Higher Education: Leadership in Extreme Contexts

Leadership in extreme contexts, such as those experienced by wildland and urban firefighters, represents an area deserving of formal study given events such as 9/11, the wildfire in the South Canyon on Storm King Mountain in Colorado in 1994 and the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013.



Despite the importance of leadership in extreme contexts, little is known about the effectiveness of various leadership styles in extreme contexts as compared to normal (non-extreme) contexts, specifically in firefighting.

In cooperation with Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, I conducted a research study with some of the largest fire departments in the U.S. that explored leader behavior in “normal” and “extreme” contexts. The purpose of the study was to explore, in the setting of firefighting, which leadership style is most effective in a “normal” context such as a routine working day in the fire station) and in an “extreme” context such as a working fire scene.

Effectiveness was defined in this study as the leadership style with the highest association to performance outcome. An extreme context was defined according to Hannah et al. (2009) as “an environment where one or more extreme events are occurring or are likely to occur that may exceed the organization’s capacity to prevent and result in an extensive and intolerable magnitude of physical, psychological or material consequences to organization members” (p. 898).

Study’s execution

This study examined two groups of firefighting professionals, first-level leaders (captains) and their followers (firefighters), where the leaders rated the followers’ performance and the followers rated the leaders’ leadership style. The study used online surveys for data collection and multiple-regression statistical methods for data analysis to determine the most effective leadership style.

Eight fire departments in the U.S. participated, providing 75 pairs of leaders and followers. Leadership style was measured according to the Full Range of Leadership Model and followers’ performance according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) job performance requirements. The selected leadership model for this study was the Full Range of Leadership Model, which includes three major leadership styles: transformational; transactional; and passive-avoidant (Avolio, 1999; Bass & Riggio, 2005).

• Transformational leadership style – Transformational leaders “transform” their followers, as such leaders impact the way followers think about themselves, their work, their leader and their organization in positive ways. Transformational leaders have considerable power over their followers as they are role models who inspire followers toward new visions, get followers intellectually engaged in their work and coach and mentor their followers. Transformational leaders promote followers to be self-motivated/intrinsically motivated to accomplish tasks. Thus they have the ability to transform the follower’s performance toward desired outcomes, which leads to performance beyond expectations.

• Transactional leadership style – Transactional leadership implies that a follower receives some kind of reward from the leader in return for successfully carrying out their duties and meeting the leader’s expectations, which represents a form of a “transaction.” The reward could be of positive nature in a tangible (e.g., award, time off, promotion) or intangible (e.g., praise) form, or even the avoidance of something negative. Transactional leaders promote followers to be reward/extrinsically motivated to accomplish tasks.

• Passive-avoidant leadership style – A leader who either waits for problems to arise before taking action or takes no action at all would be labeled passive avoidant. Such passive leaders avoid specifying agreements, clarifying expectations and providing goals and standards to be achieved by followers.

Recommended leaderbehavior by literature

General literature is focused on normal contexts such as manufacturing, financial industry or cultural influences. According to Bass & Bass (2008), the leadership styles in the Full Range of Leadership Model typically result in the levels of effectiveness, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows that transformational leadership style has the highest effectiveness followed by transactional leadership style. This means a leader who engages in transformational leadership behavior will achieve a higher follower performance than a leader engaging in transactional leadership behavior. Passive-avoidant leadership style is ineffective and therefore resulting in a decrease of followers’ performance.

In general, a leader will not just behave according to one style, but show a profile across the leadership styles. Based on the effectiveness of these leadership styles, a leader should engage the most in transformational leadership, some in transactional leadership and use very little or no passive-avoidant leadership style to maximize effectiveness. This study was one of the first to evaluate effectiveness of leadership styles a leader actually engages in an extreme context.

Key findings

On average, captains were perceived to be less transformational at a working fire emergency scene compared to a routine day in the fire station. With respect to which leadership style is most effective, the statistical analysis of the data revealed the following:

• In a normal context (routine day in the fire station), the transformational leadership style was most effective. This confirmed that previous findings from general literature are valid in normal contexts of firefighting.

• During an extreme context (working fire emergency scene), the transactional leadership style was most effective. Whereas general literature deems the transformational leadership style to be most effective in normal contexts, this study found a different leadership style to be more effective in extreme contexts of firefighting.

• Passive-avoidant leadership style was ineffective in both contexts. This confirmed previous research findings in normal contexts and also found this to be valid in extreme contexts of firefighting.

Figures 2 and 3 quantify the level of effectiveness of the normal and extreme context of firefighting. One explanation for these findings is that, during an extreme context, the level of effectiveness is increased when captains adopt a more directive style of leadership proportionate with the need to manage the emergency scene with clear and timely supervision in guiding the actions of firefighters. Under the far less stressful normal context, the level of effectiveness is increased when captains exhibit more transformational leadership behaviors, which may serve an important role in building relationships that include rapport and trust between themselves and their firefighters, and promote skill building through coaching and mentoring. On the other hand, a passive-avoidant leadership behavior showed ineffectiveness, which proved that if transformational and transactional behavior (active behavior) is neglected performance drops within the company.

Implications for practice

Generally, an active leadership style is more effective compared to a passive style of leadership in firefighting. The data clearly showed, in both contexts, that an active leadership style leads to high performance and a passive leadership leads to lower performance.

Normal contexts

In normal contexts (i.e., routine daytime activities in the fire station), captains can expect the highest performance from firefighters when they are engaging in the following four transformational leadership behaviors, as outlined in the Full Range of Leadership Model (Avolio, 1999; Bass & Riggio, 2005).


• Idealized influence:

Demonstrate qualities that motivate respect, trust and pride.

Communicate values, purpose and importance of the organization’s mission.

Serve as a role model and set the example in both their competence and character.


• Inspirational motivation:

Exhibit optimism and excitement about goals and future states.

Communicate clear expectations and show commitment to goals.

Inspire and motivate by providing meaningful work that challenges.


• Intellectual stimulation:

Promote innovative and creative behavior.

Question assumptions and the status quo, revisit old situations with a new approach and reframe


Perform no public criticism for any mistake.


• Individualized consideration:

Focus on development and coaching.

Actively care about the needs of the individual.

Act as a mentor and provide learning opportunities.

Research shows that, in a normal context, transformational leadership behaviors used in conjunction with some transactional leadership behaviors lead to an increased level of effectiveness, compared to exclusively transformational behavior (Bass & Bass, 2008).

Extreme contexts

In extreme contexts, firefighters are likely to benefit more from a directive-style of leadership associated with transactional leadership behaviors as outlined in the Full Range of Leadership Model. Therefore, it is recommended that the leaders of an emergency scene engage in the following two transactional leadership behaviors (Avolio, 1999; Bass & Riggio, 2005).


• Contingent reward:

Set clear expectations and guidance.

Offer forms of rewards (tangible or intangible) when goals are achieved.


• Management by exception active:

Clearly set the standards for expected performance, as well as for unacceptable performance.

Reinforce structures, systems and policies.

Closely and actively monitor for deviations from performance standards and take corrective actions immediately.

Research shows that engaging in transformational leadership style in normal contexts can lead to increased levels of leader behavior effectiveness in extreme contexts due to a higher level relationship that includes increased trust between themselves and their followers (Bass et al., 2003). n



Avolio, B.J. (1999). Full leadership development: Building the vital forces in organizations. SAGE Publications Inc.

Bass, B.M., Avolio, B.J., Jung, D., & Berson, Y. (2003). Predicting unit performance by assessing transformational and transactional leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88 (2), 207-218.

Bass, B.M., & Bass, R. (2008). Bass & Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership. (3d Ed.). New York: Free Press.

Bass, B.M., & Riggio, R.E. (2005). Transformational leadership. Psychology Press.

Hannah, S., Uhl-Bien, M., Avolio, B., & Cavarretta, F. (2009). A framework for examining leadership in extreme contexts. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 897-919.