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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Exceptional leaders never stop improving. They continue to take classes, read books, learn from others, and look for ways to make themselves and their department better in every way possible. They take input from followers, other leaders, other departments, and anyone who can teach them something new. They are not too arrogant to think they can't learn from everyone. Exceptional leaders excel in competency through continued education, training and experience.

Act With Integrity

Integrity has been defined as "doing the right thing when no one is looking." Integrity is doing the right thing no matter what. Whether people are looking or not, exceptional leaders will make the choice to do what is right, even if no one else is doing it. They will make the unpopular decision because they know it's the right decision.

Having integrity as a leader is a challenge in what I call our current "morally negotiable society." It seems as if anything goes and anything can be justified (if not justified, then blamed on someone else). Thomas Jefferson once said, "In matters of style you can swim with the current, but in matters of principle you stand like a rock!" Great leaders may change in style, but they don't compromise principles. That kind of leadership is hard to find in society today.

A man attended a leadership conference and listened to a powerful message on integrity. He went home and tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep. He began to take inventory of all the areas of his life that lacked integrity. One in particular stood out: he had been cheating on his taxes. So he sat down and wrote a letter to the IRS. The letter said, "Dear IRS, I am trying to become a man of integrity. I have not been claiming all of my income and have therefore not been paying all of the taxes I owe. As a result, I have not been able to sleep at night. Enclosed is a check for $2,000. If I still can't sleep at night, I will send you the rest."

You cannot practice behaviors that demonstrate integrity halfway. Exceptional leaders will do the right thing for their followers, their leaders, their departments and, most importantly, for the public they serve.

Demonstrate Accountability

Are you willing to make yourself accountable to people above you, below you and beside you? Most people are willing to make themselves accountable to those above them because they know they are responsible for their performance evaluations. Some will even make themselves accountable to their peers, but few will actually make themselves accountable to their subordinates.

I met an exceptional leader chief officer who understood this concept. He allowed his subordinates to speak up when he was curt with a member of the public, inconsistent with policy enforcement, or not setting a role-model example when it came to his attitude and work ethic. Many leaders become indignant at the idea of a subordinate calling them to carpet on an issue. Exceptional leaders recognize that this builds trust, respect and a culture of mutual accountability.

Unfortunately, I have met far too many leaders in the fire service who look down their noses at people down the chain of command. They act as if they have all the answers and that's why they are in the position they are in. The truth is we all need to be accountable up, down and across the chain of command if we hope to develop outstanding leadership throughout the organization. Exceptional leaders demonstrate high levels of accountability because as Stephen R. Covey so aptly put it, "Accountability breeds response-ability."

Empower Others

Empowering others means establishing, defining and educating people on the expected results and boundaries to operate in and then setting them free to make things happen. Or as Theodore Roosevelt put it, "The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." Many leaders feel threatened by empowering others with authority, decision-making or process determination. They are afraid the employees may fail and it will make them look bad. Or, they are afraid the employees will succeed and it will make them look bad. A lack of empowerment is usually rooted in insecurity.