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Leadership Under Fire: The Art of Leadership

Leadership is an art form that requires equal amounts of creativity, empathy, boldness, timing and moxie. Certainly there are vast amounts of science and psychology available to the practitioner of leadership, but in the end, the glue that holds it all together, and even allows it to soar, is formed through the trial-and-error (yes, you will make mistakes along the way) process of getting out in front and leading others. Many say that leadership is not for the timid and shy, but we disagree. Every great leader in history had to start somewhere – be it young, old, tall, short, timid, shy or bold. A great example of this is in the recent movie that illustrates the life of King George the VI and his personal struggle to overcome a speech impediment and lead his country to defeat Hitler. So, what is it that leaders seem to possess and how did they become leaders? Those answers follow with our concepts that outline the art of leadership and deal with empowerment, development and employment.


We believe that every firefighter, regardless of rank, time on the job or type of fire department, can become a leader. There, you heard it stated here; you have our permission to be a leader! Much of this empowerment is simply a state of mind. There is no reason why each and every person reading this cannot become a fire service leader in whatever you do at your own fire department. It starts with you here and now!

If you recall the working definition of leadership for this series from last month’s column; leadership focuses on a leader, who through transactional, relational and collaborative processes, influences (and is influenced by) others positively toward common, accepted and ethical goals. Your commitment to become a leader, then, starts with being a positive influence on others. This means showing others the way through action and attitude. Albert Schweitzer once said that “example is leadership” and your own positive, influential example is powerful! So, seize the day, step up to the plate and take on the challenge of the mantle of leadership.

Now at this point you may be saying to yourself – “Hey guys, that’s great stuff if you work for the Utopia Fire Department, but at my department they tell me that they’re paying for me from the neck down and that they’d prefer me to keep my thoughts to myself.” We hear you, but keep in mind that the traits of leadership come from inside – it doesn’t matter how bad things are around you, it’s the attitude and actions that you display that make you a leader.


We believe that leaders are made, not born. Through personal experience, we know this to be true and as time passes we can see that there is always more to learn on the wide and deep subject of leadership. We both recently graduated from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program and can attest that the well for leadership is indeed full and ready for all to draw from it. In that four-year program, we had four 2-week long courses each year on a wide array of topics geared for fire service leaders. Each course also required an extensive research paper on a topic that needed to be addressed within our own fire departments. Through the entire experience, we were armed with numerous great leadership concepts, theories and applications that we were encouraged to put into practice back home. Did this program send us home as great leaders? The answer is no, but it did put us on the path – and we encourage all to join in with us. The point here is that one is never too old to learn and develop.

One question we asked in our first survey was whether leaders were born or made. The results from 85 responses were that 76.5% stated that leaders were made and the remaining 23.5% stated that leaders were born. While these results are not too surprising, this question would have most likely had different results a century ago. Back then, the prevailing thought on leaders were that they were born with certain traits that sealed their fate as future leaders. This was known as the “Trait Theory” and the “Great Man Theory,” but this began to change with the advent of leadership studies in the 1940s after World War II.

One study in 1948 by Stogdill found that leadership is more than inherited traits. Stogdill found that effective and successful leaders do possess qualities and attributes that non-leaders do not. Since then, numerous leadership studies found that leaders do have superior skills with cognitive ability, personality traits, motivation, social appraisal skills, problem-solving skills, expertise and tacit knowledge. As recently as 1990, Bass revealed research that, in general, leaders have higher intelligence and creative thinking capacities, were generally extroverts, had a general need for power and achievement, had a high degree of social or emotional intelligence, had skills in problem construction and solution generation and had a commanding grasp of the things one needs to know within their own environment.

Finally, Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D. and a professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, refers to research that estimates that leadership is about one-third born and two-thirds made. Riggio cites studies involving identical twins that prove that while successful leaders do possess similar characteristics, most of their success is due to skill development. Stogdill, Bass and Riggio throw around a bunch of $10 words, but the message that they convey is both encouraging and important to those aspiring to be leaders. The bottom line with all of these studies and research is that leaders generally possess certain attributes, traits, motives, values, skills and competencies; and here’s the great part – with some hard work and dedication, all of these things can be developed.

