Transitioning Leadership


When a leadership transition occurs in a fire department, a battalion, or a company, how the outgoing leader acts and reacts and how the new leader decides to lead are critical. Things will be different. Agree to accept and embrace these differences. Very few organizations fail because of one individual; if one does, it wasn’t a strong organization in the first place. It’s like a one-man band: When he gets tired, the music stops.

Fire departments are steeped in tradition, which can sometimes create unnecessary challenges and additional difficulties for transitioning leadership. The fire service’s tradition can block progress when the subordinates insist that “the way we used to do things” will always be the “right way.”

Change is most often uncomfortable for most of us; the only one who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. Leadership change can be even more uncomfortable: People will leave; transfer; or, in some cases, “retire in place.” The transitioning leader should be most concerned about the people who retire in place. They can create disruption and conflict within the company, the battalion, or the department.

Everyone will face conflict, especially during leadership transitions. The difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship is how the new leader handles the conflict. A healthy way is to focus on how best to accomplish the mission, which could spark lively conversation and conflict. Debate should be healthy in an organization. Even in heated situations, if the mission is kept in mind, the organization and the leader will come out better. When it becomes personal, it becomes unsolvable.

Leaders are expected to be more concerned with the health of the department and the future of the cause than with their own standing within that organization. The new leader must ensure he spends enough time honoring the past.


The transition period is one of uncertainty for a new leader and the department. The arrival of a new leader is probably the most threatening, uncertain, and unsafe event in a firefighter’s career. The fire service is full of traditions, and changes in leadership are not always handled appropriately. It also can be a period of uncertain promise.

Firefighters often are unskilled at handling the uncertainty that accompanies a new leader. Many have learned through experience a number of tricks they can use to gain best advantage in the situation, such as currying favor, being the wise guy, gossiping, and keeping your head down and getting on with your job. Of course, by employing these strategies, people reinforce and perpetuate the usual way of carrying on during transitions: Survive as best you can, and watch your back, which is the same strategy leaders often employ to get through the turbulent first months of their tenure.

Choices for Leaders and the Led

Firefighters undergoing transition undoubtedly have choices about how to act. They can choose to facilitate the new officer’s entry, impede it, or take a neutral approach. They can choose to promote their own position or support their company or level. How the new officer acts will have a bearing on the choices firefighters make, and vice versa. The new officer cannot instruct firefighters in how to react. Probably the best that officer can do is to communicate the respect he feels for them through his actions.

All significant change takes time to work through, and the people in transition will go through a mourning period for the old ways before they accept a new officer. New leaders arrive when people are often still in that mourning period; leaders need to appreciate that people cannot “switch” to the new regime as easily as they turn on and off a light switch. People are holding onto loyalties for the old officer and often the previous leader, which need to wane slowly before they enter into new loyalties. They alone can accomplish this transition in their own way and own time.

If they look into themselves, leaders may find that they, too, are feeling loyalty to their previous job and company. They can feel that they have not quite left the previous state and, therefore, have not quite “arrived” in the new one.

Actions for a Transitioning Leader

While respecting this in-between state of affairs, leaders can create a context that makes it easier for people to accomplish the transition. Here are tips for the new leader to help make the transition a smoother one.

Communicate. From the start, communicate who you are and what your standard is, balancing change with stability. In so doing, be cautious not to criticize past leaders and their policies.Communicate your expectations clearly. It takes considerable time, but it will pay huge dividends. Communication is a critical process that entails many parts. One of the largest aspects of communication is to recognize the difference between the message you sent vs. the message the receiver heard (how it was interpreted). Spend time ensuring that what you said was what was heard and correctly interpreted by the receiver.

Bond. Create bonds with the people while maintaining an appropriate distance. Being yourself from the start while respecting the demands of the position will help you to engage.

Ask for help. Request that your subordinates help you learn while giving something valuable in return. Recognizing the limits of your knowledge usually will make you appear strong. “Winging it” can cause you to lose credibility.

Set ground rules. Establish ground rules regarding how the members are to become involved in making decisions, balancing imposition with facilitation. You will communicate this information unconsciously in any event. Why not have a worked-out and explicit position?

Adjust the pace. Slow down or speed up the change of the organization in line with your growing competence as a leader.

Develop personnel. Remove or keep people, balancing the need for change with the opportunities to develop personnel. Subordinates never forget – and sometimes never forgive – how a new leader deals with them at the start.

Delegate responsibility and authority to the lowest level possible. The group understands the process and, in many cases, the issue at the street level. A new leader understands that a promotion doesn’t make you the smartest person in the room. If you, as a new leader, let your ego dominate your personality, firefighters will not react positively. When they notice that your ego dominates your actions, they will ensure that you do not succeed. Remember where you came from and what it felt like to be included, but also remember what it was like to be excluded.

Maintain a positive attitude. This can be hard for the new officer when faced with leadership challenges. Many think there will be a honeymoon period when promoted during which subordinates will go along to make the transitioning leader successful. This is not always true. It is easy to become distracted from the goal and lose focus on what’s happening. Quit worrying about things that you don’t control and don’t influence. This just creates more stress. Complain less, and compliment more. Look for ways to be positive. Look for the good in other people and in the issue at hand. Complaining and moaning impact everyone who comes in contact with you. Take some time to reflect and think constructively to work out the problem. Surround yourself, if at all possible, with positive thinking people.

Some people with whom you will have to interact I refer to as “energy suckers” – they will bring everyone down; they can’t find anything good to say about anyone or anything. Run far away from them. This may not always be possible, but a critical component of maintaining a positive mental attitude is paying attention to how and what you feed your brain.

Let go of past grudges. There are people who may have wronged you, but the mature adult leader does not take action to repay an old grudge. Let it go. Make peace with those people. It’s understandable that everyone gets angry occasionally, but work to resolve these issues as soon as they arise. Allowing things to fester will only result in their becoming worse the longer you leave them.

Be decisive. Leaders need to be decisive and make good decisions. Being a leader means making decisions. Superiors and subordinates expect leaders at all levels to know what to do in different situations. There are a multitude of approaches to making good decisions but, ultimately, many leaders go with their instincts. If you want to improve your decision process and improve the end results, do not limit the number of options to consider in the decision process, and make sure the data you need and use in the decision-making process are current and valid to the debate. Confirmation bias limits our ability to make the best decision.

In addition, maintain an analytical approach to decision making. Do not become emotionally involved in the issue, as this creates bias.

Loyalty. Ensure that you actively attend to the image of loyalty you give to bosses and subordinates. Leaders are inevitably in an “in-between” position. Letting go of one end of the rope is a quick recipe for a short tenure as a leader.

Develop organizational and personal loyalty to maintain trust. When a new leader is appointed as the result of a promotion, emotions can be involved. As the new leader, you can’t tolerate infighting in the company, battalion, or department. It is important to remember your loyalty is to the organization, your superiors, and your subordinates. Friends take verbal swings at each other about decisions, motives, work ethic, and even personality. Most often, these comments are not made in public but rather in sidebar meetings and back-channel conversations. People have gotten used to this kind of behavior. It’s normal. You as the leader must act to tone this kind of action down. When loyalty is missing on a team, there is a clear and visible trust problem.

JOHN M. BUCKMAN III is the former chief of German Township Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana. He has served 47 years as a volunteer firefighter and 35 years as chief. Buckman has served as president of the IAFC and is a founder and one-time chair of the IAFC’s Volunteer and Combination Officers Section.

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