Rube's Rules of Leadership


After more than four decades in our business, I have developed a list of rules that I try to live by on duty and off duty. Over the years, I kept a list of ideas on three-by-five cards and reviewed the information on them from time to time. Typically, I would pull out the cards when I was preparing for promotional interviews or simply wanted to make sure that I was focusing on what was important to me. The cards served me well, and in great anonymity, until recently.

A fire-rescue service mentor asked me to make a presentation on leadership. The specific request was to present my leadership style and philosophies to a national group of senior fire and EMS officers at a staff and command school. That is when I took out the cards and developed a successful presentation based on the rules that I had jotted down over the years. Those in the first session of "Rube's Rules: A Leadership Journey" enjoyed the information and provided positive feedback.

Since then, I have presented this material about a half-dozen times, refining the content each time. I thought that it would be valuable to our profession to take the next logical step by documenting them for publication so that more folks could have the benefit of this experience. By no means are these 13 rules new or break-through information; they would be best described as time-tested leadership points with my personal twist. If you implement them into your daily leadership and management style, I am certain that you will improve your performance as a courageous leader within your organization.

Show up. The first rule seems simple enough, but never underestimate its value or power. Many functions and events occur in, near and around your fire department. By showing up at many of them, you raise your profile and your image within your organization.

Let me start by pointing out that no one in a leadership role should become a "micro" manager; that is, unless the folks being led are new or in need of training and personal development. That information will fall under several other rules. Your presence sends a loud and clear message that you are interested, that you care and that your members are important to you. I have heard this trait referred to by many names, but the most interesting is the "ministry of simply being there." That description has always stuck with me and it makes a lot of sense. I have spent many hours in the hospital with members who didn't know that I was there. However; being present at these critically important times makes a world of difference to those in need and the entire organization.

Another great benefit of simply "being there" is that it will change some people's behaviors and attitudes and lead them to be more productive. I have attended dozens of community fire- and life-safety educational events. On the first visit or two, the departmental folks who don't know me spend a little time saying hello and getting the "scoop" on me and what is happening at headquarters. Generally, next we talk about the importance of public education and the role that the members play in connecting the department to the community that we serve.

Then, the members and I discuss how they should perform their duties to leave the best impression possible with our customers. This has always been a very powerful process of street-level improvement and acceptance by the members who perceive being "stuck" doing public education. I can recall one specific "pub-ed" venture. We didn't have any citizens express an interest in accident prevention, so I challenged the crew working this event to "stir up" some interest by asking folks to stop by the Child's Fire and Life Safety House. Before long, the team had a line of children waiting to "Stop, Drop and Roll" and slide down our "Ladder Tower" kiddie slide. What a great improvement, just because the leadership showed a little interest and support of the troops.

Pay attention to details. Another way to measure your impact on an operation is to listen to your operations radio frequency. Over the years, I have worked in cities that followed written guidelines a little closer because a chief officer has started his or her response to an alarm. I can remember as a battalion chief's driver being directed to continue a response to a "food on the stove" report. The chief had me drive to the rear of the structure to ensure that the second-in company officer had laid a supply line there, as was required by policy (the chief checking up on a company's position at such a small incident never seemed to happen). As word got out that the newly appointed battalion chief was checking rear positions, even on small incidents, the required policy was reinforced and followed closely.

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy and author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.