Finish the Debate: Leadership vs. Management

Have you ever seen an accountability system led? Ever attempted to "manage" a discussion among a group of firefighters on the pro's and con's of a particular topic around the coffee table?


Are you a leader or a manager? A question that is often asked of aspiring officers in the fire service as if being one automatically excludes an officer from being both.

Fire service history is replete with examples of individuals who were "strong leaders" on the emergency incident scene with powerful "command presence" and a reputation that garnered tremendous respect. Well deserved.

There are also examples of individuals who "managed" fire departments with considerable administrative prowess, known for wringing every available dollar out of the government to accomplish goals and objectives. Equally important.

The problem in both of these cases is that while an individual might possess certain skills as a leader or a manager, they incorrectly attempt to apply the principles of one to the other and in doing so, fail miserably. The goal of this article is to attempt to put this issue to rest by defining the circumstances under which an individual (in this case an officer of any rank) might have to apply leadership principles and/or management principles.

The fundamental difference between leadership and management is that people are led and programs are managed. Have you ever seen an accountability system led? Ever attempted to "manage" a discussion among a group of firefighters on the pro's and con's of a particular topic around the coffee table? Although these examples may seem absurd, the fact of the matter is that successful officers need to have skills in both management and leadership and most importantly know when to employ them to accomplish common organizational and personal goals.

The concept of leadership is based on the fundamental idea of convincing people with different goals and objectives to work together for a common goal or set of goals. Simply put, people want to be led. Your firefighters, more than anything else, want to know that someone is the boss and when it comes time to make critical decisions involving their lives, the boss is going to make decisions that will ensure their safety and well-being. With strong leadership absent from a formal leader (lieutenant, captain, chief) firefighters will seek out their own informal leader who is willing to make decisions and follow that individual. Leadership is really about three basic principles: defining expectations, getting out of the way, and positive re-enforcement/corrective action when necessary.

Firefighters show up wanting to know what is expected of them. I have known career and volunteer departments alike where the expectations were so low that people spent most of their time looking for the basement door to get out. Likewise, I have known career and volunteer departments where the expectations placed upon the members were extremely high (mandatory certification, annual re-certification, annual physicals, training, adherence to policies and procedures). These departments are shining examples of what happens when a leader does an excellent job of letting firefighters know, up front, what will be expected of them.

The idea is simple: if you want to ride this train, here is the cost and here are the rewards - no questions asked. If you want to ride, there is room for all but the train is leaving the station. If you do not want to get on board, no harm; Once on board, however, the expectations for membership are clear. As an officer you cannot measure the success of your people if you have not defined the measurement parameters. Are you going to measure with a ruler, a yardstick, or a measuring tape? The choice you make will determine the speed and strength of your train. The most unique characteristic about firefighters (and one that is all too often overlooked) is that given a task and a challenge and the opportunity to be successful, expectations will not only be met, they will be exceeded by a group of individuals driven to success.

This content continues onto the next page...