When to Lead and When to Follow: Leadership and Communication

Eddie Buchanan

Among the challenges for new leaders in any position is developing their communication technique. A natural response is for them to assert themselves to show competence in the new rank. It is easy for new leaders to be the first speakers in various settings, but that may not always be the best technique. When the leaders speak first in a meeting and answer all the questions, what’s the purpose of the support staff in the room? Staff may be sitting quietly, wondering why they are there in the first place.

This practice also presents issues for the leaders because of the nonverbal message they may be sending. According to an old leadership saying, ”As your leader, I’ll always stand behind you; when you need me, I’ll stand beside you; when you’re in trouble, I’ll stand in front you.” Only when you violate the department core values will I stand across from you to deliver punishment. Although this is largely a symbolic statement of core values, it also applies to day-to-day communication. Below are some techniques leaders can use to improve communication with and build trust among their followers.

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Leader-Led Settings

In formal situations, the leader may be the first to speak and do most of the communicating. For example, at budget meetings with local government officials, the leader has the spotlight and the staff positions are there to support the leader. Typically, the leader’s staff members—the subject matter experts—are there to support the leader’s justification for funding. Although they may be largely silent, the support staff are there to provide detailed technical answers to questions on behalf of the leader.

Another leader-led situation is when the group is in trouble. When the organization or unit must answer for some negative behavior or outcome, the leader is responsible to stand front and center and take whatever may come. Note that when leaders maintain strong accountability throughout their chain of command, these situations are very rare. This accountability can be a chief holding his executive staff accountable and, thus, staff expecting accountability through the ranks or a lieutenant holding his firefighters accountable for performance on a regular basis. Regardless of rank, the leader should address issues as they occur instead of letting them continue to fester until someone outside of the unit/organization must intervene. Leader-led interactions are typically formal and planned in advance, special occasions when the leader is acting as the organization’s figurehead.

Leader-Support Settings

Leader-support settings are much more common and occur daily at staff meetings, in interactions with other local government departments, and in casual encounters at the fire station or headquarters. In these settings, it may be useful to step back and allow your immediate staff to carry the lead communications duties. Certainly, as the team’s leader, you should extend a formal welcome and possibly express a vision or an intention for the interaction, but in the core exchange of information, it may be valuable to let your team members take the lead.

You may reassess whether you need to be present during the interaction at all. Your presence may be required to obtain situational awareness of an issue or a concept, such as listening in on policy discussions or debates, or you may be present to support your staff. It is important to focus on supporting rather than leading or correcting. It may even be appropriate to join the conversation for the opening and then depart as the group settles into its work. Your initial presence may signal that the work at hand is important, but leaving them to do their work alone shows that you trust your staff to carry out these endeavors successfully. If the work is routine and the group is tasked with revising or improving a process, you can tend to more pressing issues elsewhere. Leaders must make such scheduling choices every day. Consider carefully which events to attend and how to interact with the group.

When you attend an event, allow your experts to shine. Let your supervisors address their units or groups in these settings. Doing this provides the following benefits:

It enables the staff to develop their communication and interaction skills. They will form relationships with internal and external stakeholders that will help them as they develop in their career. Sure, they may learn some lessons the hard way in the process, but that’s where you come in as their leader. You are there to guide and coach them behind the scenes, to assist them in their development. As in other leadership situations, praise their work and abilities in front of others, but provide meaningful feedback in private. If a meeting will pose challenges, such as personnel matters or issues that have long-standing historical background, meet with your staff members in advance to provide them with your perspective and critical information so they can avoid trouble such as inadvertently offending someone because of an old feud or a delicate matter.

Share your vision and intent and what you hope to achieve from the interaction. Send them into battle well-prepared, and sit back and observe. Come to the rescue only if absolutely necessary.

It develops trust among your staff. Your staff will recognize that you have their backs in meaningful ways. They’ll learn to appreciate your coaching them prior to meetings and the critical feedback you provide afterward. If you consistently speak for them in meetings, they may perceive that you do not trust them to handle the interaction or that you believe they are incompetent to do so. It can also imply your own insecurity concerning your management of communication. If a staff member is incompetent, address that as an ongoing performance issue instead of covering for him in meetings. Other stakeholders present will also notice this behavior and draw their own conclusions on what they believe it means.

If at all possible, do not correct or disagree with your team in front of others. Correct your staff privately, but reality can sometimes be a cruel teacher. For example, in a situation where you may have more recent information on an issue than your team members and that added information may cause a shift in vision or intention, present the information in a way that is respectful to your team. Make it clear that the team was not informed of these particular details because you had just learned them and had not had a chance to brief them.

As the interaction concludes, you are there to clarify the outcome for all involved and discuss any additional steps that may be necessary. Acknowledge the great work of your staff and appreciation of others in attendance.

Regardless of your rank in your organization, you’ll experience a variety of communication challenges throughout each day. Your followers will listen to your words but pay a lot more attention to your behavior over time. We all strive to ensure that our leadership behaviors align with espoused values. If you trust your team, let them lead and represent you in proper settings, even when you are sitting next to them. An effective leader seldom will have to stand across from his team. Let your experts do their thing, and help them to develop to their fullest potential as leaders.


EDDIE BUCHANAN joined the fire service in 1982 and is an assistant chief with Hanover (VA) Fire & EMS. He is a past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and a recipient of the George D. Post Instructor of the Year Award. Buchanan serves on the editorial advisory boards for FDIC International and Fire Engineering.

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