Our take is that through conscious effort, every firefighter can develop his or her own strong set of leadership skills. Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired four-star general, once stated, “Effective leaders are made, not born. They learn from trial and error and from experience. When something fails, a true leader learns from the experience and puts it behind him.” These sentiments are also echoed by Vince Lombardi (you may have heard of him) who coached the Green Bay Packers (you may have heard of them) when he stated, “Leaders aren’t born they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.” Now, these men both came up through the ranks and paid their dues. We cannot ignore nor diminish their experience, especially in light of their substantial career successes.


We believe that armed with a strong set of leadership knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs), fire service leaders can effectively influence others toward positive outcomes. To do so, however, leaders need to “walk the walk and talk the talk” because if you don’t practice what you preach, you will be called out… and worse, you may even be labeled a “hypocrite.” Then, your words will become empty and your followers will dissipate. This all harkens back to the last column where we referred to the “burden of leadership.” It may seem like a burden to carry the load and do the things you preach, but if they are truly authentic qualities that you possess and espouse, it will not be a burden. To be a true leader, you need to employ leadership concepts and apply them to everything you do.

To walk-the-walk, William A. Cohen, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, wrote a noteworthy book called “The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership” in which he relates the principles or behaviors that more than 200 leaders he interviewed naturally followed. The eight laws are:

Maintain absolute integrity – Leadership is a trust. If others don’t trust you completely, they will not follow you.

Know your stuff – If you are not competent, you will not have followers.

Declare your expectations – Share your goals, objectives and vision and what it takes to get there.

Show uncommon commitment – If you’re not committed, your followers won’t be either.

Expect positive results – Those who think positive achieve more wins than losses.

Take care of your people or customers – Leaders take care of the people that matter.

Put duty before self – Your people and your mission must always come before your own needs.

Get out in front – Get out on the front lines, show people you care, get dirty and set the example.

Every great leader came from somewhere with their own traits and characteristics innate. And, without exception, every great leader, whether it was Jesus, Lincoln, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, all endured intense periods of self-development…mostly self-imposed. In fact, we defy anyone from finding an example of a great leader who became so without extensive leadership development. The example for all of us is to study the traits and characteristics of great leaders and emulate them, study sound leadership theories and practices and develop your own path to being a better leader. There is no easy way to becoming an effective and successful leader, but through conscious effort and lifelong learning, your chance of success is enhanced. Coach Lombardi addressed this mindset by stating, “The quality of each man’s life is the full measure of that man’s personal commitment to excellence.” The course is clear: if you want to be a leader, you must put in the work!

Please provide feedback to this article through the survey link.

Next month we will discuss how successful leaders use power sources that are available to them, along with the one secret ingredient to leadership. Until then, Krueger and Peterson are out!

Last month’s survey results were:

  1. Only 58.3% thought that there were respectful leader/follower relationships within their fire departments. More alarming was that 41.7% did not think respect existed.
  2. There was a 50/50 split on whether interactive or one-way leadership existed.
  3. A total of 66.7% thought that effective leadership was being practiced.
  4. While 75% thought that ethical leadership was being practiced, 25% thought unethical leadership was being practiced. Isn’t that interesting?
  5. A unanimous 100% accepted the challenge of being a leader!
  6. Approximately 92% say they are presently practicing leadership in their fire departments.

Based on the statistics, it appears that there is work to be done concerning the development of respectful communications in our fire departments. Also, interactive relationships need to be cultivated and nurtured. Keep reading and keep taking the surveys. Thank you for your input!

JOSEPH L. KRUEGER is a 31-year veteran of the fire service who is currently an assistant chief with the McHenry Township Fire Protection District in McHenry, IL. Joe has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Joe also has extensive experience in leadership and management in the private sector and is a principal partner of White Helmet Innovations. DAVID F. PETERSON is a 31-year veteran of the fire service who is currently an assistant chief with the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department in Milton, WI, and a fire officer with the City of Madison. Dave has a B.S. in fire service management from the University of Southern Illinois and is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Dave is a graduate student in leadership through Grand Canyon University's Ken Blanchard School of Business and is a principal partner of White Helmet Innovations. You can reach Krueger and Peterson by e-mail at: