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Leadership Under Fire: Calling All Leaders

Parker Palmer, a well-known author and presenter in the education world, once stated that “Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded.” We would bet that most of you in the fire service would agree with that assessment. Indeed, it is easy to throw stones at those who make the decisions in your fire departments, and perhaps some of that sentiment is with merit. In other words, leaders earn their praise or their share of the blame. But, it is also important to remember that one day you may be one of those leaders so it behooves you to take stock in the leader-follower relationship. That is, all people are leaders sometimes, in certain settings, and, all people are followers at times.

This dynamic requires a respectful communications model in which each role supports the other and is very careful with words that harm. This does not suggest that as a follower your role is to cheer on whatever hair-brained idea your leadership comes up with – quite the contrary. We are advocates of rigorous debate between leaders and followers so that the optimum path towards the goal is achieved. The key is in the way that the debate is carried out – remembering that in the end, we are all on the same team with the same goals. If this axiom can be followed, good things can happen and leadership may be looked upon in a completely different light.

But what is leadership? While it is easily identified, it is not so easy to define. In the simplest terms, leadership can be defined as people who lead others. While leaders do have to have followers, there is much more to leadership than that! If you read this definition and think to yourself “that’s part of it, but it seems like there’s more,” don’t feel like you are the Lone Ranger here! Jon Maxwell defines leadership as “influence,” but that definition also seems too vague and inadequate. It also does not factor into the equation that leaders can have both, positive or negative influence. Rest assured that even experts such as Maxwell have struggled to nail down a solid definition for leadership. In an attempt to do so, he published his seminal work “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” in 1998. But 10 years later, two of Maxwell’s laws became refutable, and were replaced. We don’t say this in criticism to Maxwell – conversely, we are avid students who applaud his courage to lead in the field of leadership!

Another definition of leadership comes from an expert on leadership issues by the name of Peter Northouse. He defines leadership as, “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” Leadership defined as a process means that it is based on the interactions between the leader and followers. In this respect, as Northouse points out, the capability to lead is available to all of us rather than only those possessing certain traits. Describing leadership as a process also means there is an exchange of information upwards and downwards between leaders and followers – interactively and collaboratively. Influence is still a large part of the process because, as Northouse suggests, “leadership does not exist without it.” The key here is that sometimes the leader is influencing followers, and at other times they are influencing him. This removes the common conceptualization that places the leader above the followers, and places them as equals – as they should be.

All of this also works in a group setting where there is a common purpose and common goals. But common goals can be good (as in the case of the American Red Cross), or they can be very bad (as in the case of the Nazi regime). Northouse also points out that the common goal aspect of leadership focuses on ethical overtones through mutually agreed upon goals between leader and follower – rather than forced goals assigned by unethical leaders. In our minds, however, the idea that pursuits should be good, worthy, and ethical needs to be highlighted in the leadership definition. Therefore, our working definition of leadership for this series is as follows:

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.

The Burden of Leadership

“Burden” in this sense relates to the responsibility that being a leader entails. Much like the load that an ox may carry, leaders also have a load to endure in terms of managing the leadership process. These responsibilities include fostering the creative tension that sets groups into motion, cultivating effective communications between group members, keeping the group on track, managing conflict (not too much, not too little), defining reality and parameters, keeping site of short-term goals along with an eye on the horizon, and supporting and nurturing group dynamics.

Keep in mind also, that while you are in the thick of leading your group towards a new and better future, life is still in progress. The engines and ambulances are still responding, the chief still needs that report next week, and the kids need a ride to soccer practice tomorrow afternoon. It is a tall order, but rest assured the effective leader does not have to do it all. As a counterweight to this burden, at some point you will see a glimpse of the future that you’ve all been working towards. That’s when the leadership process becomes fun, interesting, and stimulating for all involved. If it is not – what’s the point?

Remember, leadership is a process and one of the duties is to develop tomorrow’s leaders. Much of this involves delegation of authority and allowing others to do and even allow them to make mistakes. These are the finer points of leadership and the leader-follower dynamic. Practicing all of this is hard work for the leader, but the payoff is far less criticism and much more reward! So, in light of all of this, do you accept the call to be a fire service leader?

Next month we will discuss in more detail the art of leadership, effective leadership behavior, and some basic leadership theories.

Survey Summary

Finally, as a summary of our first leadership survey last month, here are some results that we will discuss in future installments of this column:

With 68 people responding at the time of this writing,

  1. How important is leadership in your everyday life in the fire service? 95.6% rated this very to extremely important.
  2. How important is it that you exercise leadership within your role in the fire service? 95.6% rated this very to extremely important.
  3. How important is it that you look to others for effective leadership in the fire service? 92.6% rated this very to extremely important.
  4. How important is it that you expect effective leadership in non-emergency situations such as life in the stations and while doing other expected tasks? 77.4% rated this very to extremely important. 20.5% rated this somewhat to not important.
  5. How important is it that you expect effective leadership while engaged in emergency operations? 96.9% rated this very to extremely important.
  6. In general, rate the overall leadership that you observe in your own department? 25% rated this good to extremely good. 33.8% rated this at average. 41.2% rated this at poor to extremely poor. This was the biggest statistic in that the majority rated their own department leadership as average to poor to extremely poor! This shows the need for leadership development!
  7. Rate your own leadership effectiveness within your own fire department. 55.9% rated this good to extremely good. 39.7% rated this average. 4.4% rated this poor. This statistic also shows a great deal of room for improvement!

Please go to the following site for this month’s survey:

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: