Using Past Lessons to Prepare Future Leaders


Fire service leadership has become a fre-quently discussed topic over the past few years. A quick look at the class schedules for most upcoming fire conferences is likely to reveal one or more offerings on leadership, motivation, pride in your organization, and dealing with a younger generation of personnel. In addition, the International Association of Fire Chiefs has created a committee that will develop an officer leadership program for current and upcoming officers.

Current economic conditions, an increase in retirements, and fewer command-heavy responses appear to be causing many organizations to look more closely at the need for a truer and stronger vision of where we are and where we want to go as a service. Add an influx of younger-generation personnel, some of whom it may be a challenge to fully relate to, and the potential for uncertainty in our future becomes apparent.

Think about it. How much consideration have we given over the years to supervising new firefighters and even officers who are the age of, or younger than, our children? For many of us, that time has come. As more and more seasoned personnel approach the sunset of their careers, it is now more imperative than ever that we prepare the future leaders of our fire service to carry on after us.




Many articles and textbooks have been written and seminars given on leadership in the fire service. Most have come from respected authors and public speakers on the subject—some of whom we consider the fathers or grandfathers of the fire service, at least for our maturing generation. Their messages have been clear, concise, and consistent and have served us well.

However, making a successful transition depends largely on gaining and sharing an understanding of leadership in ways that keep up with the changing times, ways we have perhaps not considered before. Who is going to fill the essential roles of the renowned fire service leaders in the future, and what will their messages be? Do we need to review the content of the leadership message we are passing on today, considering how it may be perceived and passed on to future generations? It is a concern worthy of closer examination, particularly with regard to how well we are preparing those who will take over when we move on.

U.S. Fire Administrator Chief Kelvin Cochran offers the following on the subject of succession planning:

Forecasting who’s next to move up in the leadership advancement pipeline is extremely difficult, but it is extremely necessary. Our people base their job satisfaction and job motivation on the forecast of promotional and professional development opportunities and the attractiveness of leadership portrayed by chief officers. No matter how much they admire, love, and appreciate us, there comes a point in time where our subordinates, even those who respect us dearly, want us to GO! As the leaders of our fire departments, we have an obligation to step outside our comfort zones to infuse hope and optimism into our members through executive coaching. In organizations where executive coaching really works, it is not a stand-alone activity. It is a core process of the business, woven into the very fabric of its culture. There is no success without a successor.





Although following in the footsteps of those fire service leaders who have gone before us has long been considered the appropriate thing to do, much can also be learned from the methods and beliefs of successful leaders in private industry over the past century. These individuals were well aware that success depended on making a profit—an accomplishment sometimes made difficult by periods of favorable financial conditions that caused complacency to cloud an organization’s foresight and vision. Consider, for example, the plight of the Chrysler Corporation.

The mid-1970s to mid-1980s was largely a time of self-inquisition for the American automobile industry. Never before in automotive history had the world market brought such a once-prestigious industry to such a humble level of existence. Still suffering on the heels of the early ’70s oil embargo, along with the associated costs of strict new emissions standards, the American automobile was at that time gaining unflattering notoriety for its inability to compete with those of foreign automakers, particularly in the areas of quality. Although prices continued to rise, American quality and dependability seemed to continue to spiral downward.

Chrysler bore the brunt of the depressed market. Consisting of Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, and the Dodge Truck divisions, the automaker was suffering from such lethal signs and symptoms as stressed labor relations, a lack of coordinated engineering and manufacturing efforts, and a negative cash flow. In short, the corporation was dying.

Enter Lee Iacocca. In September 1979, Iacocca, having recently been fired from the presidency at Ford Motor Company, came onboard as CEO of Chrysler. In his 1984 autobiography, Iacocca talks at length of the unproductive working conditions he found on his appointment. He then contrasts these observations with the engineering and marketing accomplishments shown during the company’s history. In fact, in 1940, Chrysler held 25 percent of the automobile market, ahead of Ford and second only to General Motors. This, he says, was largely what convinced him of the possibility of a rebound for Chrysler.

Although Iacocca pursued many facets of the management process, his primary intent was to reinstill motivation, self-discipline, and pride in his management team. In his book, Iacocca often quotes his mentor, Charlie Beacham, who was at one time the Ford regional sales manager for the East Coast. Iacocca credits Beacham with giving him some of his most useful advice, advice he used not only to return Chrysler to its standing as a very competitive automobile manufacturer but also to have it realize a solid profit in only four years. “Charlie taught me how to give other people a goal—and how to motivate them to achieve it,” says Iacocca. “I’ve always felt that a manager has to achieve a great deal when he’s able to motivate one other person. When it comes to making the place run, motivation is everything.”




