Karpluk: Leadership Styles for Your Fire Department

The success of any fire department can be dependent upon the Pygmalion or Golem leadership within the department.


I like to read about leadership research and theories with the hope that I can learn something so I can become a better leader. I must confess that at times this leadership journey has its twists and turns and some days are just better than others. This is life and we all face the speed bumps in our leadership journey. It’s during these times that I seek guidance and solace from those that have walked this path before.

While taking a university course a few years ago about organizational leadership the Pygmalion effect was described. The Pygmalion effect proposes that people will perform in a manner that is expected of them. In other words, people will perform when they been reinforced to believe they are capable of achieving the positive expectations placed upon them. This belief is a result of the reinforcement of positive attitudes and encouragement and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy with improved performance as the end result. I like to think of it as the, “they can because they think they can” principle.

In 1968 a study conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsonv of teacher's expectations of their gifted students confirmed that the teachers expectations led to enhanced performance of their students. The twist to the study was that the teachers believed their students were exceptional students with high IQ’s, but the reality was that the students were randomly selected to be a part of the study and did not possess any exceptional intellect, yet they met or exceeded the expectations placed upon them. There have been countless studies and research regarding the Pygmalion effect with evidence identifying that expectations influence the behaviour and performance of people.

The Pygmalion effect is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy and the more I read, the more I appreciate the expectancy thoughts of James Allen, Napoleon Hill, William James and Albert Einstein. What did these individuals have to say about expectations?

  • Philosophical author and self-help writer, James Allen (1864-1912)-“Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be.”
  • American author and self-help writer, Napoleon Hill (1883-1970)-“Man, alone, has the power to transform his thoughts into physical reality.”
  • Known as the Father of psychology, American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910)-“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
  • Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955)-“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

What do these quotes have to do with leadership? Everything! When the leaders in a fire station have positive expectations about their team the path is created for improved performance. If officers (chief, deputy chief, battalion, captain, lieutenant, etc.) have a negative mindset about the team, then it shouldn't be a surprise when the team fails and low morale exists. This negative mindset creates the foundation for the Golem effect, which is based upon the low expectations of supervisors or of the individuals themselves, and this too is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When the expectations are low, people generally do not disappoint and will perform to the expectations placed upon them. When surrounded by negativity, poor feedback, poor attitudes and discouragement, people will perform as expected. I like to think of this as the, “they can’t because they think they can’t” principle.

At the end of the day the success of any fire department is dependent upon the Pygmalion or Golem leadership within the department. Leadership is about choices and you have a choice to be a Pygmalion leader or a Golem leader.

I have a great cup coaster in my office that states, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you are right.” Henry Ford had it right when he stated this and there is no doubt that our mindset has everything to do with leadership.