Legacy of Leadership

July 30, 2010
The legacy of a fire service leader is not about buildings, equipment, programs and apparatus, but about the impact you make on those you lead.

The legacy of a fire service leader is not about buildings, equipment, programs and apparatus, but about the impact you make on those you lead.

John C. Maxwell, in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, writes: "When all is said and done, your ability as a leader will not be judged by what you achieved personally or even by what your team accomplished during your tenure. You will be judged by how well your people and your organization did after you were gone. You will be gauged according to the Law of Legacy. Your lasting value will be measured by succession" (Maxwell, 1998).

Succession by its nature focuses on a line of progression designed to pass the torch of responsibility to those next in line. The fire service works hard at developing the abilities of our underlings to receive the torch and learn to manage emergency incidents, but we frequently fall short in developing their organizational leadership skills so they can lead the department into the future.

Seeing the BIG Picture

Effective succession planning in the fire service cannot begin by simply looking at those currently on staff and who will be prepared to advance in rank. Fire chiefs must expand their vision to look not only at the individual(s) who will succeed them, but who will lead the organization 25 years from now. With fire service careers spanning 25 years or more and most promotions coming from lower ranks within the local department, the hiring decisions we make today will significantly impact the candidate pool years after we are gone. In reality, current fire chiefs will likely get the opportunity to hire the individual who will be the fire chief in 25 years. The difference is that you are hiring that person into an entry-level position and thereby beginning the process for a future mayor, city manager or district president to appoint him or her as chief.

When we begin to look at hiring from this perspective, the importance we place on this process is elevated to a new level. Many departments hand over this responsibility to fire and police commissions, the human resources department or a hiring board made up of junior officers with little to no involvement from the fire chief. The testing and interviewing of hundreds of candidates can be overwhelming, but the importance cannot be overstated. It has been said that fire departments do not hire good employees who later turn bad, but rather, we hired a bad employee because we failed to recognize the traits that will be a problem in the future (Bender, 2009).

Therefore, today's leaders not only get to hire, in most cases, the future fire chief; we also set up the organization positively or negatively as it relates to organizational health and positive employee relations. Think of it this way: If you want to set up a future chief to fail, hire a bunch of problem employees today and leave them for that chief to deal with in the future. The first step in leaving a lasting legacy is hiring the right people.

Finding the Right Employees

A mistake in hiring will affect the organization for 50 years. A bad employee will not only impact the organization negatively, but will influence the attitudes of new employees. Other employees will learn that bad behavior and work practices and make them their own, be beat down or negatively impacted by the problem employee. The bad employee will shape and mold others in ways that will impact their entire career. It will take a full generation to remove the impact of the one "bad apple."

New-candidate testing is difficult, time consuming and expensive. In a recent study that involved 36 Chicagoland fire departments, it was discovered that the average cost of producing a new-candidate eligibility list exceeds $36,000. This includes the cost of testing and the associated staff time to interview and process a list of applicants. From this list, 10% to 30% of all post-offer candidates will wash out (Haigh, 2009).

Most washouts occur due to background problems. Candidates may be qualified based on education and training and present themselves very well during the interview process. They may achieve great scores on the written and physical ability exams, yet once you dig into their history, many have significant concerns ranging from theft from previous employers, illegal drug usage, poor driving records, DUI charges and extensive credit problems (Haigh, 2009). When interviewing/selecting candidates, I like to follow the 80/20 rule. I base 80% of my selection criteria on their heart (drive, motivation, passion, compassion and love for the job) and 20% on what they know (education, certifications and prior experience). My position is that we can fix deficiencies in the 20% category. A deficiency in the 80% area has nothing to do with the department and we as a fire service organization cannot fix these issues.

In order to select candidates who will be successful in our organizations, we must know what we are looking for. Begin by developing a list of the ideal traits of an employee in your department. Involve your staff in this process to make sure all areas of concern are covered. Once you have this list, determine where these potential candidates can be found and then begin a strategic recruitment campaign focused on that area. Recruitment is an ongoing process and should be the assigned responsibility of every employee in the department. Bottom line — don't trust the department's future to a want ad placed in the local newspaper.