The fire service, like the automobile industry, has an obligation to provide a top-quality service (product) to the citizens (customers) within each department’s jurisdiction. With that goal in mind, it becomes possible to consider how a demotivated or disillusioned workforce can be a detriment to achieving that goal. An emergency service organization must consider its personnel as the “sales force” in terms of providing this service. These personnel hold the unique role of being both a product to promote and the means by which it is promoted. Individual member needs and concerns are in many ways no different to a fire administrator than they are to an automobile manufacturer, and they can be addressed in many of the same ways.

Whether it is building automobiles or providing a public service, it is the people—the members of the organization—who ultimately determine the level of success the organization will achieve. This is especially true today, with much emphasis being put on employee rights and fulfilling special employee needs—at times seeming paramount to keeping order within an organization.

How do we keep our workforce motivated and in top mental condition? Before addressing solutions, it is necessary to fully understand the origin and causes of demotivation.




Traditional theories of motivation, including the work of Frederick W. Taylor at the beginning of the 20th century, are based on the assumption that money is the primary motivator. America’s entrance into the industrial age provided much of the basis for this theory: An increasingly competitive market caused volume production to become a key factor in determining a company’s profit margin. Taylor devised a method of monetarily rewarding piecework employees for reaching a certain production quota for the day.

Fifty years later, Abraham Maslow developed one of the most widely recognized motivational theories of today. Maslow reasoned that several different levels of need exist within an individual and these needs relate to each other in the form of a hierarchy. Needs ranging from the relatively basic physiological and safety levels to the higher and more complex esteem and self-actualization needs are included. What is interesting to note in comparing Maslow’s theory with Taylor’s earlier work is that Taylor’s method of compensation and, in turn, motivation today is considered satisfied at the basic individual needs level—the physiological and safety needs. Society has brought about a change in the methods used to motivate members of an organization. Although adequate monetary compensation is important in keeping highly motivated personnel happy, it alone will not work—at least not for very long.

In the fire service, observations have shown that a lack of leadership, planning, delegation of authority, and recognition for going above and beyond can be very detrimental to organizational progress. This can eventually cause a department to stall at the lower safety need level, missing great opportunities for social growth and individual excellence within the organization.

In his acclaimed best seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes Charles Schwab, the man who, in 1901 at the age of 38, was appointed president of the United States Steel Company: “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess. The way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.”

Schwab later moved on to the Bethlehem Steel Company, which he rebuilt into one of the most profitable corporations in America.




Some newer-generation personnel coming into the workforce today possess a type of “What’s in it for me?” and “Tell me what I have to gain, and then I’ll decide how much effort I’ll exert” work perspective, which is summarized as follows.

This behavior and rationale lean toward the Theory X view of required motivation stimuli as developed by Douglas McGregor in the first half of the 20th century. Theory X defines the members who must be given definite performance expectations and boundaries within which they must remain. Being made clearly aware of production or service expectations, attendance requirements, and acceptable/unacceptable behavior are examples of the early information Theory X members might need to begin a progression toward productivity. This is not to say the members are intent on violating company policy, but rather they are interested in determining exactly how far they can go without getting into hot water. Some consider this type of employee lazy, seeking to meet bare minimums and nothing more—an assumption that may not be far from the truth for some of these individuals.

McGregor’s Theory Y, on the other hand, describes the self-starter as a member who will seek out what needs to be done or improved in the interest of accomplishing the organizational goals. These are typically the low-maintenance employees who are, or likely will be, firmly established in the upper half of Maslow’s needs hierarchy.

Every organization has members with these characteristics. Some members possess both. It is a supervisor’s responsibility to not only determine the need level any particular member is attempting to satisfy but also define the methods by which current management culture responds to those needs. Too much, too little, or incorrect response mechanisms can cause problems instead of create solutions.




In the simplest form, it has been noted that every employee, in various levels of urgency, requires four needs to be adequately fulfilled: job security, job satisfaction, recognition, and compensation. Each of these relates closely to Maslow’s hierarchy theory in that if any is deficient or absent, the member likely will not respond as effectively to motivational stimuli. Job security and compensation relate to the physiological and safety needs; job satisfaction; and recognition of the social, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs.

