are made or born. Most likely, some true leaders are
born, but most are made—“self-made.” A smart fire
officer will concentrate on developing the leadership qualities
and traits that are necessary for success. For the most part,
leadership traits in any profession are universal. In the fire
service, however, there are specific qualities that an officer
absolutely must possess. Below, I define 13 leadership traits
that firefighters and the public look for in a fire service leader
and offer suggestions on developing the areas in which you
feel you are lacking. Officers and firefighters in general who
regularly demonstrate these leadership traits will earn the
respect and confidence of their peers. By possessing these
characteristics, you will make it easier for people to want to
follow you. The less time you have to spend on getting others
to follow you, the more time you get to spend refining exactly
where you want to go and how to get there.
You are devoted to the fire service, your community, your
department, and your crew. It should flow evenly, up and
down the chain of command, to seniors, subordinates, and
peers. To be loyal is to be dependable and trustworthy—others can rely on you to perform your duties properly and trust
you to complete your assignment every time.
Develop it by refraining from discussing the internal
problems of the department or your company with outsiders.
Never talk unfavorably about seniors or superior officers in
front of your subordinates. Also, carry out every task to the
best of your ability regardless of whether you like or agree
with it. Once a decision is made and you are ordered to execute it, carry out that order willingly as if it were your own.
You continue to acquire the appropriate information from
reliable sources and understand your fireground duties, the
policies and procedures of your department, and the science
of firefighting. Your education should be broad, and you
should never stop trying to improve your knowledge base.
The day you think you know too much is the day you should
consider retiring.
Develop it by increasing your knowledge through continual learning and remaining alert. Constantly listen, observe,
and learn about things you don’t understand. Read fire
service textbooks, attend educational seminars, talk to streetsmart firefighters, and ask questions. An endless supply of
knowledge is available—you just have to seek it.
You can quickly adjust to rapidly changing conditions,
which is a paramount trait for all firefighters because situations escalate quickly on the fireground. In seconds, a “routine” fire can turn into a life-threatening situation, which is
why there is no such thing as a “routine” fire. Your ability to
evaluate and revise your strategies on the fly is imperative.
Develop it by continually educating yourself—never stop!
The more you know, the better equipped you will be to react
and adjust. Practice being proactive, not reactive. The more
capable you are at seeing problems before they happen, the
more effective you will be as a firefighter.
You have laser-sharp focus on the goal you are trying to
achieve. There’s a saying, “Brick walls aren’t there to keep you
out—they’re there to see how bad you want to get in.” That’s
the way an aggressive, strong-minded firefighter should think
when performing a duty on the fireground. The word “determined” in regard to firefighting is synonymous with “heroic.”
Develop it by never, ever giving up. Don’t stop until the
goal has been achieved or tactics have been revised. Proper
risk assessment goes without saying, but when firefighters say
they risk a lot to save lives, they don’t just say it—they live it.
Enthusiasm reflects a sincere interest and exuberance in
performing your duties. When you are enthusiastic, you are
optimistic, cheerful, and willing to accept challenges, the
type of person who is eager to take on more responsibility.
Leaders Teach
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The fire service needs more leaders with this trait because
enthusiasm is contagious.
Develop it by understanding and believing in the mission
of the fire service—this will increase your enthusiasm for the
job. Our mission is to reduce the loss of life and property and
protect the weak. To do this, everyone must fulfill a role on
the fireground. It’s important to understand why you should
do even the most uninteresting jobs with the proper attitude.
As a resourceful firefighter, you skillfully, safely, and
promptly navigate your way through a variety of situations,
regardless of the availability or lack thereof of tools, staffing,
or resources at any given moment. If you are resourceful, you
are creative and will always be seen as a person with ingenuity
who shows initiative and can get the job done, no matter what.
Develop it by thinking outside of the box. Don’t get tunnel vision. There are always alternative ways to accomplish a
task. Once again, being knowledgeable is the key to success
in this area. It’s not enough to simply know what tools are
available. You must know how to use them. To improve your
resourcefulness, you must also work on staying mentally
and physically alert.
This is having little or no concern
for oneself. Firefighting is arguably the
most selfless job on the planet. It’s our
job to put the safety and well-being of
others ahead of our own. Although selfless is synonymous with self-sacrifice,
this doesn’t mean you should disregard
safe practices. To be selfless also means
you are considerate of others and openly give credit to those who deserve it.
Develop it by thinking more about
others and less about yourself. Avoid
using your position or rank for personal
gain, safety, or pleasure at the expense
of others. Be considerate of those you
work with and give credit where credit
is due. It’s amazing how much your
team can accomplish when you praise
often and in public.
To be tough is to be strong and resilient, able to withstand adverse conditions.
With toughness comes the ability to endure great strain without breaking. This
means both physically and mentally, and
it’s a necessity for firefighters of all ranks.
There is nothing easy about fighting fires.
If a person is not tough, this simply isn’t
the right profession for him.
Develop it by learning to love the
fight itself. Champions in every arena
love to compete. However, it is vitally
important to cultivate your love of the
fight more than your love of winning.
This way of thinking will help improve
your mental toughness. Improving your
physical toughness will come from a
consistent workout program.
It has been said, “Firefighters are constantly meeting new people and spending
the worst moments of their lives with
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Enter 198 at
them.” Don’t lose sight of that fact. Your job isn’t just to put the
fire out; it’s also to provide guidance for the people we serve
and protect. Showing empathy means being kind and tactful
when dealing with people who have just lost property, valuables, or worse—loved ones.
Develop it by treating others the way you would like to be
As an assertive firefighter, you are aggressively self-assured
and confident. You know what to do on the fireground and
around the firehouse and how to do it. More importantly, you
don’t need to be told to do it. You just do it, and when you
recognize an unsafe practice, you are confident enough to
stop the act before someone gets hurt.
Develop it by knowing your job. Take a moment to think
about your options; then be aggressive and self-assured when
you make a decision. You should be firm, but remember the
third trait of a strong fire service leader, and remain adaptable, so you can quickly adjust your strategy when necessary.
“Courageous” and “brave” are the first words that come to
most people’s minds when they think of firefighters. Courage allows you to remain calm while recognizing fear. Moral
courage means having the inner strength to stand up for what
is right and to accept blame when something is your fault.
Physical courage means that you can continue to function effectively when there is physical danger present.
Develop it by controlling fear through the practice of selfdiscipline and calmness. If you fear doing certain things that
are required in your daily life, force yourself to do them until
you can control your reaction. Lead by example. It doesn’t take
a hero to order someone into battle; it takes a hero to lead others into battle from the front line. Last, keep in mind, courage
isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the management of fear.
To be honorable means you are worthy of honor and high
respect. This is a by-product of the other traits mentioned
above. When you put honesty, integrity, sense of duty, and
sound moral principles above all else, you are operating in an
honorable and ethical way.
Develop it by being absolutely honest and truthful at all
times. Stand up for what you believe is right. Always do the
right thing. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If it is not
legal, moral, or ethical, DON’T do it!
You can always remember these essential leadership traits
with the acronym LEADERS TEACH, each letter of which
corresponds to the first letter of each of the traits described
above. By remembering this acronym, you will be better able
to recall the traits. This acronym is actually the 13th trait of
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● FRANK VISCUSO is a 21-year veteran of the fire
service and a tour commander in the Kearny (NJ) Fire
Department. He is a speaker, co-creator of FireOpsOnline, and the author of five books, including Step Up and
Lead (Fire Engineering, 2013).
Frank Viscuso will present “Officer Development: Leadership Skills” on Thursday, April 10, 2014, 10:30 a.m.-
12:15 p.m., at FDIC 2014 in Indianapolis.
good fire service leaders—they TEACH others what they know.
By teaching, you instill confidence. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A
good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A
great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”
There are obviously other important traits for firefighters,
like humility, good judgment, strong motivational skills, and
the ability to communicate, but the ones listed above are
vital to your success as a leader. Your skill at exhibiting these
qualities will be firmly linked with people’s desire to follow
you. Exhibiting these traits will inspire confidence in your
leadership ability. Not exhibiting these traits or exhibiting the
opposite of these traits will decrease your leadership influence with those around you.
To be thorough, we should discuss some of the traits associated with failure. As important as understanding what it is that
makes a good leader is to understand why so many leaders fail.
Below is a list of some traits associated with poor leadership.
• Lack of passion.
• Unclear vision.
• Poor communication skills.
• Risk aversion.
• Callous.
• Unethical.
• Poor self-management.
• Incompetence.
• Plays the victim.
• Tears others down.
• Micromanager.
• First to take the credit.
• Last to take the blame.
When someone in authority displays poor leadership traits,
the mission that person is trying to accomplish is doomed to
fail. A fire service officer will never earn the respect of his
crew unless that officer develops the qualities that align with
those of great leaders.
When firefighters under your leadership look at an action
you have taken and think, “That’s why you are the one in
charge,” you are on the right track. If such moments are rare,
some demonstration of your competency will help boost your
leadership influence. By consciously developing and exhibiting the traits listed above, people will be more likely and
willing to follow you. By exhibiting these traits regularly, you
will earn the respect of others and increase your effectiveness
as an influential leader. ●
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