Building Those Inside

It is important to focus on new entry-level employees, but we must also develop our current staff. This can be a challenging, but rewarding process. Many fire service leaders believe that it is their responsibility to select the future leaders of the department. I would argue that it is our job to simply recognize them — they pick themselves. I contend that the best candidates will rise to the top, given the right organizational environment, encouragement and opportunities. Current leaders looking to develop future leaders need to ask and answer these or similar questions:

  1. What skill sets will be required for future leaders?
  2. What skills, knowledge and experiences are required for each level within the department?
  3. What techniques can be used to prepare future leaders? What can we do, organizationally, to facilitate this process?

In addition, leaders must assess their organization to determine its strengths and weaknesses. Many times, we see our departments through rose-colored glasses, looking over the blemishes and nicks and believing that what is right for today will be right into the future. "Only in the rarest cases will future challenges require the same skills that worked in the past" (Miles and Bennett, 2007).

Instead, we must assess our departments with a critical eye, realizing that change is inevitable. None of us have a crystal ball that we can use to predict the future, but we certainly should be asking ourselves what the department will need to look like and do 20 years down the road. Although the picture will not be entirely clear, we can certainly make predictions based on emerging trends and then begin steering the department in that direction or away from potential pitfalls.

Made even more daunting in this process is the fact that many of our current staff and officers see succession planning as a threat. Existing employees chastise and work to discredit those who are driven to learn and build a career beyond their current position. Sometimes consciously, but more often subconsciously, we beat down our bright and shining stars, discouraging them, holding them back and throwing up roadblocks to prevent them from moving ahead. The prevailing, but unspoken thought is that if they begin to have an impact on how the organization operates, beyond pulling hose and swirling toilets, they somehow are making others look bad. Those who have no interest in advancement or simply lack the ability to progress work hard to diminish their abilities simply out of fear or jealously.

Similarly, our existing officers can be a problem as well. Many feel that teaching someone else what they know and do will somehow diminish their authority and make them less important and revered by the troops. They struggle with the concept of being replaced, and are often threatened by these new up-and-comers.

Succession planning really is about developing our replacements. If we have done our job correctly, those coming after us will be stronger and better prepared to take the reins and steer the department in the appropriate direction. This means that we must share information and let others see the inner workings of our positions. Other than personnel issues, few things in a public organization are confidential. Therefore, we must be transparent and initiate conversations designed to teach and instruct those who someday may occupy the seats we currently hold.

Weak leaders often try to play things close to the vest and rule with an iron fist. This builds their status based on fear and making sure they know more than others. Generally, this comes from their own fears and insecurities about the job they are doing and about limitations within their personal abilities. I like the words of retired Phoenix, AZ, Fire Chief Alan Brunacini in his legendary book Fire Command: "Be careful of people who attach status to knowing things you don't" (Brunacini, 1985).

Develop a Culture of Coaching

As leaders, we have no more important role than to develop those who will be leading tomorrow. The skill set of a fire service leader will be vastly different than what is required today and we must assist those who have the desire, passion and drive in obtaining the tools they will need for success. This process is more than simply sending them to classes or encouraging higher education. Current leaders must mentor and coach.

Those who want to learn are naturally interested in doing more and getting involved in activities that stretch their capabilities. They are driven to make a difference and want to see their fingerprints on the projects and programs of the department. Begin delegating and giving away more and more of the things you are responsible to handle. Begin teaching them slowly and as they succeed with the small things, reward them with more and more responsibility. Coach them through the process and let them make mistakes, but do not set them up to fail or give them more responsibility than they are ready to handle. The goal is to teach and let them grow.

The paramilitary culture of the fire service and the regimented chain of command sometimes becomes a stumbling block with this process. Often, those who need to be mentored and groomed are several ranks below those doing the teaching or who should be doing the teaching. Although a formalized chain of command is important and needed to efficiently manage an emergency service organization, it can also pose a roadblock in the succession planning process. I am not aware of an easy fix for this situation. Communication will minimize many of the problems, but incidents will occur when information gets passed and decisions made that end up stepping on the toes of someone within the chain. Sometimes, you will need to apologize and adjust. Sometimes, you are justified in your actions. Either way — don't make yourself unavailable for fear of being outside the chain of command. Building future fire service leaders is simply too important. Realize that conflicts will occur and be ready to address them one at a time, making adjustments as needed, depending on the culture of your organization.