Although not every personal need can always be satisfied, great potential exists for motivating subordinates by considering this theory, since the level of success is based on the high probability that nearly every problem or issue that arises within an individual or group can be attributed to a deficiency in one of the four need areas.




Sincere recognition for a job well done, especially among one’s peers, can be an invaluable tool in promoting individual and group motivation. Proper recognition is itself a process and consists of several steps. This process is based on the assumption that proper steps have been taken during the hiring process to identify and hire individuals with a certain amount of ambition to achieve.

The process begins with the inherent human need to produce results—motivation. Not all members will be ready to begin at the same level, which may require some work. Take the time to determine the source of each individual’s motivational drive. In other words, is the person internally or externally driven?

Those with internally driven motivation need little reason to be productive and are often considered self-motivated or self-starters. Externally motivated individuals, on the other hand, require that the proverbial “carrot on a stick” be held in front of them. They look for the reward and wait for it after the task has been completed. Externally driven individuals can still be considered productive, but knowing what they need is important to keeping them busy. Once this drive is determined, all the externally driven member usually needs are the right ingredients to become productive.

Second, leaders need to spend time with the member, individually or as a group, to clearly explain what the organization needs to achieve as a specific or a collective goal. The members need to visualize how they can begin to assist the organization to reach its goals—this is the challenge.

Third, the members go to work. Leaders need to provide them with everything they need to accomplish the task. The members actively work toward the goal—effort begins.

Fourth, the members succeed, to various degrees, in achieving the goal they set out to achieve. The task is completed, in whole or in part, and the members enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.

Fifth, the members are recognized for their efforts. Organizational meetings serve as an excellent venue to make it known to the members’ peers what they have accomplished and how they have helped the organization move toward the defined goal. The member feels pride and enjoys the feeling of recognition.

Sixth, the members walk out of the meeting with their heads held high, feeling good about what just happened. They talk of the event at home or with friends. The members have a feeling of satisfaction.

Ideally, because of the overall pleasant experience, the members look forward to beginning the process again. They also are likely to share their feelings with peers, perhaps motivating others in the same direction. The end result is a more positive, productive working environment.




The six-step motivational process can be very effective, but success depends also on the type of leadership exhibited throughout. Leadership styles incorporated at the various stages of progression determine the level of progress.

A directing style, with little input from the individual, is used during the early motivational and challenging stages. Leaders must give clear directions early to get things moving in the right direction. Later, during the effort and accomplishment stages, when the work begins and progress toward the goal becomes apparent, the leadership style transitions to a coaching style, which helps the individual to perceive the message as encouraging. Although still under the direction of the leader, the individual begins to feel more independent.

As progress becomes evident, leadership assumes a supporting role, since the individual begins to earn the right to take more of a decision-making position. Last, leadership backs away in a delegating role, as the individual succeeds and is recognized for his accomplishment.




Members’ perceptions of the state of the organization they are entering or with which they have become involved are very influential in determining the ease with which they accept or reject motivational stimuli. Most individuals arrive with some degree of anticipation and excitement, making the majority of them ready and willing to accept responsibility and begin to contribute to the organization. What they perceive during their first impression can be long-lasting. Therefore, it is vitally important that the organization’s already established members project a positive image. Showing pride in the organization is perhaps one of the best ways to ensure that a positive attitude is achieved and maintained. There are several factors to address in producing this feeling of pride, starting with the word’s definition.

Webster’s definition relates pride to feelings of self-esteem, accomplishment, and honor. Many members will enter an organization with their own definition, or lack thereof. Present a clearly detailed organizational history and structure, accepted work standards, and future goals and visions. Paint a clear idea of the big picture and trace it back to the members’ level, allowing them to better understand how each decision and action they make can affect the organization’s overall advancement toward its goals. They will likely begin to take pride in what they do because they know their efforts have meaning.




Senior firefighters and officers should encourage subordinate personnel to do well, while encouraging them to treat others in a similar fashion. This quality is of paramount importance in fire service officers, as they encourage and create opportunities for members under their supervision to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when a job is done well. Strong leadership through providing an example for members to follow will have a profound effect on long-term performance. Viewing the leaders of the organization as enthusiastic encourages like behavior among members.

