Are You a Leader or a Manager?

Jan. 30, 2006
You just never know when or where inspiration will strike. In my case, there is a whole world out there from which to choose the topic for my weekly visit with you. Sometimes the world inspires me and sometimes my friends get the job done. That is how it happened again this week. A little humor from a buddy in Missouri got the job done for me.

You just never know when or where inspiration will strike. In my case, there is a whole world out there from which to choose the topic for my weekly visit with you. Sometimes the world inspires me and sometimes my friends get the job done. That is how it happened again this week. A little humor from a buddy in Missouri got the job done for me.

Let me share a bit of humor that arrived in my office thanks to a dear friend and fellow musician from Missouri, Chief Bill Markgraf. This story makes a very important point for those of us who make it our business to teach the concept of leadership to our fellow travelers on this "Big Blue Marble" floating in space, known as earth. Here goes.

A man in a hot air balloon realized that he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted. Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am.

The woman below replied. You're in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You're between 50 and 51 degrees north latitude and between 114 and 115 degrees west longitude. "You must be an engineer, said the balloonist. I am replied the woman. How did you know?

Well, answered the balloonist, everything you told me is technically correct, but I've no idea what to make of your information. The fact is I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help at all. If anything, you've delayed my trip.

The woman below responded you must be in management sir. I am replied the balloonist, but how did you know? Well, said the woman, you don't know where you are or where you're going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you've no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems.

The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, you've managed to make it my fault. You simply must be a manager.

Does this sound familiar to you? If the emails you kind folks are sending me serve as any sort of indicator as to what is wrong with the fire service, this manager versus leader business is getting out of control. People in positions of leadership are now spending a great deal of time treating people like assorted, mismatched pieces to an organizational jig saw.

The critical concept of the firefighting crew as a team is being trampled into the dirt in far too many places. Crew integrity has become a lost art in far too many placed. As a matter of fact, in one place the fire department is still playing musical chairs with their officers, shuffling them around in a vengeful way to play them back for their past sins. In another fire department, people are being shuffled through the rescue squad companies in order to familiarize the people with the duties of the squad.

In the first case the transfers are probably a matter of retribution. No thinking leader would do something like that to destroy team integrity within their department. On the other hand, I will give the managers in the second instance the benefit of the doubt as to their choice of methodology. For you see, you can always change your methodology, if you have the will.

Didn't anyone in that department ever pause to ponder the possibility that maybe it would be best to have the rescue squad people conduct in-service training classes for all of the companies within their department? That would allow for the indoctrination of the department without destabilizing the well-trained teams that serve as the basis for all great rescue squad units. The training could rotate through the various districts.

You would then be able to get the best of both worlds. Just a thought my friends, subject to the addition of your thoughts.

Let me ask you a simple question. Is a manager the same as a leader? I know what I think, but what you think is also very important. Let me now ask you a couple of simple follow-on questions.

  • Can a leader be a manager?
  • Can a manager be a leader?

There, that should give you something to think about. The answers to these questions are critical for your future in the fire service, for you see it is my opinion that far too many managers are attempting to operate under the guise of leaders. In this week's visit with you, I will try to make the differences between the concepts of leaders and managers clear to you.

Let me share some words of advice from Kotter (1999) on this topic. "Leadership is different from management ... Leadership isn't mystical and mysterious ... It is not the province of a chosen few ... Rather, leadership and management are two distinctive and complimentary systems of action (p. 51). So the answer to the questions above is quite simple. Leaders are different from managers, and vice versa.

However, the key to the future of the fire service lies in the statement that these should be complimentary functions. You can manage dollars and tools, but you really cannot manage people in quite the same way. Far too many fire departments seem to treat their people like they would treat an engine, a truck, a tire, a mattress, or a gallon of gasoline.

These management fanatics think that people can be shuffled around in an almost whimsical manner. The two examples listed above offer strong support for that point of view. Why would any thinking person shuffle people around for no apparent good purpose. I guess there are those who do this for the dumbest reason of all: because they can. At least that is the way I see it.