Within this coaching atmosphere, begin to nurture and develop each employee's unique talents. Help them determine their individual career goals and to identify the path of systematic progression that will help them get there. The National Fire Academy (NFA), as part of the Executive Fire Officer Program, utilizes a Personal Analysis and Development Plan that asks questions designed to facilitate a path of self-reflection that helps produce a personal learning and development roadmap (U.S. Army War College and National Fire Academy). This document is helpful for anyone making career-planning decisions, regardless of rank or current position. Likewise, the Hanover Park, IL, Fire Department uses a career-development schematic that helps personnel begin moving through the process of career planning (Career Development, 2007).

Another helpful resource is the National Professional Development Model designed by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA)/NFA and the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) network. This model interfaces well with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Officer Development Handbook, which outlines education, training, experience and self-development activities that will help prepare personnel for future positions (IAFC Professional Development Committee, 2004).

Bucket-of-Water Theory

Everyone wants to feel that their presence has made an impact on the organization. We want to leave and have people notice that we are gone. Too many of us wrongly want our coworkers to acknowledge our contributions and maybe have the organization stumble once or twice as they miss things that we previously took care of. We want to have a legacy. I would argue, however, that the desired legacy of a leader should be to develop a culture that emphasizes continued forward progression, regardless of your absence. I think a leader must focus his or her legacy development based on the bucket-of-water theory.

Think of it like this. Fill a bucket with water and let it visually represent the organization that you work in. If you put your hand in the water, you impact the condition inside the bucket. You raise the level of water in the bucket as it displaces to form around your hand. You will slightly raise the temperature of the water, and you will change the water as the oils and any dirt from your hand are washed off into the water. Yet, when you remove your hand, the void is filled immediately. Was the water forever changed by the presence of your hand? The answer is yes. Yet, when you removed your hand, you did not leave a void because the water immediately filled the place your hand once occupied.

As leaders, we should work to build an organization that when we are removed our void is filled immediately. This is the legacy each of us should strive to attain. By hiring the right people and preparing them to fill the void, this goal can become a reality. It takes time and the longer you have to impact the organization, the more prepared it will be to fill the void your hand once made.


Bender, L. G. (2009, September). Village of Hanover Park, Village Board and Department Head Strategic Planning Workshop. In L.G. Bender (chair).

Brunacini, A.V. (1985). Fire Command (first edition). Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association.

Career Development. (2007). Planning Your Career Development Process: Your roadmap to Success. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from http://www.career-development-help.com/planning-your-career-development-process.html.

Haigh, C.A. (January 2009). Disqualifying Backgrounds for Fire Department Employees (Executive Fire Officer Applied Research Paper 42933). Retrieved from National Emergency Training Center, Learning Resource Center: www.usfa.dhs.gov/pdf/efop42933.pdf.

IAFC Professional Development Committee. (2004). IAFC Officer Development Handbook, Life-long education, training, self-development and experience. In J. Broman (ed.), Washington, DC: International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Maxwell, J.C. (1998). The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Miles, S.A., and Bennett, N. (2007). "Best Practices in Succession Planning." Retrieved May 22, 2010, from http://www.forbes.com/2007/11/07/succession-ceos-governance-lead-cx_sm_1107planning.html.

U.S. Army War College and National Fire Academy. Personal Analysis and Development Plan. Emmitsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center.

U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Academy. http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/nfa/higher_ed/.

CRAIG A. HAIGH, MS, CFO, EFO, MIFireE, NREMT-P, is a 26-year veteran of the fire service. He is chief of the Hanover Park, IL, Fire Department and a field staff instructor with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. Haigh began his career as a volunteer in Hampton, IL, and worked full time for the City of Rock Island Fire Department, where he was the first EMS coordinator. In 1995, he was appointed chief of the King, NC, Fire Department. Haigh assumed command of the Hanover Park Fire Department following the merger of the Ontarioville Fire Protection District with the Village of Hanover Park. He has a master's degree in executive fire service leadership, a bachelor's degree in fire and safety engineering and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. He is a nationally registered paramedic, an accredited Chief Fire Officer and a Member of the Institute of Fire Engineers.

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