What It Means to Be An Exceptional Leader

As you look around society today, it gets more and more difficult to find principle-based leaders. Passing the buck is commonplace as everyone points the finger at someone else. Society is starving for quality leadership and it's no different in fire...


As you look around society today, it gets more and more difficult to find principle-based leaders. Passing the buck is commonplace as everyone points the finger at someone else. Society is starving for quality leadership and it's no different in fire departments all over the world. Firefighters want...


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As you look around society today, it gets more and more difficult to find principle-based leaders. Passing the buck is commonplace as everyone points the finger at someone else. Society is starving for quality leadership and it's no different in fire departments all over the world. Firefighters want leaders who will actively engage in the leadership process as they work to develop exceptional leaders for the future of the fire service.

I have a leadership acronym for what I consider some of the more important traits of an exceptional leader:

L - Love what you do

E - Excel in competency

A - Act with integrity

D - Demonstrate accountability

E - Empower others

R - Respond humbly

Love What You Do

People want to follow leaders who love what they do and show some passion for it. You don't have to love every aspect of your job or everything that transpires in the department, but you should at least love being a firefighter, or a company officer, or a chief officer. I have yet to meet a firefighter who didn't have a passion for being a firefighter when they started out. But as the years go by, apathy sets in for some people for a variety of reasons: department politics, the promotional process, boredom, burnout, personality conflicts and disillusionment. Too many firefighters let their external circumstances dictate their love for the job, which in turn is reflected in low-quality performance. I read a great quote once that said, "Above all, be true to yourself, and if you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it."

Exceptional leaders are defined by the level of excellence they strive for regardless of their external circumstances. Average people need to be in a great job to excel. Average people need to work with great people to excel. Average people need to have a great boss to excel. Average people need things to go right to excel.

Exceptional leaders don't settle for less than the very best from themselves regardless of their circumstances. You won't hear an exceptional leader say, "Why should I give everything I have to this job? My boss doesn't appreciate me." You won't hear an exceptional leader say, "I am going to come to work, give the absolute minimum and go home. Why should I give any more than that to this department?" You won't hear an exceptional leader say, "I hate my job. I work with imbeciles. How can I possibly excel in these conditions?" You won't hear an exceptional leader say, "No one will let me reach my full potential."

Because when you adopt that attitude and perspective, you render yourself powerless and ineffective. You give others the authority to dictate your level of excellence. You take the easy way out when you use your boss, your co-workers or your environment as an excuse not to do your best. Exceptional leaders give everything 100%. They draw from their internal drive and excellence, not their external circumstances. That's what separates average leaders from exceptional leaders. Exceptional leaders love what they do because they choose to.

Excel in Competency

Competency ranks high on the list of desirable traits that followers want to see in their leaders. Competency instills confidence in followers and it transcends the fireground. Of course, firefighters want their leaders to be absolutely competent when taking incident command, but it doesn't stop there. Firefighters also want their leaders to be competent in communication skills, conflict-resolution skills, interpersonal skills, administrative skills, negotiation skills and a variety of other areas.

On average, across the United States, firefighters spend 4% of their time on emergency calls and 1% of that involves fire suppression. The remaining 96% is spent back at the station dealing with a host of other issues that require competency in a variety of areas. Exceptional leaders in the fire service recognize that their first call to competency is in leadership. There is a great proverb that says, "He who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk." Leaders need to focus on their ability to truly lead and improve this critical competency. When this area of competency is focused on, many other areas tend to take care of themselves.

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