What GOOD Leaders DO

By John M. Buckman

Many studies have been done of people in leadership positions. For the most part, leaders, when compared with others, possess the following characteristics (like all generalizations about human behavior, there are exceptions):

  • They are bright, alert, mentally agile, and intelligent.
  • They seek responsibility, take charge.
  • They are skillful at whatever they are leading in and, in addition, are administratively and socially competent.
  • They are energetic, active, and durable.
  • They are good communicators and can speak or write clearly and forcefully.


Intelligence is the capacity to handle complex tasks, to see relationships between apparently unrelated objects, to see patterns in murky information, and to draw accurate conclusions from chaotic data. Leaders are often faced with intricate problems: planning complex schedules, overseeing complicated budgets, and making decisions quickly with only a few data points. A few dumb mistakes are seldom critical, but if you continue to pull bonehead plays day in and day out, you will not stay in a position of power for very long.


The capacity for action shows up in personality traits such as dominance and self-confidence and in actions such as taking charge and making things happen. Explaining how leaders take charge is not easy. It probably happens in at least two ways. First, there may be truly dominant people with both the need and necessary skills to be in charge, to take responsibility, and to make things happen. These are the “born leaders.” Second, more commonly, there is the upward spiral quality in the career progressions of most people who hold leadership positions. They begin early in life to hold leadership positions. When they begin their fire service careers, they begin to migrate into leadership roles. Future leaders gradually ascend a leadership ladder with increasingly important jobs, more challenging assignments, larger spans of control, more people to supervise, larger budgets, more complex issues, and more power.

Career progressions are gradual and critical to the development of a leader. Gradual advancement builds the skills and self-confidence a leader needs to take on larger challenges and broader responsibilities.

Leaders’ willingness, even eagerness, to accept responsibility has a direct influence on their careers; leaders tend to migrate into that part of the working environment where “leadership” is going on. They are seldom found in back offices, outlying stations, or hidden. They like line or command positions that put them out front for others to see. Whether things are going well or poorly, they want to be in the chain of action.

This is a curious point worth expanding on. Within a typical pyramidal organization (broad at the base with lots of firefighters, narrow at the top with only a few chiefs at this level), leaders can be found at all levels. They usually play three roles simultaneously:

Leader—supervising their subordinates.

Follower—being supervised by those at a higher level.

Peer—working side by side with people of equal rank.

Good leaders are usually willing to play all three roles—not only are they good leaders, but they tend to make good peers and good followers as well. There are exceptions, especially with entrepreneurial leaders, those creative, restless people who start new endeavors and run them mainly as loners. Still, a willingness to work within a chain-of-action setting is definitely characteristic of most people who make it to the top.

Skill or knowledge creates the leadership power. If you wish to gain and hold leadership responsibility, you must constantly practice your task-relevant skills. This generalization also has exceptions, and these can be troublesome. In many organizations, there is constant pressure to promote people who excel in the specialty. The best firefighter becomes the driver, the driver becomes the lieutenant, and eventually the lieutenant becomes the captain. The fact that they are good at fireground operations is no guarantee that they will succeed as they begin moving up the promotional ladder. Generally, new leaders need a transition period to learn the necessary administrative skills.

A leader must get things done, which means organizing others, setting goals, establishing procedures, monitoring progress, straightening out snarls, rewarding accomplishments, and preventing the recurrence of failures. These are administrative skills, and they are probably the easiest part of the leader’s job to learn through formal instruction. Most leadership training programs and management development seminars focus on administration, and such training can be valuable.

A subcomponent of these administrative skills is the ability to gather outside resources; this can be a major detriment to the leader’s ability to attract followers. Leaders who can go out into the world and bring home the bacon are the ones followers stick with. Politicians who win elections, athletes who win games, executives who raise capital or improve profits, union leaders who earn concessions from the elected official—these are the people who find themselves out in front.

Sometimes leaders are lucky and the resources fall into their laps. More often it is not luck—they are simply more knowledgeable than others about where the gold is buried. “Dig here,” says the leader; “you will find riches.” The people dig; if the resources are there, the leader’s power is strengthened. If not, well, the people may give the leader another chance or two, but three consecutive barren holes is probably the maximum. If you wish to evolve into a powerful leader, you had better spend the early years studying the treasure maps. One way to do this is to go out after dark, dig a few holes of your own, and see what you uncover.

Leaders can also put others at ease, negotiate disputes, and communicate subtleties; many seem to have an instinctive feel for the emotions of others. These are only tendencies, of course, and not absolutes. Some leaders appear almost cruelly insensitive, but they are the exceptions; in the long run, they usually get what they deserve. Most people in leadership positions are socially skillful. They should be; they get a lot of practice.


Good leaders tend to be good speakers, good writers, and good conversationalists. So much of leadership consists of informing and persuading others that someone who cannot communicate cannot succeed.

Many times, communication is merely a matter of building image. A politician who can communicate trust and integrity, a businessperson who can communicate self-confident competence, an orchestra conductor who can communicate talented charisma—these are the people we follow. Communication is more than speaking and writing; all sorts of other factors are involved—body language, type of dress, location where the exchange occurs. The good leader is sensitive to many different communication channels.

The two basic communiciation skills—speaking and writing—are central, and they are skills you can practice and continue to develop over your entire career. The younger you begin, the better; but no matter what your age, you can always improve.

One of the best techniques for improvement and one that surprisingly few people use is to watch other people who are good and model yourself after them. There are many good writers around. Read them, notice how they write, pay attention to their specific techniques, copy their approaches, and then practice. The way to learn to write is to write and write and write, and then edit the words ruthlessly.

Good speakers are even more common than good writers. Watch them, study them. How do they do it? What words do they use? What expressions? What body language? What techniques? Exactly what do poor speakers do that bothers you? Good speaking is something you can practice continuously; you do it every day.

If you write and speak clearly, you have half the leadership game won.


I am convinced that the majority of good leaders have an above-average sense of humor. They are cheerful; jovial; and filled with jokes, quotes, and anecdotes. Making light of life helps them to survive the pressure of the leadership role. I have several good friends I believe are successful chief fire officers, and when we get together, we have the best time because of the laughter.

Humor is an enormous asset. Much of a leader’s life is spent in repetitious drudgery—staff meetings, budget development, and routine personnel matters. Other activities occur in psychologically abrasive settings—negotiations, confrontations, conflicts, and competitions. Anger and hostility are present, and tempers flare. In such situations, humor can be invaluable. If you don’t have a well-developed sense of humor, I hope I never have to follow you.


Leadership requires energy. The hours are long, the pace is fast, and the demands are multiple. Deadlines swarm all over you, all sorts of people want a piece of your time, materials must be read, budgets reviewed, and achievers counseled—the list goes on and on. It is important to be healthy; be durable; and be able to endure hardships, handle stress, and rebound from setbacks.

Leaders usually have some strong sense of physical dominance about them. There is usually some physically arresting quality about them that conveys the sense that they are unusual people.

Leadership is one of the most difficult personality traits to define and explain, but it is also one of the most beautiful acts to watch. Leadership is not something to fear, but it is critical to embrace.

JOHN M. BUCKMAN is chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, where he has served for 22 years, and the immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section and is past chairman. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.

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