Kotter (1999) goes on to make a critical statement on this issue when states that, "most U.S. corporations today are over-managed and under-led" (p. 51). You and I have both read a great deal today about how organizations are suffering because of too great an emphasis on the short-term bottom line numbers which are cranked out by bean counters in both the public and private sectors. It is my opinion that this short-term, dollar-oriented thinking has in all probability bled over into our fire service.

It is important to note, however, that there is a place for management in your fire department. Large and complex organizations can only be managed if there is a mechanism in place for coping with complexity. Kotter (1999) speaks to this when he states that, "good management brings a degree of order and consistency" (p. 53). Gibson, Ivancevich, and Donnelly (2000) stress the importance of structure, process, and behavior in the creation of an effective and orderly organizational entity. If management is all about creating consistency and order, what then is the purpose effective leadership?

Leadership empowers the members of an organization to be active participants in the affairs of the established operational establishment. A great deal has been written about the differences between fire department members who have been cultivated and motivated, and those who have been treated like cow dung.

It has been my contention for many years now that there is a great overlap between the leadership needed in a fire department and the leadership utilized in a military organization. Kotter (1999) affirms the rightness of my argument when he suggests that we consider the difference between an army at war and an army which is operating during a time of peace.

"A peacetime army can usually survive with good administration and management. A wartime army, however, needs competent leadership at all levels. No one yet has figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led" (p. 53). My friends, these comments provide the basis for my argument about leadership and management in the fire service.

If you think about it, our fire service is an on-going combination of both peace and war. The trouble with the fire service is that you never really know when we are going to cross the line from peace to war. The fire company pager on my belt has gone off twice during the time that I have been working on this commentary.

One moment I was reading, analyzing, and creating these words. In just a few short moments I found myself chauffeuring an Adelphia pumper to an emergency incident. That is just how it is. In a world created solely by managers, it is almost like the emergency responses are an unwanted interruption of their neatly planned days. The key seems to involve striking some form of balance between the leading of people and the managing of things.

Let me offer a couple of observations. You need to pick the right person for the job in question. There are people who love interacting with other people. Then again there are people who work best with things and do not do well with people. If I had my druthers, I would push for the people-person to lead people and the non-people person to manage things. That is how it would be in a perfect world. As you and I know, ours is a highly imperfect world.

There are a number of things that get in the way of achieving perfect results:

  1. Civil service examinations and job titles
  2. Elections in volunteer fire departments
  3. Union contracts
  4. Stone-Age, brain-dead politicians who live to exercise power

At the end of this long discussion on the difference between leaders and followers let me toss a giant bucket of cold water on your hopes for change. Some of you will see neither good management nor good leadership during your careers. I say that in light of a 26-year career where solid, top-level leadership did not exist after the first three years.

What then am I suggesting that you do? Quite simply I am asking you to study hard and work to emulate those people in your world who display the qualities needed by good leaders. However, I am also suggesting that you need to read as much as you can about managing resources.

Management involves a number of skills:

  1. Planning
  2. Organizing
  3. Staffing
  4. Directing
  5. Coordinating
  6. Controlling

It would be my hope that you would become a good leader who was also able to display a talent for each of these management tasks. It is the leader who can get people to do things because the people themselves discover that it is a good thing for them to do. They begin to do things because they enjoy them. You do this by being:

  • Enthusiastic
  • Vulnerable
  • Supportive
  • Accepting of others
  • Useful to others
  • Honest
  • Tactful
  • Decisive
  • Persistent

However, if you are not comfortable around "people", maybe you can find happiness and joy in the midst of "things". Here is a simple word of advice for you to consider. Should you find yourself as the head of your fire department and admit that you do not like people, quickly find an assistant chief who loves people and let them carry the people ball for you. That will free you up to wheel and deal with the politicians. There is no shame in admitting you do not get on well with people. The shame comes from masquerading as a leader when in reality you are a manager.

It is my fervent desire that this commentary will allow you to find out just who and what you are. Are you a manager or a leader? Once you have that question answered, you can then begin to devote yourself to doing the best possible job for your department.


Gibson, J. L. Ivancevich, J. M., and Donnelly, J. H. (2000). Organizations: Behavior, structure, processes. Boston: Irwin McGraw Hill.

Kotter, J. P. (1999). What leaders really do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books.

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