Senior fire officers are responsible for leading and motivating the team; they are the individuals lower-ranking members depend on to show the right way to accomplish a task and to reach an established goal, much of which is based on organizational culture. The officers’ input will also instill teamwork and enable them to predict and depend on the actions of coworkers through self-discipline, which, in turn, encourages a standardized level of behavior.

The fire service presents many opportunities for trying new ideas for motivation and self-discipline. Clearly presented long-term department goals are vitally important for eliminating, or at least reducing, uncertainty and fear within the members’ ranks. It will also help members to visualize where the department will be in one, three, or five years—and, more importantly, where each of them will fit into that picture.

Leaders should explain the organizational chart to each member, explaining each level of the department and defining the job descriptions and duties. Organization members need a full understanding of where they are positioned within the chain and a defined path to follow should they have a question or complaint or should they wish to move up the organizational ladder as their careers advance.




Each member of the organization should have only one supervisor (Unity of Command, Henri Fayol, 1841-1925), who should know each subordinate’s personality traits, weaknesses, and strengths. This awareness can be compared to a good mechanic’s knowing each tool in his toolbox. By looking at the specifics of a job, the supervisor should be able to reach into the toolbox and select the right tool to accomplish the task. In the same way that you would not use a screwdriver to drive a nail, you would not select a member who lacks self-drive to head an important project.

With this concept in mind, consider that, unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, the low-maintenance member—the one who is motivated and less likely to complain—often ends up with an overload of work. This occurs as the low-drive members, those who tend to complain and need the extra push, are left alone. In many cases, especially where proper recognition is not given, this situation will eventually cause even the most motivated individuals to look at their efforts and compare them with those of others with little responsibility. They begin to feel that they are overworked and undercompensated, and their efforts may begin to wane.

As a supervisor sitting down to talk with each member about his needs and goals, you should project a caring approach and let the individuals know that their efforts are appreciated. Members need the reinforcement that only one-on-one verbal contact can deliver. Creating teamwork and trust through a democratic leadership style will encourage members to rally around their leader—and follow his lead. In most cases, the degree of motivation an individual exhibits is influenced by the leader’s effectiveness.

Since a motivated and enthusiastic member is generally a productive member, a good leader will seek out those individuals and use their inherently positive characteristics to help motivate the team; the group likely already looks at these individuals as informal leaders. Their positive influence while the formal leaders are not around may correct the small, often insignificant, doubts or negative attitudes before they affect the other more easily influenced members, thus making management’s job easier.

Delegating appropriate authority to perform duties or make important decisions provides a feeling of accomplishment and trust. Individuals chosen for higher levels of responsibility are generally well into the upper two tiers of the need hierarchy—self-esteem and self-actualization. Take care of these members; they are likely future or senior officer material.




Every situation will differ with regard to the time needed to incorporate a good motivational program. Much will depend on current cultural conditions, the number of organizational members, and the clarity of the organization’s mission and goals, to name a few factors. Ensure that the quality and sincerity of the program are intact while remembering that establishing trust takes time and efforts should not be rushed. Soliciting feedback from key members will tell an in-touch manager if leadership techniques to motivate and encourage are working.

In the final analysis, successful people management largely comes down to making sure members’ needs are being addressed. Many people are inherently selfish and are striving for success. Giving them what they want in the right context and quantity will generally encourage them to perform positively. The key is to take the time to learn what makes them do the things they do and think the way they think while building their trust and ensuring they know you are on their side. If you do this, they will likely support you to the end.




Bruegman, Randy. Fire Administration 1. (Upper Saddle Hill: NJ: Pearson Education, 2009).

Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People.(New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1937).

Fayol, Henri. Unity of Command,

Iacocca, Lee; William Novak. IACOCCA—an Autobiography. (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1984).

International Association of Fire Chiefs,

Kinicki, Angelo, Brian Williams. Management: A Practical Application.(New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2003).

National Fire Academy Leadership Series, Student Manual (F803-F805), 1994.

TIM HYDEN is the training and safety officer for East Manatee (FL) Fire Rescue and an 18-year veteran of the Florida fire service. He has an associate degree in fire science and an advanced technical certificate in fire science administration and is a graduate of the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association Emergency Services Leadership Institute. He has several state certifications through the Florida Bureau of Fire Standards and Training, including fire officer II, fire instructor II, and fire inspector II. He is a contributing writer to Florida Fire Servicemagazine and speaks on leadership, motivation, officer development, and risk management.


More Fire Engineering Issue Articles


Fire Engineering Archives

No posts to display