
  • Goal setting: Leaders must establish clear objectives for themselves and obtain commitment to team objectives while clarifying and understanding expectations. For a team to work together, its members must strive for the same accomplishment. Members must understand their responsibility in reaching the objective and provide the commitment to the goal (and thus the organization) over self-interests.
  • Listening: Leaders use listening and questioning in a new and powerful way—not just for information but for meaning, to empower others. Listening is the most important element of communications. Commu-nications skills are effectively taught by example and demonstration. Reinforcing the proper listening techniques as chief officers can develop good listeners and good communicators in our entire department. This can make a difference in behavior, morale, and “buy in” to the vision.5
  • Managing conflict: Leaders welcome and value difference and develop creative and collaborative solutions. Most leaders spend much of their career doing things someone else’s way. Once they have the power and authority, they want to finally have their way. As transformational leaders, they must strive to consider all points of view and even embrace conflict about goals and methods. Only through this building and examination process can the activities represent the team’s best efforts.
  • Using feedback: Leaders use feedback to build trust, establish clear and honest communications, and appreciate and motivate people. Unless objective feedback is part of the leadership paradigm, the quality of the process and eventual outputs will suffer.


Fire officers must develop these skills to prepare them for the transformational leadership process. Once they begin developing these skills (they never finish), the four steps in the transformational leadership process can begin (3).

1. Recognize the need for change. One of the greatest challenges in developing transformational leadership is getting members, especially leaders, to accept change as a preferred route. Leaders may feel threatened by changing the system that placed them in “power” and worry that a new order may find their position or influence reduced. (2) 6 One of the critical elements of this step is conducting a SWOT (strengths,weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to identify the things that must be changed to survive and then to identify the things that should be changed to prosper.7

2. Manage the transition to a new vision. Once they have identified the “weaknesses” and “threats,” leaders must learn how to focus on the solutions, new cultures, and paradigm shifts that will neutralize or counteract the threats. A part of this new culture will be confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty. Transformational leaders learn that these are normal elements of change, especially bold change. As long as step one has been well grounded, it will be understood that anxiety is preferable to the consequences of lack of change.

3. Create a new vision for the future. After need for change and the options for change are in development, the creation of the new vision—the wave of future culture, activities, and action—is developed as a shared vision. Developing this vision as a participative process improves buy-in and common purpose and justifies the investment needed to carry out and sustain the change.8 As successful change is accomplished, this vision becomes somewhat easier to create because tangible results are usually evident. It is best to begin “small” and ensure a track record of successes before tackling major issues or entrenched paradigms. (2)

4. Institutionalize change. Change must become the organization’s way of life. Each success paves the way for future endeavors. The organizational leader developing transformational leaders may have to alter the structure of business or build a coalition of supporters to ensure success. That may be accomplished more easily in the private sector; the fire service is shackled with restrictions, laws, contracts, and other hindrances to rapidly building a “team.” In our environment, the placement of key players is all we can hope for; the rest must be earned through education, experience, and imparting the new vision.9 Unless change becomes a way of life for the department, it will usually fail to make lasting, positive impacts on the organization’s outputs. Failed change or successful change that is not supported and is allowed to backslide makes it only more difficult for future change agents. (8)

This development plan not only includes skills and procedural steps but also suggests behaviors for transformational leaders. It is important that any desired behavior be modeled and practiced by those who desire to instill the behavior. (3) Transformational leadership is absolutely NOT a place for “Do as I say, not as I do.” For example, when it may be easier or simpler to dismiss a new idea that you know (or at least believe) will fail, it is important to give it time, attention, and proper consideration. This idea might be successful this time, or the person, if properly supported, may bring a truly outstanding idea forward next time. (5)

Behavioral suggestions include developing and sharing an inspired vision to create and maintain a common purpose. It has to be shared repeatedly and become a part of the everyday work environment. Also, share how the team will fulfill the vision, so everyone knows that it can be achieved by working together. The visible optimism and faith will set the benchmark for achievement by all members of the organization. They tend to be contagious and will improve the faith and confidence members have in you.

Make your initial change “projects” meaningful but also attainable. When you or your organization has a success, celebrate it. Also celebrate the organizational successes in public. Include marginal contributors in the celebration so they will be more inclined to want to see successes repeated. The enthusiasm and support for change grows with each success, but only if everyone knows they were successful. (8)

Most visions have key elements that led to their success. Emphasize and articulate these elements so that they are visible in all of the support activities. Again, it is paramount to model these elements in each leader’s personal behavior. Just as we learned basic firefighting in rookie school, officers learn transformational leadership skills and behaviors by seeing them, participating in them, and then practicing them. The consistency between a leader’s words and deeds is paramount.

The final behavior is perhaps the most difficult for many chiefs. The vision will be achieved and the organization will be transformed only when the authority to do so is delegated to the organization. (5) For many, it is difficult and unsettling to give away authority and power after working a career to obtain it. As leaders, we have to realize that there is very little we can do by ourselves. (8) It is by and through others that our missions and visions are accomplished. By taking the risk to empower others, we are demonstrating our commitment to the vision, our confidence in the subordinates, and our faith in the organization. This can be nerve racking, especially at first. Remember that transformational leaders thrive at the edge of chaos. Empowering others, especially when it is a new concept in an organization, can often be described as nothing short of chaotic.

To meet today’s demands on government in general and the fire service in particular, we must manage our organizations and our resources differently. By creating a plan to develop and sustain transformational leaders, we help ensure our abilities to respond to challenges rather than react to catastrophes. The transformational leadership development plan must have all of the elements of any action plan and include basic skills, a delineated implementation process, and follow-up support to sustain achievements after they occur. The result will be an energized organization, prepared to meet unexpected challenges as they arise and more likely to predict and prepare for changes that will inevitably occur in our future.

As renowned management and leadership author Peter F. Drucker said, “Leadership is not magnetic personality—that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not ‘making friends and influencing people’—that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”10 That is the challenge for today’s transformational fire officer.


1. Robinson, M.S. “Transformational Leadership Defined.” http://www., 2000.

2. Buckman III, J. M., “The Department Officer as Change Officer.” Fire Engineering, April 2002.

3. Sweeney, Paul D., and Dean B. McFarlin. “Understanding Attitudes and Appreciating Diversity.” Organizational Behavior: Solutions for Management. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 200-206.

4. Brandvik, V. Transformational leadership courses,, 2002.

5. Savia, S.A., “Improving Communication,” Fire Engineering, May 2001.

6. Manning, B. “Habits of Highly Unsuccessful Leaders.” Fire Engineering, April 1999.

7. Invest-Tech, Limited. White paper: Developing a Business Strategy,, 2002.

8. Sargent, C. N., “Chief Officers: Learn to Lead, Not Just Manage,” Fire Engineering, July 2002.

9. Cook Jr., J.L., “Change and the Lost Art of Followership,” Fire Engineering, September 1998.

10. Leadership Quotes and Proverbs,

BOB LEIPER is assistant city manager for Baytown, Texas. He previously held the positions of assistant city manager/fire chief; chief of fire and rescue services; and captain of training, safety, and communications. He has a B.A. in public administration from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and is completing a master of science degree program. He is a certified fire protection specialist and a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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